Establishing justice is important; there is no doubt about that. But to change a situation, one has to recognize the dynamics at play.

“I feel afraid”

This is what one of my clients, “H” said to me when I arrived to help restore the team post-harassment. H had filed the claim against the team lead, “M.” The Review Board determined the claim and penalized M with a six-week unpaid leave of absence. 

Six weeks passed, and M was returning to the workplace. The team was apprehensive, particularly H. 

What I saw from the group was a lot of sincerity, guilt, and genuine feeling from all sides. I noticed broken trust and a high perceived risk and fear. The whole team was affected.

After interviewing the team (as individuals and as a group), I identified that a relatively small intervention that introduced the right tools would benefit greatly. I used HSD Pattern-Spotting questions and Adaptive Action to set conditions for a more cooperative environment.

See patterns

Many assume that with justice and wrongs righted, everyone can return to a pre-incident balance. But living inside this kind of experience gives one a different perspective. The reality is the team has to be able to work together again. 

Now, on top of the usual work pressures, they have to work together while managing many emotions that weren’t there before. There is no going backward.

Establishing justice is important; there is no doubt about that. But to change a situation, one has to recognize the dynamics at play. It’s easy to blame a victimizer, but laying blame on an individual never changes the dynamics (in this case, the dynamics that created conditions for a harassment claim).

To change the dynamics, one needs to take the focus off the victim/victimizer and identify the patterns that create a system where the parties feel victimized.

Ask questions

My first step was to interview everyone on the team. Based on the HSD Institute Pattern Spotters, I asked each of them questions.

I asked them to complete the following phrases:

  • In general, I notice…
  • Except for…
  • On one hand… On the other…
  • I was surprised by…
  • I wonder…

I listened and took notes on their answers. I then synthesized their responses, looking for Similarities and Differences in their responses. I identified patterns in their responses that I could share with the team without breaking any individual’s confidentiality.

I identified three main trends in the responses:

1) Communication did not flow throughout the team. Instead, information was in small sub-groups. Approaching deadlines and increased workloads exacerbated those pockets of information.

2) Everyone was very, very busy. The team manager was unaware of everything happening on the floor (he did not necessarily need to). But this was an essential part of the dynamic.

3) Nobody realized how bad it was for the victim until the harassment complaint.

I also observed some critical differences:

1) While everyone was busy, one sub-group had much more work than others.

2)The team lead had a very different management style from the team manager.

With this information, I returned to the group and held a debrief session. Much of this information was eye-opening for the team members and got them talking about patterns. It started a discussion of how to identify vulnerabilities and indicators for repeating patterns of harassment.

For example, they knew it was getting busy. So, they identified support structures they need when it gets so busy they don’t have time to think. They developed an essential set of questions to ask themselves to ensure a more smooth flow of information:

1) “Does the whole group need to know about this…?”

2) “Am I not talking to the full group because I’m uncomfortable or because they don’t need to know? If so, what’s making me uncomfortable?”

These simple questions that team members started asking themselves made an enormous difference to the flow of information throughout the team.

Build capacity

I also did some conflict coaching sessions with H. We reviewed the old patterns and then identified together what patterns she could create so she would not feel like a victim and obtain the needed support. We looked at patterns around her dynamics with M, and what indicators showed her that she felt like a victim. These indicators could act like an early warning system so she doesn’t repeat the old patterns.

A lot of people want to change others. But we all know you can’t change people. You can, however, influence the patterns between you and the other person. Influencing patterns in interpersonal dynamics is the space in which we have the most leverage to create change.

H was able to build her capacity to adapt and create new patterns. By thinking about patterns and not problems, she could feel empowered. She could control her actions to shape the patterns she wanted.

I also coached the team’s director. He was in shock that all this had happened right under his nose. He was usually a conscientious and diligent manager, and this claim had surprised him. By focusing more on patterns and not problems, he was able to gain a new critical perspective. He was able to not only catch problems but also identify signals of emerging issues between team members.

Follow up

When I followed up with the team two months later, they said their communication had improved. While working through the trust issues, they felt it was now manageable. H and M were working together again.

Everyone was coming together as a team to ensure the same patterns that allowed for the previous conflict didn’t emerge again. All team members asked themselves questions daily to remain aware of the patterns.

My most satisfying moment was seeing H change the dynamic for herself. By recognizing and influencing patterns, H was able to shift her feelings of being a victim into ones of strength and influence in the face of challenge. No outside judgment could have done that work for her. 

J. Jones-Patulli, MA, HSDP