People get so stuck in situations that they can’t see their options

Posted on 23. Sep, 2010 by in Case Studies

Stan, the manager of a team of five, asked for my help.

Two team members refused to speak to each other—they hadn’t spoken directly for three years, even though their jobs depended on their cooperation. He was baffled.

The previous manager had been very popular with the entire team but had let the problem fester. Stan wanted his employees to like him and didn’t want to be the bad guy. He wanted me to “fix things.”

Step 1: Gather information

The team worked in a big room without cubicles; noise bounced off the high ceiling and the cement block walls. At a busy front counter, team members took turns waiting on customers, the team’s loud voices on the phone and conversations with each other, were clearly audible.

A typical interaction between Ted and Jack, the two employees who hadn’t spoken to each other for three years, sounded like this:

Ted: “Maria, would you tell Jack that the report is due on Monday and I’d like to see a draft by Thursday?”

Maria: “Jack, Ted needs a draft of the report by Thursday.

Jack: “Maria, would you tell Ted that I’ll have the draft to him by Wednesday afternoon?” Maria: “Ted, Jack will have the report to you on Wednesday.”

The entire group, including the manager, communicated this way, often in front of customers. Everyone knew that this was ridiculous—the customers had complained and Stan’s boss had let him know that this couldn’t continue. However, the team members couldn’t figure out another way to communicate.

Step 2: Fix things that can be fixed immediately

I encouraged Stan to take immediate action, within his control, to let the group know that things would change. We focused on the physical set up and sound quality of the office. Stan imagined a calmer, quieter, more private work environment. He discovered some old cubicles in storage and, within a week, had them installed in the office. This immediate reduction in noise:

  1. Created the sense of calm and privacy he had imagined
  2. Made it much more difficult for Jack and Ted to involve the rest of the team in their conversations
  3. Increased the staff’s belief that Stan could handle the problem
  4. Built Stan’s confidence

Step 3: Build the team’s leadership

Stan and I began to meet regularly for coaching sessions on his style of managing and communicating. We also worked on his desire to be the “good guy” and not direct or correct his staff’s behavior.

I met with Ted who recalled that several years before he’d said something that offended Jack although he couldn’t remember what it was. Jack had stopped speaking to him and Ted responded by not speaking to Jack. Ted told me he was embarrassed and exhausted and ready to try something new.

I did not ever meet Jack; he called in sick every time a meeting was scheduled and asserted his “right” not to participate in the process.

I met with the staff without Stan to get their perspective. They spoke about what a burden this was, although none of them could see any other way to get their work done if Ted and Jack wouldn’t speak. They had hoped their previous manager would stop this, and had gone to him many times requesting that he “do something.” They hoped the new manager would act, but had pretty much given up—they wanted to be rescued.

Step 4: Provide training, supported by consulting

I presented a Respectful Communication workshop to the staff. After the workshop, I coached Stan on giving feedback to each staff member, describing his expectations.  He did an amazing job and started to see results immediately:

  • He told Ted and Jack, individually and together, that a requirement of their jobs was to speak to each other as necessary, solve their problems and conflicts, and not involve the others
  • Ted began to cooperate immediately
  • Jack denied that there was a problem and refused to speak to Ted
  • Stan met individually with the rest of the staff and told them that he expected them not to participate any more
  • They changed their behavior from that conversation on

Step 5: Hang in there through the awkwardness

The communication at work for a while was quite comical—Ted was now speaking directly to Jack, who ignored him. Jack continued to ask his co-workers to intercede and learned to respond “Jack, you need to tell Ted yourself. I’m not going to help you.”

Jack’s behavior didn’t change and his absences increased. Stan eventually fired him, after going through the organization’s disciplinary process.

Step 6: Acknowledge the emotions

I met with the group for a final session, so that they could discuss what they’d learned and develop their own standards, or “agreements” for how they would behave with each other. When I checked in several months later, the team was functioning efficiently, the stress they’d lived with for three years was gone and they were truly working as a team.

They truly weren’t aware that they had options—in the middle of the situation, it looked like there was no way out. They also needed their manager to guide them—really, to be a hero.

People get so stuck in situations that they can’t see their options or
other possibilities

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