John, the chief executive officer of a tiny startup, sat in front of his computer, frustrated. Every single one of his employees had come into his office this afternoon, angrily telling him that he needed to get his priorities straight. His announcement of an all-day meeting with a leadership coach had not gone over well. “We have five days left to get our problems solved and our site back up or our single customer is walking. We don’t have time for this squishy people stuff,” everyone had said, with greater or lesser force and formality.
“Apparently, I didn’t phrase that memo as well as I thought I did,” John thought to himself. “Well, let me try a different way.” He rang the bell that signaled an immediate all-hands gathering.
Naming our emotions helps us let them go
Ten minutes later, John stood in front of his team in their one room still big enough to fit everyone.
“Thank you all for coming. You’ve all made clear that you believe I have my priorities wrong. Let me ask you this: did you feel better after you vented your stress to me? Raise your hand if you did.”
Everyone raised their hand. Oh, not quite everyone, John saw. Marilyn, head of marketing and sales, kept her hand down. She was also still visibly seething.
“Okay, thank you. How many of you would still be grumpy about the offsite if our site was working perfectly and we had customers ten deep waiting to be onboarded?” John asked. About half of the room raised their hands. Including Marilyn, this time.
“Okay, thank you again. One more question: how many of you got past my first sentence, where I announced this workshop and its focus, and continued on to read the details?”
A few people raised their hands this time. Three, to be exact.
“Great. One last question—for real this time,” he said, hoping to head off half-joking complaints about his inability to count. “How many of you are feeling quite stressed?”
Everyone raised their hands this time, including himself.
Chris, one of the engineers, stood up. This was such an unusual event that everybody turned around and goggled. Chris never spoke up in meetings. “Why are you making us take a full day to hear someone lecture us about group dynamics, if you are as stressed as the rest of us?” he asked, utterly astonishing everyone.
Knowing how each other works best helps us all work better
“Let me ask you a question back, Chris,” John replied. “How comfortable are you with making quick decisions?”
“I hate it. They never turn out well for me. I need time to consider all the angles and determine what feels right to me. Otherwise, I am never certain whether I made the right decision.”
“How many of you knew that about Chris?”
No one raised their hands.
“What is most stressing you out right now, Chris?” John continued.
“Not having that time,” Chris replied promptly. “I have too many decisions, and everybody wants answers yesterday.”
“What would most relieve your stress?”
“Give me one place to go for all the questions you all need me to answer. Give me clear deadlines and priorities for each question. Let me know what you think the answer should be.”
“Anybody have any questions for Chris?” John asked the group. Marilyn’s hand shot up. “Yes, Marilyn?”
“Why do you want to know what we think the answers should be?” she asked Chris. “Clear deadlines and priorities, that’s obvious why you want those. But why do you want to know our opinions? We’re asking for yours.”
“So that I know whether I need to spend any time on your question. If your proposed solution seems good enough, I can just say, ‘Yes, let’s do that’ and we can all move on.”
“That makes sense,” Marilyn said. “Thank you, Chris.” John was surprised to see that Marilyn seemed almost calm now.
“How many of you have similar requests?” John inquired. Most of the team raised their hands. “How many of you realized you did before Chris made his?” A few people kept their hands raised. Everyone looked thoughtful.
Interpersonal effectiveness is critical to business effectiveness
“This is why I’m having us take a full day away from our work,” John said. “I’ve been going through our recent defects and status updates. I see a lot of talking around and across each other. I see a lot of confusion over what was actually said and decided. I see a lot of people flexing way outside their preferences. I don’t see us taking time to understand each other. I don’t see us questioning our decisions. I don’t see us laughing and playing and having fun. Even the foosball table walked itself into my office and told me it is lonely,” he finished up. This got a few guffaws and more smiles.
“We have to be working at the top of our game if we are going to succeed. We have to sustain that over the long term. We have to change the way we work, or we aren’t going to have any work.”
Randi, one of the admins, raised her hand. At John’s nod, she called out, “I love everything you are saying. I’m one hundred percent on board. And, it’s going to throw us into chaos. We will be working more slowly for maybe a long time before we can go fast.”
“You are absolutely right,” John acknowledged. “That’s why I’ve been talking with our customers. I’ve explained my plan and how it will affect the time frames for delivering our next release. I’ve also made clear the difference I believe it will make in the quality of that release, and every release after that. And in our ability to move fast and quickly respond to their requests. Every one of our customers agrees and backs this approach.”
The result flows through to your customers
“What do you mean ‘customers’?” someone yelled, accentuating the ‘s’ on ‘customers.’
“That’s the other reason I called this meeting,” John said with a broad grin. “Five more customers signed letters of intent today. Several of them specifically due to these changes we are embarking upon. They have been worried about our product quality just as much as you all have been. They all believe we’re on the right track. One even is going to make similar changes in the way they work.”
Cheers, hoots, and hollers broke out across the room. The collective stress level visibly went down. John even saw a few smiles appearing here and there.
Then Adam, head of product and whom everyone called ‘Spock’ because of his insistence on rationality and logic in all things, raised his hand. John waved at him to proceed. “This all sounds great. But, you know, John, I specifically went into software so I don’t have to deal with emotions. I’m not sure how I feel spending an entire day talking about them.” Everyone laughed.
Brinda, one of the testers, called out, “I’m with you, Adam. I stay as far away from emotions as I can. Let’s meet after and build ourselves a shield so we can survive this day of getting in touch with ourselves.” This time, everybody laughed heartily.
Building interpersonal relationships sharpens everyone’s saws
“Okay, people,” John brought the focus back to him, “any more questions about the offsite?” No hands went up, John was happy to see. “Great. I’m sure not all of you are completely sold on spending time on this workshop. We’re about to change a lot about how we work with each other. It may be frustrating and confusing at times. I believe the result is worth the trouble, and I believe you are coming to believe that as well. We’ll talk more about all this in the offsite, and after. For now, it’s time to celebrate our new customers. And, maybe, remind the foosball table that we still want to be friends.”
John relished the happy chatter as the meeting disbanded and became a party. “We have plenty of work ahead of us,” he thought, “and plenty of room now to travel it. I can’t wait to see where we end up, and what the view looks like from there.”