In Part I of a two-part series, the Stress Doc outlines six strategic steps and structures for initiating and sustaining an Organizational Development (OD) and Team-Building Process. And if commitment at the highest levels remains tenuous, the process can be easily undermined.
Initiating and Sustaining An OD-Team Building
Process: Part I
Part II, the concluding section, will examine the barriers to productive team building, including strategies for handling disruptive employees and dysfunctional managers. Conversely, case vignettes illustrate structures and strategies for productive teaming, including vital collaborations with management.
Key Steps for Generating an Organizational Development
and Team Building (OD-TB) Process: Part II
Part I of this two-part series outlined six strategic steps and structures for an OD-Team Building Process. These included: 1) Establish Management Buy-In, 2) Initial Climate Assessment, 2) Create a Safe Workshop Atmosphere, 3) Reduce Pre-Workshop Decision-Maker Anxiety, 5) "Save the Retreat" Matrix Group and 6) Reassess Management Commitment. Now let’s continue with structures and strategies that support the development of genuinely participatory teams, a critical evolutionary step when an organization is going through a major change process.
1. Three Key Structures and Dynamics for Participatory Teaming. The philosophical and operational perspectives are dualistic and basic: create a team structure and process that is both task- and relationship-focused. Many leaders and teams are comfortable with the "time- and task-driven" part of the formula. However, when there’s a serious imbalance between task-driven and team support, that is, the opportunity for open discussion about conflict and cooperation, then "time" and "task" truly can become a "T ‘n’ T" process. Relentless pressure can blow up both productivity and morale. Consider these relationship builders:
a) Peer Facilitation and Rotation. This dynamic recognizes that employees are likely to be more invested in a team building process when they feel ownership and play some part in the leadership. Toward this end, consider having employees chair the team meeting. To enhance further participation, rotate the leadership, e.g., every one or two months (assuming a frequency of one or two team meetings per month).
Stepping out of the formal leadership role frees a supervisor or manager to soak up the group process, to be attuned to the unspoken ambiance of the group, including the body language of team members. This "stepping back" position will help a manager get a better sense of the "big picture." This wider lens perspective often provides a clearer and more reliable perspective regarding team member motivation and morale.
b) Two Hats. The "stepping back" position means the manager more overtly plays two roles or wears two hats, that is, he or she is both manager and team member. In this participatory model, the team member hat should be the manager’s default headwear. There will be times, of course, that the more formal hat emerges, e.g., when sharing mission critical data from up high. Or a manager may have to reassert his formal status and role if the group, for example, out of frustration, wants to unilaterally encroach upon the decision-making authority of another department.
In fact, when it comes to the issue of control, this "two hats" structure challenges all parties. As described above, management needs to loosen the team leadership reins while employees must be willing to view the manager as more than just the "all powerful" authority figure. The manager must also be seen as a team member. One implication of this shift in perspective is that employees need to assume more responsibility and direction for the team meeting agenda and process. And surely, this transition may take several meetings for a manager to practice "sitting back" and for (some) employees to practice "speaking up."
c) Wavelength Segment. To facilitate this participatory, multi-hat process, for a 45-60 minute meeting set aside ten-fifteen minutes to discuss how effectively team members are communicating, coordinating and relating overall with each other on a day-to-day basis. This opportunity for collegial tuning in is called the "Wavelength" part of the meeting. It’s a time for noting any ego bumps or bruises, for clearing the air and also for recognizing in more personal detail examples of strong teamwork, such as what or who made task or project success possible. Constructively recognizing and resolving conflict combined with meaningful peer recognition are pillars of any team-building process.
2. Updating Job Descriptions, Roles and Responsibilities. In today’s constantly upgrading and downsizing work world, why not go with the flow? When attempting to generate or rejuvenate a team building process, a good place to start is having members discuss and reevaluate their job descriptions. More specifically, are roles and responsibilities (R & R) congruent with individual, team and organizational resources, goals and objectives? Naturally, this exercise may be especially relevant during a time of reorganization. Collective "R & R" brainstorming should reveal whether there is redundancy or operational gaps. It also allows team members to better envision how the individual parts relate and interact; it helps all better grasp or imagine the "big picture." Creating a tangible, challenging and achievable task or project is always a good way to build group identity and vital cohesiveness. And this process will strengthen the likelihood of generating participatory decision-making and goal achievement.
3. Take Control of Disruptive or Problematic Team Members. Three of the most common and aggravating worksite complaints arise when: a) peers believe a team member is not pulling his or her fair share of the workload, b) a member’s verbal or nonverbal communication is so passively or aggressively hostile that dark and menacing rain cloud tension threatens to erupt in the office or work floor, and c) there is harassment through gossip and ostracism through innuendo. In addition, there’s the loss of respect for and credibility of the supervisor, manager and/or HR leader for not firmly setting limits or for not disciplining this group "stress carrier."
Here’s an example based on work with an IT division in a large federal agency. A woman in her late 30’s, I’ll call her Teri, transferred into the division from the Defense Department. Unfortunately, Teri’s new assignment demanded she process data more rapidly than in her previous position (where she had been reasonably successful for several years.) Despite individual coaching sessions with her supervisor, this employee’s work did not improve. A formal performance improvement plan also did not help her get up to speed. Teri, a minority member, instead of trying to transfer back to Defense began criticizing the supervisor for showing prejudicial attitude and behavior. There really was no basis in fact for the charge. (However, this example should not be construed as implying that discrimination issues in the workplace are mostly a fabrication or manipulation.)
In her aggrieved and agitated state, Teri was also attempting to enlist allies in her fight with the supervisor. She was spending considerable time with some colleagues behind closed doors and lobbying the remaining team members. Before this career crisis she was seen as a fairly quiet and pleasant individual.
Four key interventions occurred:
a) I met with Teri and her female supervisor to both observe the interaction and to help the supervisor provide clear performance goals. The employee rejected my offer of some individual consulting sessions. Subsequently, my role involved helping the supervisor provide clear and constructive ground rules and consequences for unacceptable job performance.
b) A meeting was held with the supervisor and her branch manager to apprise him of the situation. (The supervisor requested my presence as the branch manager had some history of downplaying the seriousness of disruptive behavior; he was not comfortable with conflict or confrontation.) After the branch manager met with the Teri, another meeting with the supervisor and her manager affirmed that these two were on the same page regarding the nature of the personnel performance issue.
c) I hypothesized correctly that most team members were quite uncomfortable with this troubled employee’s recruiting efforts to oppose the supervisor. I met individually with the team members and suggested they give their agitated colleague the following message: Teri could stay and talk about work issues for five minutes (on matters other than criticizing the supervisor). The employees were to affirm their need to get back to work. (I was trying to strike a balance between setting appropriate boundaries and outright rejection.)
d) HR and EEO were informed of the situation and the woman’s charges by the supervisor, the branch manager, the antagonistic employee and by me. To shorten this tale, within a few months Teri took a leave of absence and, shortly thereafter, resigned.
Morale of the story. This vignette affirms how a leader and team often need to coordinate with outside problem-solving resources and supports for constructively engaging a troubled or troublesome employee at work. And it reveals how a team can come together, without creating a scapegoat, to confront effectively a challenge to group cohesiveness.
When Top Management Chaos Breeds Discontent
Without going into great detail, I recall another troubled individual, more frightening than the aforementioned woman. He displayed an actively harassing manner – from being loud and argumentative to scratching on a colleague’s cubicle. Not surprisingly, a disintegration of branch and division leadership as well as this field division being disconnected from headquarters leadership allowed this "stress carrier" employee to experience minimal supervision and little consequences for his frighteningly unpredictable behavior. (This individual may well have had some manic-depressive tendencies.)
Fortunately, a new division head was brought in to set limits both on the individual and on the systemic disorganization, if not chaos. Interventions included:
a) Meetings with the supervisor of this employee to ensure his commitment to supervise.
b) This troubled employee now had to report to the new division head twice a week. The latter would listen to employee grievances but this leader also set clear limits (with consequences) for any acting out behavior by the employee.
c) A heated meeting and confrontation were held between the supervisor and the employee to iron out mutual resentments and rejections. These two had once been close; now the employee felt abandoned by the supervisor. In turn, the supervisor placed some of the blame for fulfilling his supervisory role to employee defiance. The supervisor also complained about a lack of top management support when he did report the employee. (This troubled employee had been a favorite of the equally troubled former division head.)
d) Once again I held individual interviews with all team members. Some of the males were buddies of this employee, having worked with him for a number of years. These colleagues eventually admitted this problematic individual could get loud and become disruptive. However, a woman team member admitted being quite afraid of this employee’s behavior and mannerisms. (She had been reluctant to go public for fear of retribution.) By challenging the male colleagues and supporting the female all were able to speak frankly of their concerns when we finally held a team meeting.
Not surprisingly, the employee had denied the disruptive nature of his actions or cited others as provocateurs. The break in his armor of denial finally occurred at the team meeting when the female colleague, with some trepidation, admitted how frightened she was. At times she felt terrified that this employee might become violent and "lose it."
With the new division head’s active support, the various interventions helped the employee and the supervisor regain more professional role behaviors and relationships. And our work began to resurrect a team building process in a once dangerously disorganized work environment.
4. Confront Potential or Actual Scapegoating or Harassment. Let’s use another scenario involving four postal service team members – two carriers and two mail sorters. The in-house sorters believe the two carriers are "slackers" who are not carrying their load, as it were. While I don’t know how objective the slacker label, I do know the remedy was much worse than the alleged problematic behavior. In this scenario, getting even didn’t stop with incessant ragging. (Because of the repetitive nature and close quarters of much postal processing facilities, a fairly high degree of razzing to break the monotony is often the norm in this locker room-like ambiance and culture. Clearly, this yields a potentially combustible set and setting.) One of the angry mail sorters, an ex-Green Beret, told his psychiatrist that one day he was going to "blow away" (i.e., shoot) the lazy carriers. He was reported and placed on administrative leave while police were stationed around the postal facility. And I was called in to deal with the aftermath: confusion and heightened tension among all employees.
Now one might ask where was the supervisor or manager during all these escalating antagonisms? My sense was that he too had issues with the "slackers," but was not confronting them directly. He seemed to allow the in-house aggressors to act out some of his frustration with the carriers. In an individual interview, the manager revealed having made half-hearted attempts at a performance review. And he rationalized not involving the EAP because of previous experience with an Employee Assistance Program that "didn’t accomplish anything." (I’ll simply note that this so-called ineffective experience occurred more than six years before this recent crisis, and was played out in another state.)
While advocating participatory involvement, the various case examples clearly demonstrate that a dysfunctional, if not dangerous, team environment may emerge when a manager abandons his roles and responsibilities. But even when a formal authority has solid intentions and skills, there are still environments and workplace scenarios that may prove daunting. Let’s move to #5.
5. Survival Strategies for New Managers. As you’ve read, a supervisor or manager plays a critical role in determining whether the work environment will build up or break down a cohesive and participatory team process. Not surprisingly, this critical juncture often emerges when a new manager comes on board. Many are familiar with the scenario of a manager being promoted from within the ranks. Here conflict may arise from divided loyalty and a former identity: the new manager may feel more connected to his former frontline buddies than with his new supervisory or management colleagues. Conversely, employees may have some difficulty acknowledging the manager and his new hat. And, of course, if someone believes he or she was unfairly passed over for this promotion, then tension-filled seeds of jealousy are often strewn about the workplace.
The Former Regime and Post-Traumatic Reactions
Another key dynamic involves the former leadership regime: who is the new manager replacing? With a popular manager, not only may there be some individual or team sadness, but there’s the pressure of filling the big hat. However, my experience suggests that if the new manager has solid leadership skills and sufficient emotional intelligence, the transitional hump typically will be negotiated in due course. Ironically, it’s when the former manager and team dynamic has been stormy, if not hostile and hurtful, that leadership change proves most grueling and drawn out. Instead of transitional relief there’s often a mountain of new leader mistrust to overcome. It’s as if the team is reeling from a form of post-traumatic transition disorder. Under an authoritarian regime, most criticism goes underground; people may shut down or become numb. With a transition to a more participatory administration, initial reactions may range from exhaustion to emotional outpouring. Unexpressed anger from the past can get unconsciously displaced onto a new leader. Also, dysfunctional authorities have a tendency to pit one segment of employees against another, as if there are "good" and "bad" children. Favoritism (actual and perceived) and divisiveness often are rampant in such dysfunctional environments. A new manager may need to be a motivational healer.
The last couple of points evoke memories of working with a group of managers who had experienced a rash of top leadership turnover. Recent CEOs ranged from the inadequate to the sociopathic – a leader who was cruelly playing people and departments against one another. The current CEO was competent and was in fact working hard to improve both bottom line operations and morale. Yet a survey revealed a good deal of managerial discontent. The CEO was taken aback and was upset by the feedback. Two key dynamics emerged during a retreat with the CEO and the managers: 1) that the managers were willing to risk giving some negative feedback was less a sign of the actual current working conditions and more that these managers were beginning to feel safe enough with this new CEO to open up; not surprisingly, much of the anger belonged to the former regimes and 2) that the managers were actually afraid that this new CEO would quickly jump ship like her predecessors.
Knowing When to Reach Out for Help
Even when immersed in such a tension-filled team or organizational tempest, if a new leader possesses sufficient maturity and ego strength then this transitional crisis provides not just "danger" but also "opportunity." Let me illustrate. In the mid-90s, I received a call from an experienced manager. He had transitioned from a major federal government agency to the private sector. After six weeks in charge he realized that serious interpersonal issues and conflicts were consuming his team of senior analysts. This manager, I’ll call him Rich, had replaced a long-time manager. Upper management believed the previous leader had been cruising more than providing active leadership. Considering that the division was also moving from a non-profit to a for-profit mode of operation, cruising would not cut it. Also, the former head had allowed his female administrative assistant to assume an inappropriate number of his roles and responsibilities, along with his mantle of power.
Some in the senior analyst group had perceived this assistant as demanding; but they also felt she wanted to get people up to speed with the company’s new philosophy and direction. However, many in this team had been intimidated, experiencing this "dragon lady" as manipulative, power-driven and vindictive.
Adding to this complex mix was the recent arrival of a new female analyst. A number of her colleagues were beginning to see her as a threatening figure: she was ambitious and was getting close to Rich, the new manager. (Not surprisingly, some analysts were comparing her to the former administrative assistant who had finally been reassigned because of her modus operandi.)
Here’s a list of the interventions:
a. Managerial Wisdom. As indicated, I was impressed that Rich chose not to play the role of the Lone Ranger or Lone Manager during this transitional tempest. His ego didn’t interfere with seeking counsel. He also recognized that some people might need to be firmly confronted. Having a "crisis" consultant didn’t create a "good cop/bad cop" division of labor, but it did allow me to start a process that would challenge some erroneous or self-defeating attitudes and behaviors. Rich did not have to carry around the burden of being both new leader on the block and of playing the heavy.
b. Individual Interviews. One-on-one meetings were held with each of the analysts. First, this process yields important history and contextual information, for example, how others are diagnosing the problems. And equally important, people have a chance to question my role and assess my intentions, skills and style. This kind of interview process enables me to glean a composite assessment, detect any patterns of perceptions, assumptions and misperceptions. I’m also beginning to build alliances and preparing for the full team problem-solving powwow.
c. Individual Support. I spent extra time with the new senior analyst, trying to help her understand (and not personalize) some of her colleague’s subjective perceptions. Having been burned by the former female administrative aide, a number of analysts were transferring their hurt, anxiety and anger onto their new colleague.
d. Feedback and Coaching Session. Sharing my observations and subjective beliefs with Rich (the department head and supervisor of the analyst team) and collaborating on strategy was vital. We both needed to know we were on the same page. I also shared my assessment and strategy with the head of HR. Again, teams do not operate in glorious (or dysfunctional) isolation within an organization.
e. Team Meeting. In addition to sharing my findings, the team meeting had several purposes and processes, including:
1) enabling those with unfinished issues around the change of leadership to vent concerns and fears. Consider my "Six ‘F’ Model of Loss and Change" in light of this team’s recent history: a) loss of a "familiar" past, including a leader, a mission and an operational philosophy, b) grappling with an uncertain "future" regarding goodness of new task-existing skill fit, professional identity, etc., c) dealing with some reorganizational loss of "face," two potentially diminishing sources being the cruising attitude of the former division head and the "stepmother’s" psychological abuse, d) needing to regain productive individual and team "focus," e) considering new "feedback" that may challenge working assumptions or assumptions about a new colleague, and f) having "faith" that if you follow these change management and mastery steps, you will emerge stronger, better capable of vital adaptation. (If interested in this model, email@example.com.),
2) especially focusing on the unfinished hurt and anger with the former intimidating assistant,
3) clarifying the transference reactions with the new analyst, that is, mistaking Sue’s ambition and involvement with Rich as portending her becoming a manipulative or power-driven favorite,
4) allowing Sue to share her frustration and hurt from the unspoken tension directed her way, and
5) having Rich affirm his belief in my role and our problem-solving process. He also asked the group to provide him a list of recommendations regarding procedures, roles and responsibilities in light of the upcoming shift in mission focus. This would be addressed at a follow-up meeting.
As a postscript, the group did not write the report for the scheduled follow-up. This however, was not a sign of resistance, more an assertion of their readiness for real engagement. The analysts had called an informal meeting, without Rich or me present. The analysts went over the charged issues raised in the previous meeting; they had a more open and gritty exchange, finally reaching understanding and closure. Now the group atmosphere reflected a spirit of inclusion: cohesion was replacing divisiveness, and there was a growing sense of trust.
By quickly calling on outside support, by management backing up the intervention strategies, by using face-to-face interviews to lay carefully a solid foundation for engagement, this leader and team were able to work through conflicts and let go of a troubled past. And most important, these individuals were ready to come together as a team demonstrating both high productivity and meaningful support. Surely this manager made a worthwhile startup investment.
6. Macro and Micro, Formal and Informal Meetings. Hopefully, it is clear that a productive team building process involves fortifying both individual parts (or replacing ones that cannot be supervised or rehabilitated) and strengthening the whole system. In similar fashion, integrating formal and informal systems functioning is vital to an Organizational Development-Team Building process. Let’s examine three perspectives:
a. Macro and Formal. Using the outlined structures and strategies as a foundation, the team building process is now ready to expand into an OD process through interaction among the various teams or departments. This occurs when various teams of a branch or division meet on a regular basis, for example, at a monthly staff meeting. Even if having employees run these larger macro meetings is not practical (though department heads might rotate as facilitators) you can still have a wavelength section. Here the primary focus are the obstacles to coordination and negotiation among the teams or departments. Is their mutual support or more in-house territoriality and cutthroat competition? Finally, a Q & A town hall meeting is also a macro structure that can disseminate key information. Such an event also allows employees to scrutinize the knowledge and integrity of top leadership.
b. Matrix Teaming. In between macro and micro, formal and informal is the matrix concept. Representative individuals from various teams or departments meet to discuss crosscutting issues. These meetings can range from small task groups to larger gatherings. For example, one US Postal Service Plant Manager running a processing and distribution center with 6,000 employees, would have monthly meetings with 30-50 rotating employees and front-line supervisors across all operational sections. (Managers were not invited.) The Plant Manager wanted an open and frank exchange; he wanted to know what problems were occurring on the frontlines. And he wanted to know what actual or potential, formal or informal productivity innovations were in practice or just waiting for someone to give the green light on experimentation. The latter, when verified, readily lend themselves to "on the spot" rewards. Clearly, in an open system, outside organizational problem-solving structures and teams can be mutually reinforcing in a very positive manner.
c. Micro and Informal. The prototypic example is a brief, often light-hearted yet task-focused morning huddle. (A cup of Starbucks isn’t the only way to get people going. A contest for best funny story of the week is a great icebreaker or mood igniter.) Team members gather and check in with each other. Unfinished business or anticipated roadblocks are identified. Some short-term and spontaneous problem solving may occur. Five or ten minutes of this informal morning or opening shift roundup will increase people’s sense of the team picture. This collective ritual will enhance cohesiveness, morale and productivity.
Part II of this two-part series completed a "dynamic dozen" structures and strategic steps for building or rejuvenating an OD-TB process. With an emphasis on organizational development, the list in Part I included:
1) Establish Management Buy-In,
2) Initial Climate Assessment,
3) Create a Safe Workshop Atmosphere,
4) Reduce Pre-Workshop Decision-Maker Anxiety,
5) "Save the Retreat" Matrix Group and
6) Reassess Management Commitment.
The structures and strategies of Part II especially focused on the team building process, including a look at individual – employee and manager – functionality and related interventions:
1) Key Structures and Strategies for Participatory Teaming,
2) Updating Job Descriptions, Roles and Responsibilities,
3) Take Control of a Disruptive or Problematic Team Member
4) Confront Potential or Actual Scapegoating or Harassment
5) Survival Strategies for New Managers and
6) Macro and Micro, Formal and Informal Meetings.
Exploring and experimenting with these various OD-TB structures, skills and strategies will impact workplace climate and productivity, along with team morale, focus and cross-team coordination. And such a process will surely strengthen individual, team and larger system ability to…Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a psychotherapist, an international/Celebrity Cruise Lines speaker, and training/OD consultant for a myriad of corporations and government agencies. Recently interviewed by the BBC, the Doc is a syndicated writer and the author of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression. In 2003, Mark received the inaugural National Association of Social Workers-Metro-DC Chapter’s Social Work Entrepreneur Award. The Doc is also America Online’s "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap and Group Chat" on AOL/Digital City. See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com (recently cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR). Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com. Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental health resource. For more info on the Doc’s speaking and training programs and products, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-232-8662.