In this podcast, JAMS neutrals Genesis Fisher, Esq., and Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher, Esq., discuss how workplace conflict has evolved in response to myriad challenges, including the pandemic and shifting work environments, generational differences and the implementation of new technologies. Against this backdrop, the neutrals discuss the types of challenges that can bubble up—such as employees struggling to feel a sense of belonging in the workplace—and the traditional approaches that exist to address these points of conflict.
From there, the neutrals introduce JAMS Pathways and their thoughts on why organizations reach out to JAMS to help navigate the hurdles impacting their workplace. Ms. Fisher and Ms. Gallagher reflect on the core components, such as making individuals feel seen and heard, that aid in helping organizations craft unique, meaningful solutions to facilitate change. The neutrals conclude with anecdotes that underscore how their work through JAMS Pathways has helped organizations mitigate conflict, identify the root cause of challenges and determine a positive pathway forward.
JAMS Pathways – Podcast transcript
[00:00:00] Moderator: Welcome to this podcast from JAMS. In this episode, we're discussing some of the new and evolving challenges in the workplace that have emerged over the last few years and new approaches to working through them. With us are two JAMS neutrals, Genesis Fisher and Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher. Both are part of a JAMS service called JAMS Pathways, which helps organizations mitigate and navigate conflict.
So thank you both for joining us. Genesis, we've seen a lot of change and disputes in the workplace over the last few years. What kinds of challenges are you seeing pop up most frequently?
[00:00:39] Genesis Fisher: There's been so many. There's a lot before the pandemic, and the pandemic has certainly added another layer of challenges.
Certainly, there's been generational differences that we see sometimes and expectations for the work atmosphere, for how people communicate, how often they communicate, what they say, what's expected of them. And certainly in different industries, with the pandemic, there's been an increase in the urgency and responsibility to people—I'm thinking about health care—that there's more work, there's more responsibility, there's more emotional caretaking for the patients, but not an increase in support for the workers. So, that's a piece of it. And then thinking about, you know, working from home adds a lot of flexibility, which is fantastic for a lot of people, but sometimes it can also bring in some isolation. And so, when that happens, there can be some people who might find it difficult to connect, to learn from each other, to trust each other, especially for those who were hired during the pandemic.
[00:01:46] Moderator: And Deirdre, how about you? What have you been seeing?
[00:01:48] Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher: To build on what Genesis said, we're seeing challenges in kind of three large additional areas. First, how do we work together? So substantively, the nature of work is changing. As technologies are updated, efficiencies are identified, and employees are asked to do more with less. This is causing concern. It's causing consternation for folks who have been doing this work for years. Some of them have been doing it for decades, and doing it in a certain way.
And in the face of change, it's often difficult for people to figure out where they fit in and how they add value in a changing environment. Then procedurally, as Genesis said, the nature of connecting and collaborating with colleagues is as challenging as ever, maybe even more so. And this is whether you are all virtual, whether you're hybrid, whether you are in person. And if folks don't feel connected, if they no longer feel part of a team, then they start to disengage, and lack of engagement in the workplace and in the work is pretty widespread. So secondly, we're seeing a challenge for folks as to, you know, how to speak out if there are concerns if there are deficiencies in the workplace. And kind of at the heart of this question is this idea of psychological safety.
Do people feel that they can speak out if something is wrong? If so, to whom? If so, what is the expectation that something will be done? Do people have faith that there's a process in place to explore their concerns? Do they have faith that their workplace values accountability and responsibility, or do they feel like it will be a waste of time?
If people speak out, how confident are they that they won't be retaliated against for doing so. And the answers to these questions impact whether someone feels safe speaking up and speaking out. The third category is—and this is picking up on what Genesis said—how do we approach conflict? And, I mean, communication is really a thread throughout this. This question is kind of inextricably linked to everything we've talked about so far and to our approach to conflict management. So, someone's tendency might be to avoid difficult conversations, to avoid conflict, to avoid colleagues with whom they're in conflict, in the hopes that it will go away.
Other people, if they choose to address conflict, the question is, are they equipped to do so in a constructive way, or might their approach lead to conflict escalation? So, communication styles, conflict styles—again, they're threads throughout all of the challenges that we're seeing. So much of conflict is caused by lack of information, lack of understanding, and that makes the conflict management approach critical because if it is one that creates space for learning, understanding and information sharing, then you can kind of move the ball forward. If not, people may end up in a conflict spiral.
[00:05:09] Moderator: Hmm. Yeah, you mentioned conflict management approaches. What are some of the traditional approaches to resolving some of these challenges?
[00:05:17] Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher: So, this is a really important question, and it varies from workplace to workplace. Often what we see is the guidance—is to talk to your supervisor if you have concerns, or if you're not comfortable with that, then go to HR. And while these may be great options in certain circumstances—where people feel comfortable talking with their supervisors, for example, where they feel that their concerns rise to the level of, you know, going to HR, for example—then that's wonderful. But in our experience, we see that often there are dynamics at play that make it difficult for folks to avail themselves of these options. Power dynamics, lack of faith that something will be done, concerns about retaliation—all of those things may deter people from using these traditional approaches. And what we see is too often there aren't processes to match the problems. And if folks don't feel that the options in place meet their needs to share concerns to navigate the best path forward, then they might choose not to raise their concerns at all.
And it's important to know, in adding processes, we're not talking about a complete overhaul of what is already in place. It's really just identifying what makes sense for your particular organization. We've seen some folks opt to train people from their staff to play kind of an in-between role—in between going to the supervisor and going to HR—and serve as a conflict resolution resource or maybe as kind of a local ombudsperson.
We've seen some organizations bring in an external ombudsperson just to work for, you know, kind of a defined period of time each month.
The key is really to figure out what processes are needed to encourage people to raise concerns and, in the process, to address and manage conflict at the lowest possible level.
[00:07:29] Moderator: So, Genesis and Deirdre went through a lot of different approaches there. How do you know which one to use?
[00:07:35] Genesis Fisher: That's a great question. It really depends on—for an employer, it really depends on the type of issue and also how much harm they believe is being done to them, the team, the project. And then if we're looking at, not the employee, but potentially people in HR, people in leadership, chief of staff, general counsel, things like that, they're also trying to figure out what is the best way that people can feel heard. And there could be an intervention at kind of like the lowest level, right?
For individuals, they're often looking at how others approach problems. What did their colleague do when they had a concern? What did their supervisor do when they had a concern? They get advice from mentors and other people. And then for those individuals too, the urgency of the matter also impacts the way they go. And so, if this is an issue that is ongoing and uncomfortable but needs to change, they might go to a supervisor, or they might go to a colleague, they might maybe encourage some kind of internal discussion series or something like that, right? But if it's a high urgency, if they don't feel safe at work—you know, that they can go into work and do their job and not be harassed or something like that, or if whatever's happening is impacting their team and is causing some damage or a big project, right?—then for those people, they might go straight to HR. They might go—they might immediately ask for an investigation and, to be frank, some people also look outside the organization too, depending on the type, the nature of the harm.
Some people are feeling harm so intense that they're actually seeking legal counsel because they're trying to figure out should I stay? Should I go? Is there a cause for action here? Should this be in the legal landscape and not just local in this organization?
[00:09:46] Moderator: And Deirdre, you work with a service line called JAMS Pathways, which isn't just about resolving conflict; it's about preventing it in the first place. What do you think is driving organizations to bring you in even without a pressing issue?
[00:10:03] Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher: That's a great question, and again, it varies. Organizations may reach out because they're stuck and they feel that they need a different approach. They may reach out because they're trying to navigate distrust from employees and they want to change that dynamic. They may reach out because they're losing employees and they know that path is not sustainable.
Frequently, I would say, it's just the recognition and acknowledgement that there has to be a better way, and this often stems from the dynamic that managers, supervisors, leaders of institutions are spending an inordinate amount of time occupying themselves with the day-to-day complaints of their employees of certain divisions of particular departments. So, there are very real costs to this in terms of time diverted away from advancing the institution's mission, the organization's mission, and devoted instead to that continual management of conflict. And this is where we come in, where Pathways comes in, as we explain to folks who reach out that we try to move the task of problem-solving from your desk to ours. And often we hear from people who bring us in, "You probably can't believe everything you hear about the challenges we're encountering." But we can, and honestly, we are not fazed by it because this is what we do. We see challenges every day, and combined, we have decades of experience in navigating challenges.
We also have access to the—kind of the tried-and-tested JAMS expertise in navigating the most difficult conflicts. And while this is what we do day in and day out, I think it's important to emphasize that we recognize and really value the fact that each entity is unique, each project is different, and that's what makes the work so gratifying.
I will say, you know, from a professional standpoint, we really try to meet people where they are to learn about their environments, to learn about their context, to learn about what's working well, what's not optimal and, you know, kind of use that as the basis on which to figure out, OK, how do we move forward from here?
And I also want to just point out that whether there is a pressing issue or not, we commend folks for reaching out and for being proactive in recognizing that there's room for growth, there's room for improvement, and that it's important to figure out a better way.
[00:12:56] Moderator: And Genesis, can you expand a little bit on JAMS Pathways and how it works in practice? How are these projects designed?
[00:13:04] Genesis Fisher: Before I answer that, I want to add something to Deirdre's comment about, you know, what's driving organizations to bring us in. I'll add something that Deirdre touched on. Sometimes leadership visionaries—they're looking not just at how much they are personally dealing with conflict or how much, you know, their leaders are dealing with conflict. Sometimes they look at other types of bottom line, so sometimes they look at what is our turnover? Our turnover rate is so high that we're constantly in a cycle of hiring, which is expensive. And we're constantly in a cycle of retraining, which takes people away from their position to train a new person, right? And so, we're seeing that people sometimes are reaching out to us proactively because they know that they're losing opportunities, revenue, even the networks of the people who have left—they're losing a lot. And so, even if they don't have a complaint across their desk, they know that something isn't working because the turnover is so high.
And sometimes they bring us in to create support and to change the culture and to—and to create mechanisms to keep people engaged and to change things so that people want to stay longer. So, I just wanted to add something to what Deirdre was saying, but your question was how does this work in practice and how are these projects designed? And we take a bespoke approach to this. You know, there's no one-size-fits-all. It's not like you call us and we have this outline that we automatically apply to every issue. The first thing we do is connect with leadership, and then we ask them what are the key issues here? What should we know about? And then we connect with the key players. Who are the people that are kind of in the middle of the mix for whatever conflict it is? And between leadership and the key players, we're trying to get a sense of what are the problems, how deep are the problems, how widespread are the problems? What are some of the harms that are being caused by those problems? It's often not just in the workplace. Sometimes it can be personal, right? Sometimes it can impact the team. Sometimes our clients actually even see some of these issues. And then we also get a sense of what the needs are to address those harms. And then what do people need to rebuild trust? And from there, once we get this information, we're developing a plan to meet that organization's needs and to set them up for success even after we leave. So, it's usually in several phases that we're doing this, but it's all to get a deeper understanding of the nature of the issue, the depth and reach of that issue, and what people need to address it, and then how can we set them up for success after we leave.
[00:16:17] Moderator: Deirdre, JAMS Pathways is relatively new service offering, but can you talk about some of the feedback you've received from organizations that have used it?
[00:16:28] Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher: Absolutely. Picking up on what Genesis said about the customized approach. The combination of kind of almost interventions, you know, in from skills-building workshops to facilitated dialogues—it puts in place almost a scaffolding. It's very deliberate. Often, we'll do skills building and, you know, whether it's collaborative communication or reframing—the things that we need to put in place, kind of those building blocks in order to then have a productive, facilitated dialogue. So, that's just kind of setting the context. As far as what we hear—and it's different depending on who we're connecting with—from individuals, we often hear "We're glad you're here. Thank you for listening." Because they feel that they haven't been listened to. People haven't actually heard, you know, what's important to them. From decision-makers who bring us in, as you go through the phases of any sort of project, sometimes it's easy to just kind of focus on where you are. And then when we get to the end of the project and kind of look at the arc and look at the big picture, what we often hear from decision-makers is "Wow. We accomplished all that." A group with whom I worked recently, for example—we were having a wrap-up conversation, so it was the last, you know, kind of in interaction with these folks, and we were engaged in an exercise to kind of explore their next steps, explore their goals and reframe the challenges that stood in the way of achieving those goals.
We had barely begun the exercise when it became readily apparent to me that they were already there. Because they were looking at the challenges that had previously thwarted them, that would defeat them, and they were taking those challenges and, without prompting, recasting them as opportunities for continued learning, for continued skills development, for continued growth. And my comment to them upon, you know, kind of the completion of that part of the exercise was "You are more than equipped to take the next steps without us." And it was gratifying and inspiring all at once, and I was very proud of them.
[00:19:06] Moderator: Great story. Genesis, same question. Any feedback you've received from some of these organizations?
[00:19:12] Genesis Fisher: Yes. I can give you two examples. And so, there's one organization that's an international NGO, and we were talking to them about creating new systems for approaching conflict. And we got an email the next day that's like, oh my gosh; they totally get us. They like to see us; they see what we're trying to do. They get what we're doing. We're so grateful for this. And then another example is we did some training for a municipal transportation agency in a large city. And during the trainings—these trainings were about communication, leadership, group problem-solving, thinking about conflict in a new way—and in the course of that training, you know, we're listening to what people are sharing during the training and in the breaks, and we use that to create some scenarios that speak to their particular issues. We try to be as close as we possibly can, and I remember when I put some of these scenarios on the screen, I saw the two general counsel look at each other like, hold on a second, did they look in our office? Like it was pretty clear that we were right on in terms of the type of issue, how we kind of set up this hypothetical, who were the players, what was the impact, and that was very affirming. And I'll say that after that training, we did a debrief with a few of the directors, and one of them was literally brought to tears because she said, "Oh my goodness. You really see us. You really see what we're dealing with, and you're really helping us figure out ways to work through this, but you see our specific issues." So that was incredibly gratifying because we touched this person who's been there for decades, right? Just because we were listening to them and responding to what their needs were.
[00:21:15] Moderator: Mm-hmm. Well, it sounds like a special moment. JAMS Pathways is really doing some inspiring work. So, Deirdre and Genesis, I want to thank both of you for sharing some of your insights and your experiences. Really appreciate the conversation.
[00:21:29] Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher: Thank you, Andrew. Thank you, Genesis.
[00:21:32] Genesis Fisher: Thank you, Andrew. Thank you, Deirdre.
[00:21:34] Moderator: You've been listening to a podcast from JAMS, the world's largest private alternative dispute resolution provider. Our guests have been Genesis Fisher and Deirdre McCarthy Gallagher of JAMS. For more information about JAMS and JAMS Pathways, please visit www.jamsadr.com. Thank you for listening to this podcast from JAMS.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.