Perception Is Not Always Reality

There's a "chain of command" for a reason!


An interpersonal conflict emerged between the Controller and Assistant Controller (AC) at a Delaware Valley Real Estate Development Firm. The AC wrote a letter to the company President/CEO – 3 levels her senior - complaining about the annual performance evaluation. CEO immediately requested HR to isolate and resolve any issues. Internal discussions led to the company engaging my services.

Initial Assessment | Problem Definition | Proposed Intervention Plans:

HR offered their evaluation of the scenario. They shared that the AC's day-to-day demeanor was outgoing and friendly, engaging everyone in a pleasant manner. HR believed that the real root of the problem was the Controller's "stand-offish" demeanor and lack of communication skills.

My initial recommendation was for mediation between the two employees for conflict resolution (Intervention A), followed by Executive Coaching for interpersonal and communication skill development for the Controller (Intervention B).

Results of Intervention A (Mediation):

Mediation sessions resulted in:

  • a reduction of the conflict between supervisor and supervisee by clarifying the basis for performance evaluation;

  • an increase in communication about job duties/expectations;

  • an increase in the timeliness of feedback about work performance;

  • an increase in the opportunities for Controller to coach the AC to correct errors and learn from mistakes;

  • the collaboration with HR to revise the performance evaluation form to allow the employee to comment on the review and to create an action plan to correct substandard performance.

Results of Intervention B (Executive Coaching):

While offered to both employees, only the Controller accepted executive coaching relative to interpersonal, communication and leadership skills. One-to-one coaching sessions resulted in increases in:

  • self-confidence and skills in managing the competing demands within the department;

  • successful team building and communication among the finance department staff through weekly team meetings, periodic team lunches, and informal daily "checking in;"

  • assertiveness skills with a successful bid for increased staffing.

The Controller developed a departmental strategic plan addressing succession planning and cross-function training. And most importantly, we sought a clarification of boundaries within the department and with the "boss", the CFO.

Additional/Revised Problem Definition | Proposed Intervention Plan:

An unintended consequence of this process was that the Controller came to the realization of the core "problem" – the unrestricted access of the AC to "the big boss," the CFO! No boundaries existed.

During both mediation and coaching sessions, it became apparent that the initial identified conflict was being fueled by role boundary issues between the Controller and the CFO.

Without input from the Controller, the CFO:

  • hired the AC six years earlier;

  • approved numerous vacations;

  • provided guidance regarding daily matters (that fell within the purview of the Controller); and

  • gave bonuses/salary increases - despite poor performance reviews.

My updated recommendation now included consultation with the CFO and HR to further reduce the source of conflict in the department (Intervention C).

Results of Intervention C (Consultation):

Joint meetings with HR and CFO resulted in:

  • Clarification of roles and associated boundaries with the Finance Department;

  • Reduced confusion regarding chain of command within the department;

  • Decision to move AC to special projects role to capitalize on her specialty skills, reporting directly to CFO; and

  • The Controller hired a new AC with skills better matched to the job and its responsibilities.

Lasting Impact:

The ensuing 2007 financial crises created an economic downturn with their industry, causing internal company tensions that produced the first-ever staffing cuts. However, throughout this crisis, work continued to flow, departmental performance increased and the original interpersonal issues remained resolved.