Workplace conflicts distracting and dragging down your company? John McDonald might have some words of help.
McDonald is the managing director of ProActive ReSolutions and the inspiration for the Australian film Face to Face, which looks at the events leading up to a newly sacked worker smashing his boss’ fancy car.
McDonald specialises in restorative justice, which preferences reconciliation over punishment by getting individuals to discuss their role in a workplace dispute, and then bringing them together in a conference to agree on what happened and how best to avoid a similar incident.
He and three others co-founded ProActive more than a decade ago, and the business now has offices throughout North America and Europe and is turning over close to $5 million. The workplace expert says for his own business, the art of giving and receiving feedback is the most important thing for a healthy culture.
Congratulations on the film. Did the character [played by Matthew Newton] feel like you or did it feel like someone else?
Yes, it did. It’s funny because it comes from the play that David Williamson wrote. David came along to watch some conferences and also sit through sessions; he actually did an amazing job of getting the essence of what most conferences are about.
It felt very familiar to me, that’s for sure, so it was kind of weird. I was asked, “What was it like having somebody playing you?” And I said, “I never use products in my hair.”
Where’s the sequel?
Yes, well I said that to [director] Michael Rymer. I said, “What the film depicts is the conference”, and there’s a whole lot of drama and intrigue that goes on inside the preparation of that conference, where you have to persuade people to be involved in something which most of them don’t want to be involved in. You have to persuade them that they’ve stuffed up and you do that in private but it can take some time.
So for a conference like the one in the film it would take us six or seven days to be meeting with people repeatedly in confidence and privately, but challenging them on how they behave and interact with people, so they’re pretty interesting and unforgiving sessions.
So by the time you get to the conferencing do you feel that the hard work’s already been done?
Yes, it has and there’s almost nothing that’s ever said in the conference which I don’t know prior to it. I would be the only one in the room that would know everything that’s gone on, so your preparation is really, really crucial.
How long would you spend on an average case?
Eight days is our average, so the conference happens in one day and that would could take anywhere from five to nine or 10 hours, so they’re pretty heavy duty affairs and in that time you might have a two-minute break for a sandwich. From the facilitator’s point of view, it goes by really, really quickly because there’s a lot to focus on.
And then when you do go back to the business?
We then stay in contact with the people involved, caught up in the conflict.
There are really three stages of the product. Once you get them in the room, the first stage is to find out what’s been happening, and the people who’ve behaved badly and contributed to it they talk about their own behaviour.
The second stage is then to learn how that behaviour has affected people in the organisation.
The third stage is to figure out what to do about it all, because conflicts are by definition messy things and they are about how people feel more than what they think.
It’s very emotional; it’s a process designed to embrace the emotionality of the situation. There’s a lot of resentment, there’s a lot of distress, there’s a lot of anger and all that stuff.
So when we reach the stage when we figure out what needs to happen, that becomes quite detailed and it’s written down and signed off and people are given different responsibilities.
And then we’re in contact with those people every week for a couple of months to support them in implementing their own agreement, and then after six to eight weeks out from the conference we would pull the same group back together and go through the agreement together and just check up. So it’s really them checking up with themselves with about how they’re doing.
Even after a torrid event like a conference you can’t guarantee that people are going to implement their own agreement because when we’re in a conflict we fall into these unhelpful behaviours. So as much as anything you’re trying to break or change habits.
And what are the bulk of the issues related to, is it bullying?
You know what, bullying gets a good mention in conferences. Bullying, it’s a cover-all term for bad behaviour sometimes, but it’s not unusual for us to be called by an organisation or a government agency when the people have made allegations or have grievances or are in conflict because someone’s been bullying them.
And the labels are kind of helpful and unhelpful, because what you find in a conference is that in a way or in a sense everybody contributes their bit. It’s very rare for one person to be the problem. And even if one person is the major contributor, everybody else contributes by avoiding the issue or seeing things happen and not doing anything about it or acting as if they are an innocent bystander in situations and none of us really are.
Well, this is not a very black and white picture that you’re painting here, which is perhaps the opposite to what we generally see in media reports and how people feel about their own interactions with other people. Is that a hard message to tell people?
No, it’s a lovely observation because we really want simple answers and somebody said, "For every complex problem or conflict there’s a simple answer and it never works". And I really agree with that.
When we get called into a workplace because there’s a group of people in a conflict, it’s never just two people. We would typically have anywhere between 15 to 35 people involved in these.
When you get called in, it’s almost chaos, there are so many strong feelings in the group, there’s so much resentment and anger and even just distress and dissatisfaction, people are worn out by it and no one can really see the way ahead.
So what the conference does is take what appears to everyone to be a chaotic situation and kind of turn that into a complex one. So it goes from chaos to complexity because when you have complexity that starts to be laid out by the group as they talk, the group starts to realise that we can pick pieces of that and work with it.
So you can work with complexity, but you can’t work that well with chaos.
Let’s say you have 12 people in a workgroup, there are 66 individual pairs of relationships in that group.
They are, by definition, complex, which is one of the reasons why we get the whole group together in the room at the same time because a conference is a political exercise.
We don’t go into a workplace and psychologise the problem and say, look that person’s mad, sad or bad. Take them out, send them to the EAP (the Employee Assistance Program), let the psych sort them out and then bring them back to work.
That needs to happen without a doubt for a number of us, but it can’t happen in isolation of the whole group dealing with the politics, with the relationships.