In a nutshell...

This client was experiencing strained relationships and tension between a number of their senior personnel coupled with a great reluctance towards engaging in any sort of resolution process. It was clear from the outset that the group in question needed a highly responsive and flexible approach which would follow the needs of each staff member and address the grievances without exposing or harming any individual’s reputation or standing in the organisation. Needs analysis meetings revealed that the particular staff members in question were all in very desirable positions in their careers and had no intention of leaving. The reality was that this group would be working together for the next 20 years. This insight clarified the choice that was in front of the group: 20 years of misery at work or 20 years of wellbeing and happiness? Once the group was brought face to face with the choice before them, a natural willingness was created and we were able to begin resolution. Five months later, having proceeded through a series of one-to-one sessions, group discussions and mediated bi-party meetings, the issues were resolved and the strained relationships at the heart of the conflict were renewed. All had agreed to move forward leaving the past difficulties in the past. Overall, the results were described by the client as ‘miraculous’.

Restoring Fractured Relationships

Restoring relationships and improving communication within a management group of a specialised state agency.


A group of managers in a specialised state agency whose work is highly sensitive with far reaching implications for all concerned. The particular work of the group is exacting and demanding with various aspects relating to both the public and political arenas.


The relationships between the team members, which for many years were strong and harmonious, had become fractured and strained. There was a variety of contributing factors including promotional and positional changes. Over two years, communications had slowly broken down, some exchanges had become hostile and a bullying type of behaviour was emerging between certain individuals. Because of the nature of the team’s work, success depended on a high degree of collaboration and in the absence of this their performance was starting to suffer. In addition, the hostility being experienced within the team was starting to have a negative influence on the wider organisation in that the credibility of these managers with their respective staff teams was starting to wane. We were asked to help resolve the difficulties and restore the relationships to good health.


At the point when we were first contacted, the atmosphere was fraught with fear and division. Senior management and HR were terribly concerned about the situation and no one really knew how to proceed. There was a high level of reluctance among some of the managers in question to engage in any resolution process. There was considerable fear among some individuals of being exposed throughout the organisation as a ‘less than perfect member of staff.’ Some thought that a willingness to engage in a resolution process would be seen as an admission of guilt. In addition, the organisation wanted the situation to be resolved quickly with the least amount of disruption to production. So, from the outset, the process was on a very shaky and reluctant footing.


The managers in question were all in roles which are considered to be at the pinnacle of their industry and every one of them without exception loved their job. As is the case with the top jobs in any industry, people usually intend to stay in them for as long as possible and that was certainly the case in this instance. The average age of the team was 40 which meant that, apart from the odd early retirement or unexpected departure, they were all going to have to work together for at least another 20 years. When presented with a choice of either 20 years of harmony or 20 years of misery, very few people will consciously choose the miserable option. This is because when given a choice, no human being will ever knowingly choose the option that has less value for them. We were confident from the outset that once the team was made aware of the reality of the choice they were facing, they would come to their senses and fully engage in a resolution process. The focus of the process centred around bringing each manager to see, beyond all doubt, that a united and harmonious team was ‘better value’ for each individual, for their career prospects, the team as a whole, the team’s performance and for the wider organisation.

What we did - Individual Meetings

We began by meeting individually with each manager on the team. The purpose of these meetings was to hear all of the different perspectives on how they had arrived at such a dysfunctional place. In addition, it allowed us to build up a certain level of trust with each individual and alleviate some of the initial resistance to the process. Finally, these meetings provided us with an indication as to the particular approach needed in order to best deliver the desired outcome as well as a sense of the timescale and costs.

Shifting the "It's Not Me" Syndrome

The meetings revealed many important insights, the most significant of which was that each person believed that the problem was all down to the bad behaviour of one particular individual. Essentially, each member of the team saw themselves as a passive participant playing no part and making no contribution to the dysfunctional state of affairs. By asking a number of simple questions this imbalanced view started to loosen and some team members (though not all) began realising that they each had played some part in the current status of the team, and that this idea of remaining passive, while appearing to be harmless, was in fact another way in which the difficulties were being exacerbated.

In addition, it was clear from listening to the different accounts that the Directors of the organisation, by neglecting their responsibility, had played a part in allowing the situation to deteriorate, albeit unintentionally.

Senior Management Meetings & Proposed Resolution

Having completed the individual meetings with the team, we scheduled a meeting with the Directors in order to give them an update on the state of the team, the findings from the individual meetings, as well as our proposal for the resolution of the situation. In addition, we used this opportunity to highlight the part that they (the Directors) had played in allowing the team to descend to such a dysfunctional state in the first place. The unfortunate reality was that for two years, whenever the situation was brought to their attention, their response was “sort it out yourselves”. They were totally unaware of the part that they had played in allowing the situation to arrive at such a low point and were horrified at the idea that they had contributed to the escalation of the issues. So, it was not easy for the group to hear and not everyone was able to accept the idea, but they did agree to accept the proposed resolution.

Resolution Process

The resolution involved the facilitation of a series of group and individual meetings with the team over a period of 5 months. The whole process was an iterative one where the next steps only became clear as the initial steps were taken. The schedule of meetings was never set in stone; rather it was kept responsive so as to meet the needs arising fully. We ensured that the time periods between our meetings were long enough for the team members to attempt to work on their relationships and communication but short enough to prevent any further degradation and sustain the positive momentum and progress that was occurring during the facilitated sessions. It was a case of leave them too long to their own devices and the whole thing will fall apart, don’t give them enough time and they won’t make any real progress. Roughly we allowed 7-10 days between meetings. At all times we remained in close contact with senior management who were able to quickly contact us whenever they saw things escalating meaning that we were able to respond as needs arose. In the end, the process consisted of the following interventions: (in no particular order)

  • 2 meetings with the CEO
  • 4 half-day group meetings with the team.
  • 2 coaching sessions with one of the directors.
  • Ongoing individual follow-up discussions by telephone with all team members throughout.
  • 2 one-to-one meetings with each member of the team at different points.
  • 3 facilitated/mediated discussions between one particular team member and several of their colleagues.
  • Ongoing consultation with one of the directors by phone throughout the process.

As is evident from the above list, the process was complex, flexible and responsive. It was tailored to meet the precise needs arising on a week to week basis. The group meetings with the team were the central point around which the individual meetings revolved. The group sessions focused on raising the team’s awareness of the fundamental reality that, in some way, every single one of them had played a part in bringing the team to its current state. This was hard for them to appreciate at first, but, between the individual and group meetings, we moved steadily towards this realisation. Some members played a very full and robust part while others played a more subtle and quieter role. For example, a number of individuals were in direct and open confrontation which manifested itself as abusive language in front of other managers and staff whereas others just quietly undermined their colleagues at the water cooler or in idle chit-chat in the canteen.

We knew that it wasn’t going to matter what happened in the group meetings if the team all reverted to old ways once they were back in the office. It was imperative that each person start reflecting on the situation in the context of their future wellbeing and careers. We needed to get the team to engage in such a way that would carry the progress beyond the comfortable setting of a group workshop where it is relatively easy to remain civil and polite. So, in addition to other subjects, we focused on a securing engagement from each individual with a number of key questions which included:

  • Q. How long are we going to be working together? 
  • Q. Are we happy to accept the current level of misery for that period? 
  • Q. Is anyone benefitting from the current situation?
  • Q. In what way do I contribute to the collective situation?
  • Q. What would it look like if all the difficulties were resolved?

Securing willingness to engage as well as clarity around the reality of the situation was the first step. When faced with these and more questions, it was relatively easy for the team to agree that they all wanted to resolve the situation and this one point of unity naturally started to have an effect on general behaviour and team atmosphere. In addition, they all came to the realisation that while the measure of cause was different for each of them, each had played a part in creating the dysfunctionality and this was essential for the resolution process to succeed, which it did.

The individual meetings focused primarily on getting each person to see their own contribution to the poorly operating team and more importantly to stop thinking of themselves as being totally innocent and the difficulty only resting with the others. All of the team did come to understand that, once each person stopped whatever it was that they were doing to contribute to the difficulties, the team would return to good health and not a moment before then.


Within a six-month period the team had moved from a state of total resistance and denial to a state of willingness and acceptance with all making considerable efforts and changes to their behaviour. The particular relationships that had become very strained were renewed during the process. Managers moved forward, leaving the past difficulties in the past and working collaboratively together. Overall, the results were described by the client as ‘miraculous’.


Authentic Leadership Development