A Stress Doc Survival Guide: Part II
Part I of this series focused on five systemic structural and individual intervention elements for surviving an uncertain reorganization or downsizing. Part II focuses on the relationship between top management, supervisors and employees as well as departments or branches. The article lists five strategies that illuminate how the team can become the nucleus for grieving and healing and the rebuilding of trust by: a) recognizing the loss of key personnel and integrating new team players, practices, emotional processing, etc., b) developing a more inclusive team decision-making process, c) coordinating new or modified working relationships in teams and departments and d) and interconnecting departments and divisions throughout the organization so all have a better sense of and commitment to the newly evolving big picture.
1. Team Meeting Paradigm Shift. Transforming a typical supervisor-driven team meeting into a gradual team building process doesn't require the group going on some touchy-feely retreat or participating in some formulaic or chaotic (that is, leaderless) TQM training program. With a little advanced coaching and group training along with some operational shifts, a team can become a catalyst for improved coordination, morale and productivity. Consider these hands on strategies:
a) Staff Facilitation -- have staff members replace the supervisor as meeting facilitator every 4-8 weeks (assuming the team meets once or twice/week).
b) Two Hats Phenomenon -- another shift involving both style and substance is having the supervisor or department head wear two hats: as much as possible, in the meeting this individual is team player first and management representative second. Surely, letting up on the authority reins may be a challenge for some managers. However, this shift can be initially uncomfortable for other team members as well. Employees who are used to deferring to authority or who don't want to risk being open with ideas and beliefs will have a steeper learning curve. Also, across the organizational hierarchy, there are individuals reluctant to assume responsibility for making decisions and being held responsible for outcomes. Such a perceptual and procedural shift requires trust and, like the phenomenon of trust, will evolve or erode over time.
c) Try a Controlled and Safe Experiment -- when contemplating innovation, establishing a time-limited pilot project often allows various parties, especially the authority figures, i.e., supervisors, managers, division directors, etc., a sense of some control with an uncertain change process.
Another useful safety feature is having a team-building consultant be a facilitator/role model for the first two or three "participatory" meetings. I recall helping an IT team at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with this process. Initially, the supervisor and team members were overly focused on my direction (and, perhaps, my approval). The analogy used was trying to teach them to ride a two-wheeler. At first, they didn't want me to let go of the bike seat. In fact, I wound up playfully hiding under the conference table so that the participants could not make eye contact with me, only surfacing if I thought they were wildly off course. Gradually, and more steadily, the group process began to cruise, this time hardly noticing my presence when I resurfaced.
2. Build In a Wavelength Segment. In a "lean-and-MEAN" climate, not surprisingly, most meetings -- from team and department to branch and division -- are short fused if not "T & T" -- "Time and Task"-driven. So while the above recommendations open up the process, the content is often still exclusively focused on goals and objectives, timelines and deadlines and outcomes and return on investment issues. Which makes sense; there's a business or organization to run. My recommendation calls for carving out ten or fifteen minutes at the end of the meeting - the "Wavelength Segment." A group member comfortable with group process initially facilitates the meeting. Then, as noted above, as experience and trust builds the role of facilitator can be rotated.
Three purposes of the "Wavelength" are:
a) Relationship Check -- this closing segment focuses on how members are relating with each other; it considers any barriers to communication and cooperation bypassed in the "T n T" section of the meeting. Group members are encouraged to vent appropriately frustrations related both to team operations and between the team/department and the larger organizational environment, e.g., other departments, executive boards, etc. Whenever possible, the manager in tandem with team reps should push up the organizational ladder issues generated.
b) Peer Recognition -- in addition, "the wavelength" is also a time and place for recognizing individual and group efforts that have heightened morale and/or productivity.
c) Restore Trust -- finally, perhaps most important, the wavelength is designed to restore trust, especially between a supervisor or manager and team members. Based on my broad organizational experience there is often a fear of speaking up (the chain of command). This fear is fueled by the prospect of being judged negatively, being retaliated against in a performance evaluation or blocked from fulfilling one's career path. Such restricted, if not repressive, environment does as much to stifle morale and induce burnout while undermining initiative and innovation as any other toxic elements or hazardous workplace conditions.
3. Plan Informal Gatherings. In a "do more with less" environment, some organizations practically dispense with meetings; others have employees feeling "meetinged to death." Either extreme is self-defeating in terms of optimal team coordination and individual productivity. Consider these alternatives:
a) Morning Huddle - briefly get as many team members together in the morning or just before the shift starts. Identify any looming surprises or crises and areas of unfinished business, or whether a team member may need extra support or backup coverage. This is a 5-10 minute "heads up," "all on the same page" gathering. And if you add some humor -- "joke of the morning" -- it can get the team off to a lively and cohesive start.
b) Communal Lunch - each Friday, one federal government branch would have lunch together. Especially if employee hours are staggered, having more than one opportunity to gather informally makes sense. For other units, Friday afternoon pizza parties serve a similar function - informal "food for thought" and laughs.
c) Chief's Cookout - twice a year the above head of the aforementioned branch, invited team members to her house for a half-day "visionary" cookout. (The food was real.) This mini-retreat setting helped the group maintain the currency of their branch vision while creatively massaging vital "big picture" goals and action plans.
4. Regular Systemic Parts-Whole Integration. At some regular interval the teams and/or departments of the division, center or entire organization need to congregate. The purposes include:
a) Installing Windows In the Silos - management sharing "big picture" information, to help employees and units see their give-and-take connection or disconnection with the whole, including the larger environment, e.g., a National Institutes of Health (NIH) center having problems getting backing for grants approval at the Institute Director level.
b) Interdepartmental Clarification and Collaboration - allow teams and departments to clarify roles and responsibilities in areas of overlap, identify potential joint venture areas, and announce hot projects that may have larger appeal or impact thereby motivating interdepartmental collaboration. And, of course, this venue will broadcast inter-team coordination successes.
c) Matrix Teaming - from parts to whole, there must not simply be top-down information flow unless in a state of urgency. (Remember, the urgent must get done now, the important is negotiated and prioritized.) If time constraints or meeting size prove unwieldy, then a matrix team comprised of a small sample of department managers, supervisors and employees across varying units should convene for task and process problem solving as outlined in the above "Wavelength Segment."
5. Autonomy and Collaboration Among the Chiefs. Competing perspectives, if not conflict, among top management or between the Executive Committee and the Board of Directors is to be expected. Actually, it's probably needed to avoid the greed and groupthink that has been fostering "irrationally exuberant," deceptive and criminal actions.
Too often, however, Executives deny or cover-up their own and/or colleagues' performance inadequacies; or long-standing personality conflicts between some of "The Big Five" (as I dubbed a federal agency Center Director, her Deputy and the three Branch Managers) lead to communicational and problem solving inertia. Now the status quo is triumphant. No one risks the conflict necessary to change and rejuvenate a tired and outmoded operating system or leadership.
Of course, when the Board of Directors is basically a rubber stamp for the CEO and the CEO is somewhat out of touch with employee discontent, then anger will inevitably get acted out. In one non-profit organization, several staff members frustrated with the Executive Director asked the head of the Personnel Committee to have the Board vote to remove the Executive Director. (A meeting between the Personnel head, staff members and Executive was bypassed.) A split within the Board over the Director's fate led to tension and recriminations within the Board, between the Board and Executive Committee, between Board and staff and between Executive Director and the disaffected staff members. Not surprisingly, both the board members siding with the Director and the loyal staff members did not look favorably upon the staff and Personnel head that did an end run on the Executive Director. It took six months of intense Organizational Development intervention to help all segments work through the hurt, anger and mistrust and to rejuvenate morale and productivity levels.
In conclusion, team coordination is critical at all levels/subsystems in the organization -- from the frontline work group to the top Executive Management Committee. Try instituting these five team building strategies: 1) Team Meeting Paradigm Shift, 2) Build In a Wavelength Segment, 3) Plan Informal Gatherings, 4) Regular Systemic Parts-Whole Integration and 5) Autonomy and Collaboration Among the Chiefs. Your company or agency will identify barriers to trust and cooperation while transforming tension and conflict into productive and creative collaboration. And, of course, these are strategies to help us all…Practice Safe Stress!