I was on the phone with Jane, the managing director of a creative firm. She was clearly frustrated. Relations between the account services team and the head of production (“Bob”) were at an all-time low. People felt anxious about talking to him and would avoid him if possible. A few had even threatened to quit. The “drama” was a distraction from business. Jane wanted people to be able to work together collaboratively as a team. She was tired of responding to complaints about Bob and wasn’t sure what to do. And she wanted a quick solution before key staff members left for vacation.
Preparing for an Intervention
Pam and I met with Bob. While he knew there was a problem, he didn’t seem to understand the effect that his behavior was having on the others. As far as he was concerned, he wanted to do a good job and make sure the company put out a good product. He understood that he could sometimes get impatient, but he thought that things were being blown out of proportion and that the people in account services were simply too sensitive. He was willing to work with us because he knew that things could not continue as they had been, and because he was frustrated that the efforts he had already made to modify his behavior seemed to be unrecognized. He was unhappy being seen as the “problem.”
Next we met with the four project managers in account services. Of the four, one got along well with Bob and had no issues with him. Another had a number of ongoing issues with Bob, and there seemed to be a mutual lack of respect between them. The other two had each experienced a serious incident with Bob in the past. These incidents continued to effect workplace dynamics because they had become the “lens” through which all of Bob’s actions were viewed. The project managers willing to work with us, and willing to sit down with Bob to try to resolve things.
Once we had buy-in from everyone we needed to decide on the right intervention for this group. Both of us have seen the harm that can come from the wrong intervention or from an intervention done in the wrong way, so we were cautious. We felt that Bob genuinely wanted to have better relations with the others, and we wanted to make sure that he would not be “shamed” by whatever we did. We didn’t want the account services team to gang up on him as this would have damaged relations further. We wanted the intervention to be as positive as possible, yet still make it clear to Bob that he needed to change aspects of his behavior. And we wanted the account services team to understand how they may have been contributing to the tension.
A Workplace Circle
After some reflection Pam and I decided to use a circle process with this group. This kind of process has a long history and appears in many cultures throughout the world. Participants sit in a circle and take turns speaking. The “circle keeper” directs the conversation by asking questions. All participation is voluntary and participants may choose to remain silent if they wish.
As the circle keeper, I slowly brought the conversation around to issues of respect and particularly respect in the workplace. With caution, members of the account services team moved away from generalities about respect and about working together and began to talk about their own workplace. The two team members who had “incidents” with Bob talked about them. It wasn’t easy, as talking about the past brought back the same emotions as the incidents themselves did. But ultimately, this release of emotion allowed everyone to move on.
As Pam and I had suspected, Bob really hadn’t grasped the effect he was having on others, or the lasting impact of the previous incidents on the current situation. When he realized that his behavior had been hurtful, he apologized.
One of the advantages of the circle process is that people end up really listening to one another. Bob heard from the others, and they also listened to him. The account services team learned that they had made some incorrect assumptions about Bob, and that some of their practices had been making it harder for him to do his job. Everyone committed to find ways of working together more effectively from then on.
I called Jane a few days after the circle meeting. I couldn’t share the specifics of what was said, as we had promised the participants that the circle would be confidential. But I was able to tell Jane that everyone had participated fully and that Pam and I appreciated the trust they had all put in us. Jane told me that things definitely had improved. People seemed less tense and better able to put their energy into work. I followed up again after a couple of months. She told me that things had continued to hold and that her job was a bit easier: “I feel like I can make other changes within the organization that will help us move in a positive direction. I can also focus my energy on other things.”
Names and details have been changed to preserve client confidentiality.