My Boss is Driving Us Off a Cliff!
Oh no, I thought. This is no good.
He’s upset. He’s really upset..and openly challenging my boss in front of 90 people! This is going to undermine the whole program—and we’ve barely gotten started!
There I was. My first month on the job. My first time observing our leadership development work in-person. (Remember when we used to do things in-person?)
The goal of the program was to repair a toxic culture of distrust, silo-ism, and resentment that had taken hold within the ranks. All their top leaders were gathered into one room–no small feat. I was excited to get started, eager to make a difference. And before the day was halfway through…we were headed over a cliff!
After lunch on the first day of the three-day program, our team decided to establish some ground rules with the program participants. Some of them had checked their email and texts throughout the first session. Others returned from lunch a few minutes late. Side conversations were constant.
Kari, my boss and the program leader, laid out the ground rules regarding cell phone usage, promptness, and side conversations. You could feel the tension in the room as she shared the ground rules. Frank, a senior manager within the organization, looked visibly irritated with every word she spoke, and eventually his hand shot up in the air.
“Just so you know,” Frank said, barely concealing the annoyance in his voice, “while we’re all in here for this nice little program, the rest of the world does keep spinning. Real life doesn’t get put on hold. So, if we need to tend to some matters while we’re sitting here, to make sure our colleagues have what they need, that’s just how it’s going to be.”
My head was spinning. This is going to distract us from the important work that we need to do…it’s going to take us off course! I hoped Kari would play nice, patch it up, and make it all quickly go away. You can imagine my horror, then, when she did the very opposite of that. She went right at it!
“You seem quite angry with me, Frank. Can you say a little bit more about what is going on for you right now?”
Silence. I don’t think anyone in the room had any pins…but if they did, you would have heard them drop!
My internal monologue kicked into high gear: “It’s official. It’s all gone off the rails. And I’ve apparently I’ve made a huge mistake coming to work here!”
Frank downplayed that anything was the matter. It was clear—not just to me, but to everyone in the room—that something was obviously the matter. You didn’t have to be a performance coach to pick up on the tension. We all telegraph how we feel—if not through the words we speak, then through all of the myriad other ways we communicate. In our tone. In our body language. In our choices.
But what do we do when we know something is wrong? Most of us side-step the issue altogether in the name of civility. We gloss it over. We say “everything is fine,” hoping to convince ourselves that this is true. This was what I thought Kari would do when Frank got testy with her.
What I didn’t understand then—and what I do understand now—is that there was in fact no danger that this would take us off course. This little sidebar with Frank, in fact, was the course. This wasn’t a distraction from working out the client’s problem—this was the client’s problem.
You see, what emerged in the ensuing days is that the various stakeholders within this organization did not have a productive way to address conflict, disagreements, or uncomfortable situations. They attacked, defended, undermined, and more. Over the years, their negative opinions of one another formed, and then crystallized, and then began to play out in a vicious cycle of negative behaviors. Accountability devolved into force. Trust evaporated. A swirl of negative feelings lurked under the surface.
But no one actively brought those feelings to the surface in their day-to-day interactions. It wouldn’t be polite, they reasoned. It wouldn’t be productive. “It’s not how we do things.” Instead they put on forced smiles and receded ever further into their silos of resentment, speaking only in the back channels to those who agreed.
After some cajoling on Kari’s part, Frank finally opened up, sharing a bit of what was really going on for him. “Well,” he said, “we’re all leaders in this organization. There are a lot of people counting on us. We want to be responsive to our people. So, it’s complicated, coming in here for three days, and simply turning off. That doesn’t feel like a reasonable expectation.”
“Oh, that’s so good for me to know,” Kari responded sincerely. “Is there anything else you want me to know about that?”
“Well,” Frank continued after a few beats. “When you talk about ‘ground rules’ and such, it makes me feel like I’m back in the sixth grade, getting scolded by my teacher. And I don’t like to feel that way.”
I was beginning to understand why Kari had gone down this path, despite my horror. Frank had real concerns. About being at this workshop in the first place and the impact it would have on his people. About how Kari was showing up.
What hope could we possibly have at creating a meaningful experience for Frank—and for whoever else in the room might have felt similarly—without first addressing these concerns? Any potential for growth and breakthrough would have gone down the drain. And for what? In the name of not rocking the boat? In the name of making people feel comfortable? What a waste that would have been.
By affording Frank the space to really say how it was for him—and by listening in a way that had him really, truly feel heard—she was able to restore the potential for their work together. And once Frank felt heard, Kari was able to address her own concern, what mattered deeply to her: that the experience was a valuable and transformative one for every person in the room, and that we had a learning environment enabling each to focus enough to have that experience.
With all of the concerns on the table, Frank and Kari were able to concretize their shared commitment to one another’s concerns by putting some structures in place for the remainder of the program. For instance, if someone needed to come late to one of the sessions in order to be responsive to a direct-report, they agreed to simply check in with one of our colleagues so we weren’t left wondering where they had gone, and could plan accordingly.
When reflecting on the initial resentment that had been generated by ground rules—and the extreme reluctance to admit to those feelings—one participant remarked: “Welcome to our corporate culture!” This kind of glossing over, this refusal to get to the heart of the matter, was precisely what had set this culture into a downward spiral.
I don’t think this client is unique. As evidenced by my own squeamishness around that degree of candor, this is in many ways the norm. But if there’s one thing that is becoming clear to me when it comes to repairing discord in organizational cultures, it’s that we simply must resist the urge to tuck away our messy feelings, to avoid “going there.” Of course we must “go there” skillfully, thoughtfully, and with compassion. But go there we must.
In fact, as 2020 unfolds, I’m convinced that “going there” has never been more important. In the months since I observed this exchange, things have only gotten more tense and charged as a society. And there’s no sign of that letting up. With an election coming up, school re-opening (or not), a continued response to COVID-19, and a renewed conversation about race, we could easily make a case for retreating to our silos and avoiding those conversations. It’s too uncomfortable. It’s too fraught.
To work through these important issues, we can’t duck our heads and gloss it over, like I had hoped Kari would in the conference room that day. We’ve got to face them head on. We’ve got to dig down deep, roll up our sleeves, and courageously face these issues head on. We’ve got to see, and listen to, and acknowledge others. And when we do that, we’ll be surprised at the partnership we find waiting on the other side.