The trivial details – names, and the like – in this case study have been changed to preserve our client’s anonymity.
12 engineers make up the operations team supporting the IT department of a large school with 25K employees.
“You undercharged me.” — Jack, the Team Leader
When Jack, the Operations Team leader, reached out to us, he cited communication and cohesion challenges on his team. We soon learned that he was understating the problem.
Interpersonal tensions were so extreme on Jack’s team that he was frequently physically ill before, during, and after staff meetings. Just imagining being in the same room with all those people at once, with the strife he experienced weekly in that room, caused him to vomit. Jack gave us this example of the tension level:
Mark requires Margaret’s work product to complete his own work. Mark won’t talk to Margaret directly, however. He won’t even look at Margaret. She won’t even say, “Good morning,” to him. Instead, when Mark needs Margaret’s work, he asks Gary to get it. Gary goes to Margaret. Margaret rolls her eyes. Gary rolls his eyes. Mark sits at his desk, drumming his fingers waiting for Mark to return so he can get back to work.
What an unnecessary and destructive waste.
On his wall, Jack had posted an acronym of traits he and his team had committed to embodying. While I’ll keep the acronym to myself, to protect the client’s anonymity, I will say that one of the traits was, “professional.”
I complimented Jack on some commendable ideals and asked out of curiosity, “How do you guys define ‘Professional?’”
He answered, “You know. Everyone knows what ‘Professional’ means.”
“Sure,” I said. “You know what it means, and I know what it means. But the problem is that we each have different definitions. But we assume that our own definition is universal.” I laid out a scenario:
Betty and Dave are standing outside their cubicles, talking about their weekends and their kids, and laughing. After about a minute, Stan gets very irritated. Don’t they see him trying to work in the next cube over? They’re so loud. Why don’t they just get to work? It’s work hours. To Stan, they are clearly unprofessional.
Meanwhile, Betty and Dave both wonder why Stan — who is sitting right there — hasn’t joined the conversation or even said hello. It’s clear to them that a little light conversation on a Monday morning reacquaints them with each other. It lubricates the professional relationship, and gives them insight into each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and what stresses or joys from their personal lives might affect their work today. Stan, however, seems to be giving them snide looks and is muttering something under his breath. To Betty and Dave, Stan is clearly unprofessional.
“Yes,” Jack yelled when I had finished my short story. “That’s my team.”
Beyond helping teams define important terms and values so that everyone’s on the same page, we explained to Jack, we also help to establish a foundation of empathy — as a habit — between people. Each person’s perspective helps to create a rich and well-balanced vision for the team as a whole. There’s a bit of one of my father’s favorite jokes in the training we offer:
Two arguing men in the community come to the Rabbi to ask him to settle their dispute. The first explains his perspective. The Rabbi replies, “You’re right.” The second argues his case. The Rabbi says, “You’re right.”
The Rabbi’s wife, overhearing all this, says, “He’s right? And he’s right? How can they both be right?”
The Rabbi shrugs and says, “You’re right too.”
Soon after our first meeting with Jack, we met with his team for the first installment of their training. We were there, ready to begin the training on time. For the first time in our company history, however, we did not start our training on time — even with everyone in the room. The first 5 minutes of the training time were spent in an argument.
Kerry was certain that the training had been scheduled for 3 hours. Sally rolled her eyes and said, “I saw that in the last email, but every other email (and the calendar invitation we all got) said 4 hours. 3 hours was a typo. It’s 4 hours.” Kerry insisted it was three. Sally repeated that it was four. This went on for some time with only little variation. Jack, their boss, sat between them, bemused. We, The Yes Works trainers, sat before them, diagnosing the patient and seeing first hand the disfunction that Jack had described.
Each was so focused on being right (and in Kerry’s case, on going home), that they completely overlooked the authoritative resources in the room that could have settled the argument. We were there, looking at them, and would gladly have shared what our intentions were as the trainers (and what we’d been paid to do). Their boss sat only feet from them — between them — and could easily have defined the expectations. But neither of them asked him, and he didn’t interrupt to resolve either the content of the dispute, or the context of the dispute.
Kerry seemed committed to reading any ambiguous communication to him “in his own favor.” Evidently, he defined “in his own favor” as whatever would have him out of this place and this activity the fastest. Sally seemed committed to using the power of her reasoning to defeat Kerry’s wrong-headedness. Jack seemed disinclined to intervene. He did not assert his authority about a matter that had an authoritative answer. He did not bring his employees back to a focus on in purpose instead of self-interest.
When the dust eventually settled, we began our four hour training.
Some of the team was excited to have us there, and participated from the first moments with gusto. Others, like Kerry, were there because they had been required to be there, and were reluctant. Within minutes, however, we had the entire group on their feet. They laughed. They moved past some fears. They saw new sides of one another. They all went through quite a mental workout, each person going through multiple reps of practicing the principles that define our business-relationship training. Many of them did and said things they would not have anticipated doing. All of them participated equally. Kerry was completely involved.
Stay tuned next week for the exciting conclusion…