People are happier, more cooperative and productive, and more likely to make positive changes when those in positions of authority do things “with” them rather than “to” them or “for” them.


Toxic Talk

IIRP Instructor Steve Korr on Restorative Leadership


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Because most of us spend a large part of our life in our workplaces, we want them to be pleasant. Unfortunately workplaces are often rife with conflict, both overt and secretive. Restorative practices have the potential to help leaders manage and resolve those conflicts and foster a sense of fairness and trust, not only for our own sake as individuals, but for the sake of the organization as well — to make it more productive.

Restorative leadership provides a theoretical framework as well as practical techniques for building social capital, supervising employees, addressing issues in the workplace and implementing organizational change. Restorative leadership is about effective leadership and the impact that has on an organization.

We help managers to ensure that new staff learn the values of the organization. At the same time restorative leadership provides the means to see that those values are truly practiced and not just preached.

Proactive restorative practices help staff get to know one another, build social capital and function as a team. Supervision techniques help staff key in on their areas of professional development and continue to learn and support one another while on the job.

Responsive restorative practices come into play when things go wrong in the workplace, as they inevitably do. You can learn the tools to address and repair the harm that has been caused in a respectful way that ensures people learn from their mistakes and that the organization becomes stronger through the process.

The following story illustrates “fair process,”* one of many restorative practices, which are based on the premise that managers will have more impact when they do things “with” employees, rather than “to” them or “for” them:

Employee health insurance benefits were rising by double digits, even as much as 33% in a single year, making it impossible for one company to continue offering the same level of benefits to employees. Rather than simply announcing a change of policy, the company decided to engage employees in the decision-making process, then provide an explanation of its decision, and finally give people clear expectations for how the decision would affect them and what they would need to do.

Employee Engagement in Decision-Making

When managers at the company received their annual notice of rate and plan changes from their insurance carrier, they decided to send an email to every employee to alert them of the problem the company was facing and what they saw as the options available to them. Managers solicited input from employees through meetings, one-on-one phone calls, emails and surveys to get a sense of what people’s concerns and preferences were. Some people preferred plans with lower co-pays; others wanted better prescription drug coverage. Managers tried to get a good idea of what choices would best serve the most people. This process preceded the open enrollment period, and the company’s decision would ultimately affect open enrollment options.

Explanation of Decisions

After examining feedback from all employees, the vice president made a decision about what plans would best provide basic insurance as a full benefit for each employee. The company decided to switch insurance companies and drastically reduce the payout they had formerly given to people who chose to purchase insurance elsewhere. This was a hard decision, but it brought the company into conformity with other similar companies, helped maintain a lower cost, and it also allowed the company to maintain a 100% basic health benefit for employees, with no additional out of pocket expense.

All of this was explained to the employees, who had been informed from the beginning of the process about the variables the company had to juggle. The vice president knew not everyone would be happy, and acknowledged this. The hope, however, was that the explanation would allay the otherwise bad feelings people might have if they felt the decision was arbitrary, or if they didn’t really understand the process administrators went through to arrive at their decision.

An administrator commented, “People have felt really good that they’ve had a voice in this. They’ve come to understand health care better. They hear a lot of things about rising costs, but they often don’t understand how it all boils down for them. We help them understand the global picture. They gain a real understanding, plus they have a chance to clear up their confusion and ask questions. It turns their attitude around from thinking that the company is ‘trying to screw me’ to really sympathizing with the challenges. There’s a bigger picture, and it’s helps when people can see what’s happening in context.”

Expectation Clarity

Finally, managers provide clear instructions as to what people needed to do during open enrollment time. They clearly explained the options and told people the date by which they needed to make a decision. Providing clear expectations insures that no one is confused about how the decision affects them. The implementation of a new health insurance plan completed the fair process.

An interesting note in this case has to do with some of the other positive repercussions of using restorative practices at the company to build relationships and social capital among staff. While some of the information employees shared during the engagement period relating to their health needs was private and confidential, and many people did opt to communicate privately with management, quite a few were actually willing to share about their own health insurance concerns in meetings with their co-workers. Administrators believe this openness results from the confidence and trust staff have built through regular use of circles and other restorative practices.

* Kim, W. & Mauborgne, R. (1997). Fair Process. Harvard Business Review, January 1.

Restorative leadership provides proactive measures for building social capital in the workplace:

  • “Affective statements” enable people to express feelings and provide appropriate ways to communicate how they affect each other in the workplace.
  • Circles are used to build relationships and ensure that all voices are heard.
  • Clear expectations and explicit statement of values and purpose ensure that everyone in the company is on the same page.
  • Fair process informs people of changes in the company’s decisions, allows them to provide input, and provides clarity about the decisions that get made.

Restorative practices offers methods for responding to harm and wrongdoing in the workplace:

  • Restorative questions give employees the opportunity to reflect on their mistakes.
  • Restorative circles can help repair damaged feelings and find ways to repair harm.
  • Restorative conferences are used to address serious wrongdoing, such as bullying in the workplace.
  • Letters of understanding are a supervision technique for engaging employees to change when their behavior threatens their employment.

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Selected Resource

Toxic Talk (DVD)
Toxic Talk shows an actual restorative conference following a workplace incident, in which staff members demeaned their supervisor behind her back and in the presence of customers. The conference transformed the negative feelings created by the incident into positive ones, restored relationships and created a healthier work environment. more » $38


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