The Three Conversations of a Reporting Relationship


As an organizational consultant who is also a mediator, I frequently receive requests to help pairs of employees discuss matters of conflict between them.  Many of these pairs have a reporting relationship – a supervisor and staff person within a unit. I typically receive a request from an HR department who describes critical events, the impacts of the conflict on others, and the effects on workflow.

When I probe further, I explore the work system and delineate the type of tasks and outcomes performed, the pressure points, staffing scenario, and other factors affecting any individual in the unit in their daily work.  Finally, I ask about the people in conflict.  What are their strengths and weaknesses? How do they interact?  What triggers them?  Are there mental health or addictions issues that are public and known?  How do they manage authority?  What styles and preferences do they have as an employee and as a supervisor?

The typical scenario I describe above leads to a clarification of a goal to “improve the relationship”.  This article describes how this is only one of three important conversations:

  • The Relationship Conversation
  • The Functions and Systems (Work) Conversation
  • The Directing and Reporting Conversation

Each of these conversations has its unique flow, relevant concepts, pace and frequency.

Each of the conversations impacts the others.

Confusing them can undermine progress in all three.


The Relationship Conversation

What is it?

The Relationship Conversation aims to manage and improve the feelings between people by adjusting their mindsets and the inferences they make about each other, making their views of each other more accurate, and healing any wrongs committed or perceived to be committed between them.  Workplace relationships can be threatened by real or perceived acts of disrespect, personality or cultural differences, displaced workplace stress, or poorly organized workflow.
What contributes to the success of this conversation?

  • The conversation is kept direct and private, not to others behind each others’ backs and not at staff meetings or coffee.
  • The participants have a high capacity for conflict either when the employer selects employees for this trait or invests in professional development that targets “soft skills” like emotional competence and conflict resolution skills.
  • The organization has a stated commitment to supporting its employees to address issues directly, facilitating these meetings if needed.
  • The conversation is current. Frequent conversations addressing issues as they arise help people make accurate assessments about the state of their relationships.

The Relationship Conversation goes poorly when:

  • The workplace culture is one where passive or indirect aggression are common and people respond to problems with blame instead of collaboration.
  • Workflow allows no chance for people to talk or resolve differences.
  • Organizational structure does not include institutional support for conflict resolution. Examples of these types of challenges include:
    • Human Resource and Codes of Conduct policies that are absent or default to adversarial processes;
    • Managers cannot assist employees and their supervisors through conflict because either the balance of numbers does not allow it, they are unskilled, or they are tasked with doing the frontline work of the organization instead of managing.
    • Group conflict has escalated such that staff members have divided into factions and individuals interpret new experiences through negative lenses and with inaccurate inferences.

Tools to help the Relationship Conversation

The Intent-Action-Impact Model – I learned this model many years ago from Janet Schmidt, a well-known workplace mediator from Winnipeg. It simply sorts the experiences people have into parts that are public (only the actions and events that people see or hear) and private (the intentions and motivations of people and the impacts their behaviours have on other people).  While the model is simple, it is surprisingly difficult for people to acknowledge the many assumptions they make about people’s intentions and how little they know about the impacts of their behaviours.  The effort to make intents and impacts public (known to relevant others) is the core of the Relationship Conversation.  This guide for talking has proven extremely valuable to many of my clients, nearly all of whom rely on it heavily during the conversation and often post the visual in their workplace afterwards.


The Relationship Scale – Another helpful thinking tool is the Relationship Scale.  This idea formed out of some work that Kim Miller and I did with through the Dispute Resolution Office of Saskatchewan Justice.  Again, it is simple so quickly learned.  I ask people to rate key relationships on the Relationship Scale somewhere between -5 and +5 with both ends being either impossibly bad or good after giving them a sense of what a -2, -1, or a +1 is.  Signs that a relationship might be a -2 could include that I dread going to work in the morning and have begun to obsess about them at home.  A -1 would be more situational where I only really feel bad about it when I am actively working with that person.  A +1 would be a relationship where I have spontaneous positive feelings when I see them and can remember laughing with them during work.  I then explore with them the impacts of different ratings at different times and have them imagine what small actions they can take to improve the relationship to move their ratings up by only half or one increment.  People often state goals, like moving from a -2 to a +1, that feel impossible to achieve.  It becomes evident, however, that to improve a single step one can take unilateral positive actions like self-care or raising issues more respectfully. Small incremental improvements then are seen to have tangible payoffs in the level of stress and workplace wellness that feel possible and can be done without needing much from the other person.  The difference between the impacts of -2 compared to -1 are huge.  This model discourages blaming mindsets and focuses on positive personal decisions.  When both are on-board, virtuous cycles can take hold, making trust possible and de-escalating the workplace.


The Functions and Systems (Work) Conversation

What is it?

The Functions and Systems Conversation (Let’s call it The Work Conversation for short) is the conversation between the employee and the supervisor about getting work done with high quality and efficiency, and coordination with others. It establishes the realistic standards and procedures for the employee.


The Work Conservation goes well when:

  • The people follow the basic tenets and methods of interest-based problem-solving.
  • All staff members and supervisors have a growth mindset, viewing most or all set-backs and challenges as problems to solve and assuming that everyone is growing and learning all the time.
  • Managers staff units generously enough and distribute work to allow time for groups and pairs to discuss their work thoroughly.
  • Supervisors and staff members take an unranked stance. Ideas and suggestions should have weight that reflects their merits rather than the rank of the people who state them.


The Work Conversation goes poorly when:

  • Staff members and supervisors mistake the frustration of problem-solving for personal attack.
  • Supervisors adopt a deficit mindset and assume staff mistakes and failures reflect bad character.
  • Staff members and supervisors assume that supervisors and managers should automatically understand every aspect of the work. An ironic fact of promotion in any organization is that the higher you rise the less you know about the actual work your organization performs.


Tools to help the Work Conversation

Exploring Interests and the Problem-Solving Process – The basic problem-solving process espoused by most organizational and conflict resolution theorists consists of the following steps:

  1. Identifying and clarifying the problem – What are the issues that need to be resolved? Why is it a problem? Who needs to be a part of problem resolution?
  2. Exploring the interests of all involved, including customer or client groups – What is important to each stakeholder? How are people and systems impacted?  This stage is often neglected as people rush to push forward their preferred solutions.
  3. Generating options that satisfy interests – The key here is to base potential options on the interests and deeper understanding achieved in the previous stage, looking to make sure systems are corrected or improved where needed instead of implementing band-aid solutions.
  4. Developing an implementation plan – Especially for larger changes or initiatives, making sure exactly who is doing what when and how is a crucial part of the conversation so misunderstandings don’t undermine either the Relationship Conversation or the Directing and Reporting Conversation.

The benefits of taking time with this conversation is that it involves the collaboration of the minds of people who have different points of view on the same problem and results in better plans.  More people have skin in the game and better decisions result.  Brand-name processes like LEAN, Quality Improvement, and Root Cause Analysis all have roots in basic interest-based problem-solving.



The Directing and Reporting Conversation

What is it?

The Directing and Reporting Conversation consists of any communication between supervisors and employees that manages the authority structure of the organization.  Every employment contract that includes an exchange of labour for pay needs an ongoing conversation about how that contract is managed.  It includes job expectations, performance and recognition, and learning and development.  If needed, it includes discipline.

The Directing and Reporting Conversation goes well when:

  • Supervisors and employees have common expectations about fair performance standards and employee conduct.
  • The culture is one where continuous learning is encouraged at all levels of the organization. People are formally and informally rewarded for having a growth mindset.
  • The relationship between supervisor and employee is characterized by trust, attachment, and openness.
  • Employees act in good faith and are willing to work hard and supervisors have fair expectations and use a developmental or coaching approach.

The Directing and Reporting Conversation goes poorly when:

  • Job expectations are unclear and inconsistent.
  • Employees are made to feel shame when they make mistakes.
  • Employees have been hired into jobs that are a poor fit for their mix of talents, interests, and weaknesses.
  • Supervisors believe that only employees are required to perform well and that supervisors should avoid looking vulnerable by hiding mistakes or shielding themselves from scrutiny.

Tools to help the Performance and Reporting Relationship Conversation

Meaningful performance and development plans and rubrics – While a part (or at least a promise) of most organizations, Performance Appraisals are rarely done well.  Perceived as a chore at best and distasteful to most managers, they are frequently avoided.  This negative view of a potentially invigorating process ignores the fact that the great majority of employees WANT to do well at their jobs and human beings are built to learn.  Performance and development should be an ongoing dialogue between supervisors and employees where supervisors as much as possible take a coaching, rather than a disciplinary, stance.  Supervisors and employees can and should co-create rubrics that outline ambitious performance goals that include but exceed baseline performance requirements.  Rubrics are incremental descriptions of expectations on specific performance indicators that clearly show employees next levels of performance.  When reviewed, the detail included in the rubrics allow for data to be shared that confirm attainment of standards.


Internal vs External Facilitators

Organizations need to develop the capacity to have some of these conversations internally and know when to seek the services of an external professional (often a mediator) to support the conversations.  The benefit of having a professional external to the organization conduct any one of the conversations is that the neutral “outside” status of the mediator and the “without prejudice” confidential environment allows the parties to shift between the conversations without the facilitator playing an “interested” role like an HR professional or higher-level manager might be required.

If leading the conversation internally, an HR professional or manager who has the skills can mitigate the problem of their inherent bias with an open declaration of their interests as they represent the employer.  As the conversation progresses, that third party facilitator would need to pay attention to the flow of conversation and note when they are taking a more active negotiating role since the parties will likely forget that the facilitator is not completely neutral.  An example would be where they begin talking about the tasks and production of the unit and a manager facilitator may have an interest in introducing future redistributions of work between units.  Another example is where an HR professional who is facilitating may have privileged knowledge of a progressive discipline process for one or both of the parties that they would have to manage in terms of confidentiality and procedure.



When done well, these conversations form the basis of a respectful relationship between supervisors and their direct reports.  If one of the conversations is not going well, it will negatively affect the others.  For example, if an employee and supervisor engage in a conversation to solve problems about work, yet their relationship is suffering, messages from either party can easily be mistaken as comments on performance.  Each conversation can be seen as a set of goals to achieve with and for each employee.  Supervisors should have them in mind as distinct types, looking for opportunities to interact with employees they supervise to move each set of goals forward.  Employees can assertively promote their and their organization’s interests by owning their own parts in the conversations and exercising their voice.  Both supervisors and direct reports have a role to play in keeping the conversations healthy.  When these conversations are consistently healthy, the organization is healthy.

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