Find Mediators Near You:

Therapeutic Alliances in Organizations

When we consider best practices in managing staff in organizations, we tend to anchor our argument to human resource practices such as: the role of the leader, authority, hierarchy, chain of command, performance measures, and training.  Tertiary at best, is the importance of healthy and productive relationships in an organization, even though we know that poor communication and weak relationships can sink the proverbial ship.

I believe that fostering healthy relationships in organizations should be of paramount concern for leaders.  Poor relationships lead to conflict and conflict leads to all manner of pernicious outcomes.  Absenteeism, presenteeism, turnover, losses in reputation and finances are a few of the damaging outcomes that impact organizations as a result of unchecked conflict and toxic environments that flow from conflict.  Conflict can distort communication and create organizational relationships that are unhealthy and unproductive.  Erbe (n.d.) notes that poor organizational governance leads to “distrust, unhealthy competition, alienation, and complaints” (sec 2266).

There is a vast collection of literature that offers solutions to the destructive by-products of organizational conflict; however, any solutions that ignore the elemental influence of communication and relationship will not offer a sound or enduring solution.

Conflict in organizations is common, Costantino and Merchant (1996) argue that “In an organizational context conflict is an expression of dissatisfaction with an interaction, process product, or service” (p. 4).  Conflict is often thought of as an unwelcome organizational fact of life and even necessary to unearth an underlying problem.  The tension created by conflict can sometimes cause individuals to confront a difficult truth and bring it to resolution rather than avoiding the problem outwardly and allowing it to inwardly fester.  Johnson (2005) labels a difference in priorities as a “Polarity” which is an “…ongoing and chronic issues that are unavoidable and unsolvable” (p. 3).  Each party has the one correct answer that is seen as independent of the other.  So, conflict can generate a necessary change or can fester into a pattern of systemic divisiveness, creating poor quality relationships that do not benefit the employee, organization or any stakeholder.

One possible way to address workplace conflict is by applying the concept of a “Therapeutic Alliance” (Rogers, 1978, 1980; Martin, 2011; Norcross, 2002) in the organizational milieu.  The concept of a therapeutic alliance is commonly used in therapeutic psychological counselling and has been adopted by some professionals in other helping professions such as medicine and social services.  The therapeutic alliance helps reduce the reluctance of the client to engage in services or intervention and creates a coalition between the helper and the individual being helped. 

To illustrate this, visualize emotional pain as physical pain, such as an open wound.  Now visualize that the wound has not healed and is improperly dressed.  It may be that treating the wound involves the excruciating process of removing the current dressing, irrigating the wound, and painfully removing debris from the wound.  The patient may be reluctant to let anyone near that wound.  However, if a doctor is serene and considered in her approach, she explains what to expect, empathetically reassures the patient that she will remain present during the entire process and only then does she treat the wound, as painful as it is, an alliance of sorts has formed, allowing for a pathway for healing.  Therapeutic counselling is similar but often with more shame and stigma inherent in acknowledging a painful truth exacerbating an individual’s reluctance to engage in the therapeutic process.  Studies demonstrate that a purposeful collaborative relationship between a therapist and client leads to better therapeutic outcomes.

Particularly influential in our current understanding of the therapeutic alliance is the work of Carl Rogers and his concept of “Person-Centered Therapy” (Rogers, 1978, 1980; Martin, 2011).  Three pillars the “Rogerian” or “Humanistic” approach include “congruence” which refers to the practice of genuinely relating to the client without emphasizing professional status, “unconditional positive regard” by demonstrating appreciation for the individual without judgment and listening attentively to the individual without interruption or direction.  A final pillar is the need for the therapist to project “empathy” and understanding to the client (Rogers, 1978).

The theoretical underpinnings of a therapeutic alliance are consistent with NCRP practices and can be applied to good effect in organizational design.  Carl Rogers (1980) concept of unconditional positive regard proposes that a therapist should communicate and project regard for the patient.  It is accepted that, as part of the human condition, we are more likely to like people that appear to like us.  When people treat us with regard, we are more inviting of positive and negative feedback. 

I believe that insufficient attention is paid to promoting and maintaining healthy relationships in organizational design.  In “Organizational Conflict Resolution” Erbe (n.d.) notes that the worst organizational processes demonstrate an absence of listening and understanding and lack of reflective practice.  The tenets of a therapeutic alliance are intuitively transferable to the workplace by honoring and venerating the employee, by paying attention to health of relationships within an organization and projecting that these relationships are a priority.  Pay attention to the health of your relationships and those healthy relationships will pay dividends.



Bolton, R. (1986). People skills: How to assert yourself, listen to others, and resolve conflicts. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Bush, R. A. B., & Folger, J. P. (2005). The promise of mediation: The transformative approach to conflict. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Canary, D., J., (2006). “Managing Conflict in a Competent Manner: A Mindful Look at Events That Matter”. The SAGE Handbook of Conflict Communication: Integrating Theory, Research, and Practice. SAGE Publication, pp.182-232. 

Cartwright, S., & Cooper, C. L. (2009). The Oxford handbook of organizational well-being. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., & Stavros, J. M. (2003). Appreciative inquiry handbook: The first in a series of AI workbooks for leaders of change. Bedford Heights, Ohio: Lakeshore Communications.

Costin, A. & Hare, P.A. (2006). Theory and Practice Related to Primary Psychological Topics: Attitude, Psychodynamics, Cognition, and in Images and Aggression. Blumberg, H. H., Hare, P.A., & Costin, A. (Eds.), Peace Psychology: A Comprehensive Introduction (pp 150-166). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Costantino, C., A. and Merchant, C., S., (1996). Designing Conflict Management Systems: A Guide to Creating Productive and Healthy Organizations. San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Dana, D. (2011). Conflict resolution: Mediation tools for everyday worklife.  New York, NY.  McGraw Hill Professional.

Erbe, N., D., (n.d.). Organizational Conflict Resolution: An Intelligent Guide to Transforming Troubled Organizations. (Kindle version).

Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (1991). Getting to yes: negotiating agreement without giving in. 2nd ed.

Hemp, P. (January 01, 2004). Presenteeism: At work-but out of it. Harvard Business Review, 82, 10, 49-58.

Folger, J., Poole, M., & Stutman, R. (2009). Working Through Conflict: Strategies for Relationships, Groups, and Organizations. (7th Edition). Boston: Pearson Education.

Johnson, B. (1996). “Polarity management: Identifying and managing unsolvable problems.” Amherst, Mass: HRD Press.

Kessler, E. H. (2014). Encyclopedia of management theory. Newbury Park, California.  SAGE Publications.

Kriesberg, L. (2003). Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. (2nd Edition).  Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group.

Martin, D. G., (2011). Counseling and Therapy Skills. (3rd Edition).  Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Mayton, D. M. (2009). Nonviolence and Peace Psychology: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Society and World Peace. London, UK: Springer.

Norcross, J. C. (2002). Psychotherapy Relationships That Work: Therapist Contributions and Responsiveness to Patients. New York: Oxford University Press.

Regina, W. (2013). Bowen Theory and Peace Making: Human evolution through nonviolent conflict resolution. Amster, R. & Ndura, E. (Eds.), Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice. (pp. 223-239). Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Richer, M.-C., Ritchie, J., & Marchionni, C. (January 01, 2010). Appreciative inquiry in health care. (pp. 164-172). British Journal of Health Care Management, 16, 4,

Rogers, C. R. (1978). Carl Rogers on Personal Power: Inner Strength and Its Revolutionary Impact. London: Constable.

Rogers, R. C. (1980). A Way of Being. Boston, Massch: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Rogers, C. R., & Stevens, B. (2007). Person to person: the problem of being human: A new trend in psychology. London: Souvenir Press (Educational and Academic.

Rothman, J. (1997). “Resolving Identity Based Conflict: In Nations, Organizations, and Communities.” New York, NY. Jossey Bass.Schein, E. H. (2017). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ury, W. (1993). Getting past no. New York: Bantam Books.

Wenzel, A. (Ed.) (2017). The sage encyclopedia of abnormal and clinical psychology (Vols. 1-7). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.



Sean Gander

Sean Gander is a public speaker, mediator, trainer and social service administrator. Sean’s area of focus is helping business through mediation, training and organizational development. Sean lives and practices mainly in Canada. MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


3 Strategies for Effective Co-Parenting

Detailed custody resource here: Co-parenting is arguably the most important part of separating to get right. It can also be the most challenging. To keep things simple, focus on...

By Ben Coltrin

Moving Online in Pandemic: Preamble

EDITED: To include more on differentiation/integration. I had the terms all wrong. Go figure! And to add a link to a group for online facilitators considering how to support the...

By Nancy White

Cost of Conflict: Hidden Outflow or Investment Opportunity?

Imagine an escalating dispute between a purchaser and a key supplier, or between the pater familias of a family company and his managing daughter, or between a CEO and his...

By Herman Zandt