Workplace Conferencing: an effective alternative to dealing with destructive leadership and incivility in the workplace

By Dr Vicki Webster

For some time, I have been urging Human Resources and Organisational Development professionals to consider alternatives for addressing incivility and bad behaviour in the workplace. I have observed that a typical approach to complaints against managers, irrespective of their scale and scope, is to immediately commence with a formal investigation. This causes immense stress to all parties: the accused manager, the complainant target, and employees interviewed within the investigation process. This is especially problematic when the behaviour complained about has happened behind closed doors, without witnesses, or is the subject of hearsay.

I can’t argue that traditional industrial relations/legal processes are inappropriate for incidents of gross misconduct, i.e. fraud, corruption, theft, physical or public abuse and harassment in the workplace. However, for situations creating interpersonal conflict (often behind closed doors), such as destructive leader behaviours or incivility, the common grievance or complaint processes of carrying out formal investigations and interviewing all parties involved, with a view to assigning a perpetrator and victim/s, often does more harm than good. Following a drawn-out investigation, where often the complaint is not upheld or, even if it is, the perpetrator stays on in the workplace, to then expect all affected parties to continue to work well together is, at best, delusional. Team conflict, employee disengagement, presenteeism, absenteeism and ultimately rising turnover usually result.

In the context of destructive leadership, typical internal processes presume the source of the conflict is between the manager and staff members who are parties to the conflict. In doing so, the investigation may be limited in its effectiveness, as a focus only on individuals excludes any consideration of the role that team and organisational factors play in creating and maintaining this conflict or abuse. Often incidents involving interpersonal abuse are complex, with conflict based on a non-linear continuum of different employees’ experiences across time. The target is stressed as a result of the abuse or incivility being experienced and, more significantly, from not being supported by the organisation to address the bad behaviour.

Interpersonal conflict between parties is often addressed by providing mediation as an intervention. There is some debate about the suitability of mediation and conflict resolution in the context of destructive leadership. Mediation may not be appropriate where there is an inherent power differential between the parties. In addition, confidentiality in mediation can never be absolute and mediators are bound by a duty of care to ensure the safety of all participants. Where mediation is not successful the situation between the parties often worsens.

So, if investigations or mediation make matters worse when dealing with workplace conflict resulting from destructive leadership and incivility, then what other options are there?

Workplace conferencing is a process that may allow organisations to identify ways to prevent harm occurring in the future, while supporting the complainant target/s, and minimising the risk of being liable to litigation or compensation claims. Based on a restorative justice approach, the underpinning philosophy of workplace conferencing is to allow participants to gradually shift their focus from the past, to the present and the future. Workplace conferencing encourages participants to improve their emotional state to a point where they can acknowledge and “transform” the conflict.

With a skilled facilitator, this process provides a safe environment for each party to relate their experiences, to discuss what happened, to describe the impact of the harmful behaviours, and explore whether there is a way forward that can ensure the future psychosocial safety and wellbeing of affected employees.  All participants are given the opportunity to speak. The guiding principles of restorative justice focus on transparency (about all aspects of the process), clarity (communicating in a way that enables comprehension of conferencing principles and processes), and respect (for all participants). No party is able to block another from attending, speaking or being listened to. Instead, all contributions are listened to and given due consideration. The facilitator’s role is to identify the source of the conflict in a system of relationships, bring the impacted individuals together in a circle of discussion and dialogue, invite the participants to respond to open questions in order to assist the parties to better understand the incidents or issues that have contributed to the conflict, and to safeguard the process (i.e., not allow any party to hijack the agenda) as the participants work through the transformation of conflict. When a collective picture has been identified of what has happened and how individuals have been affected, the facilitator creates a space for all to reflect on the experience. There can be a profound emotional turning point when participants begin working constructively together towards a plan of action for making the situation better in the following weeks or months.

For further information see: Webster, V., & Brough, P. (2022). Destructive Leadership in the Workplace. Translating theory and research into evidence-based practice. UK: Sage Swifts.

Vicki is a ‘pracademic’ with over twenty years’ experience as a leadership specialist and coach, working with managers and their teams.  Vicki assists individuals to increase their personal effectiveness and to avoid potential leadership and career derailers.  She is able to assist leaders to diagnose organisational and team issues and identify potential solutions that take into account the current political and cultural environment. Vicki communicates clear and unambiguous messages and has credible conversations at executive and senior management level to challenge the status quo, with the aim of enhancing leadership effectiveness through strategic thinking, resiliency, mindset and behavioural change. Results of Vicki’s research and organisational programs have been published in a range of forums, including:  Destructive leadership in the workplace, Sage Swifts; Assisting organisations to deal effectively with toxic leadership in the workplace, InPsych; Fight, Flight or Freeze: Common Responses for Follower Coping with Toxic Leadership, Stress and Health; and co-author of How to Get Ahead without Murdering Your Boss.  Six simple steps to actively manage your career.