“Working with Eric was a pleasure. We developed a good rapport and established a level of honesty and trust. I valued his counsel and recommendations. I find Eric to be very competent in a variety of disciplines. He is able to correctly diagnose organizational problems and suggest solutions that are on point. I found Eric to be a professional with the highest levels of honesty, integrity, and ethical behavior. I would not hesitate to engage his services again in the future.”
former Corporate Services Director,
Department of Planning and Development,
City of Seattle
(Kathy is now Director of Planning and Finance for Advocacy and Communications at World Vision.)
“I've worked closely with Eric on developing and presenting the Leadership Eastside community leadership program. He has that rare blend of extensive real-world experience along with a very strong background in theory and research. He moves easily between big picture strategy and the tactical details. Eric brings a superb ability to plan, execute and follow-through, both as a behind-the-scenes planner and as an upfront instructor and facilitator.”
founding board member,
In successful venting, the players lay out those issues and work through them together. This means that each person has an opportunity to express their concerns, perspectives and intentions—to unload what’s on their mind. Others listen respectfully, ask genuine questions, and then share their intentions and perspectives.
After everyone has had a turn to say their piece and be heard, and differences in perspectives have been resolved—or at least acknowledged—the group can then move on to making some agreements about how to work together and what to work on. By this point, trust and respect should be on the mend. Not totally restored—because that can only be achieved by establishing a track record over time—but improved.
When venting works well, it helps people to reestablish mutual trust and respect by establishing a track record of listening and honesty. Topics and concerns that might have been considered out-of-bounds are directly discussed.
On the other hand, if the venting process is cut short or mishandled, it can lead to an increase in negative, destruction emotions and even greater difficulties getting the group to focus on the work at hand.
How can you make sure that venting works to build trust and respect? Here are some tips:
1. Determine that your group needs some venting. Are there strong emotions or opinions that people are stifling? Are you seeing more email traffic and less face-to-face talking? Do people seem to be walking on eggshells? Each of these can indicate a brewing problem.
2. Ask yourself, “Am I truly committed to doing what’s needed to improve working relationships, including venting?” In my labor contract bargaining example, we made progress because both management and labor leaders were strongly committed to improving their working relationship. They believed union and management members needed to be able to vent before being able to move on.
3. Set up a special time and place for venting. Make sure to allow plenty of time so that everyone has a turn to talk and be heard. The process is likely to take longer than you expect. You may have to do more than one round of taking turns to get everything out on the table.
4. As the senior person (supervisor, manager or director) in the group, you are modeling behavior for others. Make sure you are listening closely and respectfully to what people are saying, and paraphrasing particularly important remarks.Ask genuine questions of curiosity.
5. Do your best to treat what people say as “data” that can help you and the team be successful. You don’t have to agree with what people are saying, but you must hear and understand it. They need to see you taking their point of view seriously, so that they feel respected by you.
6. Make sure that others in the group listen, ask genuine questions, and really understand what the speaker is saying. If someone takes offense or gets defensive, ask them to wait for their turn to share their perspective.
7. In some cases, as the “boss,” you may have to "prime" the group with a question that indicates your openness to hearing "bad news." If you have venting of your own, speak later, after you've established yourself as a strong listener.
Whatever the business issue at hand, when emotions are running high or trust and respect are running low, it’s essential to deal with the “elephants in the living room” to move on to the business tasks at hand.
You’ve just announced another round of layoffs. A recent high-visibility project went very badly, leaving work relationships in tatters. Staff members are giving each other the cold shoulder. When you ask questions to understand what’s going on, all you get are vague statements and veiled references.
How do you handle broken work relationships? What do you do when conflict seems to be bubbling just under the surface? How do you begin to restore trust and respect when anger and frustration are running high?
While you might wish to work in an environment where you never have to delve into the world of emotional or personal conflict, there are times when individuals and groups must have an opportunity to vent their concerns and feelings. They need to unload emotionally before getting down to work. They need to vent. My friend Nancy Robb, a manager at Seattle City Light, calls this “degriefing.”
In the conflict resolution and team building work I do, I have found that often the only way to decrease emotional conflict in the long term is to increase it in the short term. When emotions run so high that they cannot simply be put aside, they must be addressed head on. People need to have an opportunity to vent their feelings with each other.
Here’s an example. Recently, I have been facilitating labor contract bargaining for a government agency. When we first started out building our agenda, we found that there was a backlog of complaints, perceptions, questions and strong emotions that needed to be expressed before we could get to work on the contract itself.
We had to "vent" these other issues in order to start building a productive and healthy work relationship. Once we dealt with the pent up need, the group was able to focus on the contract and get to work. In addition, we were using a negotiating process (interest-based bargaining) that was new to people.
Venting is not easy, and most people want to avoid it. It is risky because you don’t want to make an already bad situation worse. It takes courage, patience and time for everyone feeling safe enough to say what’s on their minds. Fear of venting is one of the primary factors that hurts team performance, delays projects and thwarts team building.
Yet, I find that venting, when it happens, is almost always not as bad as people fear. Under the right conditions and with good facilitation, a group can work through venting and get on to “business matters,” provided that the venting process is allowed to play out.
What’s the most surprising thing about working on resolving conflict? That was the question put to me by a graduate student interviewing me about my work. It was an easy question to answer: I am surprised at how hard people in conflict work to maintain it.
When relationships get tense and conflict flares, we stop talking with each other, which dramatically reduces the chance that a misunderstanding is resolved. We start fortifying our stories about how bad the other people are, how malignant their intentions are, and how unwilling they are to work together. These fortifications raise the barriers between us, making harder for even us to climb over our own constructions.
I mentioned this dynamic the other day to a client who is locked in conflict. He simply nodded in recognition. When people are stuck in conflict, there is always something they are actively doing to stay stuck. Owning up to your contribution to the problem is the first step toward resolving the conflict and moving on.
It’s 3 pm at a daylong off-site meeting. You are feeling great about the progress the group has made over the last six hours. A new direction has been set, expectations are clearer, and people are feeling good about their work, their colleagues, and the entire enterprise. You’re “firing on all cylinders.”
Mission accomplished? No, not yet.
I have planned and facilitated countless retreats, and I have seen the same question come up again and again as the day wanes. That question is “What happens next?”
This is not the time to deliver an impromptu, mealy-mouthed answer. Your people will be looking to you for a clear, unequivocal sign that you are ready to follow-up and take on leadership in light of the offsite.
If the retreat has been a success, chances are you’ve agreed to some changes—big or small. It’s your job as the boss to hold people accountable for the next steps to make the change happen. Tell them how that will happen when you’re all back at the office.
My advice to clients is to prepare before the retreat what you’ll say the next steps will be. Anticipate what those might be as part of your retreat planning process. Sure, you can modify those next steps depending on how the day goes, but you’d better have something to work from.
“Undersell and over-deliver” is a mantra for many effective managers and influence leaders. Get people to set their expectations low and then they’ll be pleasantly surprised by results that exceed their expectations.
I think this principle applies well in transactions, like selling a product or service. Or project or program. But it brings problems when you are trying to bring people together to make something new happen.
When you are bringing people together, you need to set higher expectations. Even intentionally unreasonable ones—which are sometimes called “stretch goals” or “BHAGs” (for Big Hairy Audacious Goals).
To achieve stretch goals, you need to imagine them first. And imagine yourself, your team and your project achieving those goals.
So, do you keep expectations modest or set up BHAGs? Here’s where the art of managing expectations comes into play:
If people believe in advance that some experience or event will be good, they will look for signs confirming that expectation. If they expect it to be bad, then they will see it as bad.
The pit to avoid is setting people up to expect poor outcomes and a bad experience. Ultimately, you need to try to regulate the expectations they have for your effort: not so high as to doom you to failure, and not so low that no one’s motivated.
When I suggest to leaders that they need to be clear with their people about their goals and wishes for the organization, I often hear back that these leaders want to hear from their people. You might interpret this as a noble gesture to involve people in the discussion, but I see it as an abdication of their duties as the leader.
How many times have you been in a meeting that was set up to “talk about X”? You get to the meeting on X and quickly find out that no one has any idea what the purpose of the meeting is, why X is important or what their supposed to do about X. I can almost guarantee that you and your colleagues will get frustrated and wander out of the meeting room mumbling something about what a waste of time it was.
The leader’s job is to set the goal and sideboards for a group. This cannot be delegated. Sure, in many cases, you can ask for input, but the goals and sideboards have to be the right ones. And, if they’re really good, they will make team members a little uncomfortable, because they’ll be challenged by them.
A goal has to be specific, “easy to see” and yet intrinsically motivating. (They can see it in their mind and feel it in their gut!) Once you’ve stated the goal (and sideboards), you can let your group loose on developing ideas for getting there.
But don’t bother calling the meeting if you can’t tell them why X is important and what they’re supposed to do about it.
Yesterday, I was working with a group that was breaking into factions. Each faction was pushing a different idea of how to solve a problem. As you can imagine, they were quickly coming to loggerheads--a stalemate.
Just before a break, I suggested to them that we weren't going to get farther talking at the level we were on. We either had to get more global and remind ourselves of the larger purpose, goals and values we were seeking to address, or get into the weeds about (1) where these ideas came from (the thought process) and (2) how they would work when implemented.
We decided to get into the weeds. This was important because one of the things I saw was that people had very different understandings of each of the ideas. The folks who were pushing an idea had a more specific, fine-grained idea of what they were talking about. However, the other folks did not have that granular view. They didn't understand the idea well enough to feel comfortable with it.
The advocates for an idea needed to show the other people how they came up with their idea--what they started with, ideas they rejected, how the idea would address the problem. In other words, they needed to make their thinking apparent.
It's common for us to assume that everyone else shares our view of the world and knows what we know. In cognitive psychology, this is called the "false consensus effect." Yesterday, each of the groups was in the grip of false consensus. They each thought their idea was "self-evident."
By getting down into the weeds, we were able to avoid an impasse and move forward.
In a 2006 paper, University of Washington business professors documented how a single negative group member can have a big negative impact on the performance of the group.
Specifically, they looked at people who didn't pull their weight ("withholders of effort"), people who express a negative mood or attitude ("affectively negative") and people who disregard the group norms for treating each other with respect ("interpersonal deviants").
The authors argue that negative team members have a stronger effect on the whole group than positive members. Withholders of effort produce feelings of inequality and reduce team performance because people don't want to look like a sucker in the face of a someone withholding. Affectively negative people's moods and attitudes turn out to be contagious. And, interpersonal deviants undermine trust by acting rudely, insulting, and making fun of others.
Each of these behaviors hurt team performance and reduce results, by undermining motivation, creativity and learning, and hoarding information. Addressing the problem is essential. This bad behavior won't just go away; it'll probably get worse.
Fixing problematic individual behavior is complicated, but any strategy would need to start with a one-on-one meeting with the individual and a specific description of the problematic behavior (not interpretations, actual observations). From there, you then describe your interpretation and ask them what's going on with them. Ultimately, you'll need to set clear behavioral expectations and be prepared to call the person out if they transgress again. If the pattern continues, you'll need to escalate your response accordingly.
Whatever you do, don't let the bad behavior continue unchecked. It is destroying your team and their results!
I've helped many groups to discuss and decide what to do on strategic issues. I enjoy working with clients to frame the issues, figure out what information people need, and design an agenda to "get into it." It's gratifying work.
Except when we must produce a "strategic plan." When we focus on what will go into the plan, the life drains out of the process and out of me. Too much of the time goes into writing and editing the document—often at the expense of the actual strategic conversation.
A CEO client yesterday told me she doesn't like strategic plans either. She prefers short lists or graphics to capture the decisions and direction and does indeed keep the graphic from her most recent strategy process on her desk at all times. (Now that's "living the plan.")
I think of strategy conversations as a cloud. From that cloud comes decisions, actions and changes that are the concrete results of the strategic conversation.In the strategic conversation, you wrestle with the current situation, desired state, values, vision, mission and such—all as dictated by your situation and goals. Then, from that conversation comes the decisions, actions and changes you need to make to realize the new or modifying direction.
Of course we need to "memorialize" the conversation and keep track of what was discussed and decided, but you don't need a big plan to do that.
The most important thing is to have a good strategic conversation. That takes planning, reflection, effort and time. If you do that well, the decisions, actions and changes come a lot easier.
(I posted this entry earlier today on my Influence Leader blog and realized that it applies as much to team rescue, coaching and facilitation as it does to influence. So here it is...)
In a meeting this morning, a client described a protracted conflict with some of his board members and how they would communicate with him in multiple-page e-mails (at least one was sent at 2 am on a Sunday morning!). These e-mails included attacks and criticisms that crossed the line, at least from my client's (and my own) perspective.
In this age of electronic communication—e-mail, text messaging, Twitter, etc.—I think that people are trying to do too much electronically—and too little face-to-face.
When it comes to clearing the air with someone, e-mail and memos simply don't cut it. You've got to talk face-to-face.
It's pretty common, though, that when the conversation gets tough, when there is conflict, people want to protect themselves. And, an easy way to do that is to send one-way messages rather than risk a two-way conversation.
Unfortunately, doing that only makes things worse, because those one-way communication tools have very limited bandwidth. You can't see their gestures, you can hear their tone of voice or even tell if they care. You can't show you understand, and neither can they.
To have a productive conversation and actually resolve a problem, you need a lot of bandwidth—and that only comes in a face-to-face meeting.
You'd need to do what one of my coaching clients did a few weeks back. He had a very unpleasant exchange with a colleague in the hallway. Talking with me, he took a step back, looked at the situation from a different angle, and made a plan to approach his colleague for a one-on-one chat. It went very well—even better than expected.
If you want to perpetuate a conflict, retreating to one-way communication works well. If you want to resolve the problem, there's no getting around talking face-to-face.