I help people resolve conflict, and I help groups work together effectively and respectfully.
My practice areas include art, education, employment, condominium and workplace disputes.
Like many mediators, I have come into the field after doing something else. I taught philosophy at the university level for about 10 years. My academic specialties were the philosophy of art and ethics. But no matter what the specific material I was teaching, I always considered that my primary task was helping others to think clearly. I’m still doing this, but now as a mediator.
I work with business owners and managers to help teams and boards work together effectively and respectfully. I understand the harm that is caused by dysfunctional conflict, but not all conflict is bad. I strive to help clients create workplaces where employees can focus on their work without the distraction of personal conflicts, and I am passionate about working with teams and boards so that members can trust one another enough to have constructive disagreements.
Some of my recent work:
- Helped prevent the break-up of a profitable business partnership through conflict coaching and ongoing support.
- Restored a respectful workplace at a small industrial firm by helping them develop and implement a “Code of Conduct.”
- Investigated sexual harassment and bullying allegations for a major Canadian university.
- Coached a client to prepare her for a difficult negotiation about the family property.
- Helped a creative-sector firm to resolve conflicts that had arisen in the course of a management transition.
- Restored damaged working relationships by helping to resolve long-standing conflicts between two company divisions.
I also provide civil mediation services for lawyers and their clients as an associate with the Sadowski Resolutions Group LLP. I am on the Attorney General’s roster for the Ontario Mandatory Mediation Program.
I work with single individuals and with large and small organizations. One thing never changes: client names and identifying details are strictly confidential.
I’m still active in academic philosophy. You can find out more about my work at www.jeanettebicknell.org When I’m not working or spending time with my family, you are likely to find me at a yoga studio. (But don’t worry, if you work with me I won’t ask you to sit in a circle and chant, etc.)
Thinking About Conflict and Value is my blog. Conflict is what mediators spend most of their time thinking about, working through, and trying to resolve. Value refers both to moral values and to aesthetic or artistic values. I write on a wide variety of topics, including best practices in mediation, ethical and legal issues in the arts, workplace conflict, business ethics, and the ethics of everyday life. You may also find the occasional book review. I invite you to join in the discussion on these blog posts.
From the Blog:
I was on the phone with Jane, the managing director of a creative firm. She was clearly frustrated. Relations between the account services team and the head of production (“Bob”) were at an all-time low. People felt anxious about talking to him and would avoid him if possible. A few had even threatened to quit. The “drama” was a distraction from business. Jane wanted people to be able to work together collaboratively as a team. She was tired of responding to complaints about Bob and wasn’t sure what to do. And she wanted a quick solution before key staff members left for vacation.
Preparing for an Intervention
Pam and I met with Bob. While he knew there was a problem, he didn’t seem to understand the effect that his behavior was having on the others. As far as he was concerned, he wanted to do a good job and make sure the company put out a good product. He understood that he could sometimes get impatient, but he thought that things were being blown out of proportion and that the people in account services were simply too sensitive. He was willing to work with us because he knew that things could not continue as they had been, and because he was frustrated that the efforts he had already made to modify his behavior seemed to be unrecognized. He was unhappy being seen as the “problem.”
Next we met with the four project managers in account services. Of the four, one got along well with Bob and had no issues with him. Another had a number of ongoing issues with Bob, and there seemed to be a mutual lack of respect between them. The other two had each experienced a serious incident with Bob in the past. These incidents continued to effect workplace dynamics because they had become the “lens” through which all of Bob’s actions were viewed. The project managers willing to work with us, and willing to sit down with Bob to try to resolve things.
Once we had buy-in from everyone we needed to decide on the right intervention for this group. Both of us have seen the harm that can come from the wrong intervention or from an intervention done in the wrong way, so we were cautious. We felt that Bob genuinely wanted to have better relations with the others, and we wanted to make sure that he would not be “shamed” by whatever we did. We didn’t want the account services team to gang up on him as this would have damaged relations further. We wanted the intervention to be as positive as possible, yet still make it clear to Bob that he needed to change aspects of his behavior. And we wanted the account services team to understand how they may have been contributing to the tension.
A Workplace Circle
After some reflection Pam and I decided to use a circle process with this group. This kind of process has a long history and appears in many cultures throughout the world. Participants sit in a circle and take turns speaking. The “circle keeper” directs the conversation by asking questions. All participation is voluntary and participants may choose to remain silent if they wish.
As the circle keeper, I slowly brought the conversation around to issues of respect and particularly respect in the workplace. With caution, members of the account services team moved away from generalities about respect and about working together and began to talk about their own workplace. The two team members who had “incidents” with Bob talked about them. It wasn’t easy, as talking about the past brought back the same emotions as the incidents themselves did. But ultimately, this release of emotion allowed everyone to move on.
As Pam and I had suspected, Bob really hadn’t grasped the effect he was having on others, or the lasting impact of the previous incidents on the current situation. When he realized that his behavior had been hurtful, he apologized.
One of the advantages of the circle process is that people end up really listening to one another. Bob heard from the others, and they also listened to him. The account services team learned that they had made some incorrect assumptions about Bob, and that some of their practices had been making it harder for him to do his job. Everyone committed to find ways of working together more effectively from then on.
I called Jane a few days after the circle meeting. I couldn’t share the specifics of what was said, as we had promised the participants that the circle would be confidential. But I was able to tell Jane that everyone had participated fully and that Pam and I appreciated the trust they had all put in us. Jane told me that things definitely had improved. People seemed less tense and better able to put their energy into work. I followed up again after a couple of months. She told me that things had continued to hold and that her job was a bit easier: “I feel like I can make other changes within the organization that will help us move in a positive direction. I can also focus my energy on other things.”
Names and details have been changed to preserve client confidentiality.
Van Sickle v. Conlon, 2014 ONSC 5437
Decision Date: September 18, 2014
In 2011 the plaintiff and the defendant were Directors on the Board of a Housing Co-op. After a meeting to discuss a possible eviction, Ms Van Sickle took with her a copy of the confidential report discussing the matter. Mr. Conlon sent an email message to the Board members with the subject line, “Verna’s theft of the document from the meeting on Thursday night.” Ms. Van Sickle sued Mr. Conlon for defamation; she won and was awarded $7500. In this appeal, Mr. Conlon challenges the Deputy Judge’s treatment of his defense in the original trial. Mr. Conlon’s defenses were 1) that it was in fact true that Ms Van Sickle had stolen documents; and 2) qualified privilege (that is, he had the right to criticize her to protect the dignity of the Co-op). Deputy Judge Richardson rejected both defenses. Mr. Conlon had a “total and reckless disregard for the truth” and his conduct was found to be “malicious” (hence the defense of qualified privilege was rejected.) Justice Perell, the appeal judge, found no reviewable error and dismissed the appeal. Costs were fixed at $12, 000.
Comment: Although this case involved the Directors of a Housing Co-op (rather than a condominium), all Board Members should take note.
The client who asked me this question was an intelligent and caring manager. She sounded genuinely bewildered, and she wanted to know how things had deteriorated between her division and the other team. She was disconcerted that things had “gone off the rails” in such a short time.
And so I reviewed the history with her. There was an incident – angry words from one staff member to another. (The details are unimportant. I’ll call the perpetrator “Bob” and the person on the receiving end “Sally.”) The result was that Sally felt disrespected and hurt. Others in the company either witnessed the incident or heard about it from witnesses. Sally discussed the matter with the company’s HR person, but as far as she knew, no action was taken.
What was the result? What messages did the company send? Bob got the message that his angry outburst was acceptable workplace behavior. Sally got the message that it was OK that she was disrespected, and that even if she stood up for herself and raised a concern, nothing would happen. Others in the company who knew about the incident got the message that disrespectful behavior was tolerated, and that there was no point in going to HR.
What happened next was easy to predict. People who liked Sally (and there were many) felt indignation on her behalf and resentment both towards Bob and towards management for their failure to respond. People who liked Bob felt conflicted because they couldn’t approve of how he had behaved. Everyone was uncomfortable. Nobody wanted to discuss the incident so it became the “elephant in the room.” Bob and Sally had to work together on a regular basis, and the tension between them never went away. Soon that tension had infected others in both departments, and small incidents – the sorts of things that would have been brushed aside in the past – took on outsize importance.
Of course, while my client had been in the middle of the conflict between her division and Bob’s division, she couldn’t see its causal history. She could only see the tension and the effect it was having on workplace relations and on productivity. Once we had gone through the history together, she could easily see where she could have acted differently. Things got to a point she regretted, but I don’t think she will let things get out of hand again.