Why do some projects sing?

Posted on 14. Jan, 2011 by in Case Studies

In late December, I reflected on the year’s consulting projects and clients.Joke

One project stood out because it exceeded the goals the client and I had set. It also surpassed our expectations of what was possible with the trainings we undertook. I wondered—what qualities move a consulting project from good to great?

Listen to your intuition

When I first met Reggie, an especially skilled leader, he described his sense that things were not quite right with his team of 200 technical staff. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but felt that people had gotten lazy in the way they treated each other.

“We’re just too casual and comfortable with each other,” he told me. “And, while that’s good in so many ways, we’re careless in the way we speak and behave with each other.” Reggie wanted to work with me because of my experience on the topic of respect. “That just feels right to me somehow—we all need a reminder of how to be more respectful of each other.”

Reggie trusted his gut and decided to move ahead with the project.

Act before there’s a problem

Reggie worried that someone would cross the line and behave in a way that might be harmful to the team. “I think it’s possible that someone will tell a joke or use language that’s offensive to someone else and we’ll have a real problem on our hands. I’d like to do something before that happens.”

As I worked with the group over the next couple of months, and heard their stories, questions and comments, I saw that Reggie was right. This group, while very well-intentioned, was one bad joke away from a complaint of harassment. His decision to act early may well have saved his organization tens of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees, mandatory trainings and perhaps a costly settlement.

Tell people what you’re doing and why

Reggie and I established a plan:

  • Provide an introductory training for the managers and supervisors
  • Present a training on Respectful Communication for all employees
  • Evaluate and plan next steps

He explained the plan to his managers in their monthly meeting and sent an e-mail to all staff describing what we would be doing and why.

Stay actively involved in the project

Reggie introduced every class and then excused himself. He:

  • Explained his sense that things were too casual
  • Said he wanted everyone to take the trainings seriously
  • Explained his reasons for having separate manager and employee trainings
  • Described the separate—and longer—training the managers had experienced covering all the same material and emphasizing how they could support the training

The employees responded enthusiastically to his presence.

Take responsibility for your part

At each class, Reggie admitted he was part of the problem. “I’ve just gotten too casual with my language and humor—and some of you have actually pointed it out to me. In some ways, it’s the greatest compliment to you—I feel so comfortable. And yet, I’m aware I’m at work and that there are lines we shouldn’t cross here.”

He also told them that he suspected the change would be hard for him and that, if he slipped, he would appreciate if staff would point out his mistake. “I know that people tend to follow the leader and I want to set the best example for all of you.”

Set clear expectations of what needs to change—and what doesn’t

Reggie was worried that the group would lose something precious—their humor, sense of fun, and the bonding that was so essential to this team’s high performance. He told the groups, “I don’t want us to lose what is essential, the trust we have in each other. I want us to watch our language—the swearing especially—and to make sure our jokes stay clean, and, I think there’s a little too much teasing going on.”

Be open to feedback

We agreed that individual comments during the trainings would be kept confidential. The employees knew I would summarize their mood and attitude for Reggie and they could tell me anything they wanted for me to share with Reggie. Reggie told people the training was to be a safe place with confidential sharing. “I want you to be free to talk openly—and, if there are problems I need to know about, I want to know. You can tell me any way that works for you. You can come to talk to me anytime, and, if that isn’t comfortable, you can talk to Janet and ask her to pass along your comments. I know she’ll keep your remarks confidential.”

During the trainings, I was surprised again and again by the employees’ enthusiasm for the topic, open and active participation in the workshops, and consistently excellent evaluations. Oftentimes in mandatory trainings, employees are wary, don’t participate, and reflect their displeasure by giving poor evaluations with lots of negative comments. This group consistently said, “Thanks for the opportunity and please help us keep this conversation going. Things feel better already.”

They clearly valued the warmth and trust of their work group, respected and liked Reggie, and shared his concern that things had crossed the line. In every class, several people would talk about crossing the line with swearing, jokes or teasing and their commitment to improving their behavior.

When Reggie and I had our final meeting, we agreed that neither of us could have predicted the staff’s overwhelmingly positive response. We were confident that this group had everything they needed to move forward, able to hold on to the good will that had evolved over time and incorporate the new behaviors and emphasis on respect.

This project sang because Reggie was an exceptional leader who acted before there was a serious problem, took responsibility for his part in the situation and ably led the group to a better place. I know that other leaders, managers and supervisors can learn from Reggie’s example and be more effective in responding to their team’s challenges.

Coming soon:  I’ll describe how a consulting project can be great even when the leader is new or has much to learn!

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