Is your team communicating effectively? Do you reach goals on time and without resistance? Are there subgroups that (unwittingly) restrict the outcomes? Are all voices included during brainstorming to assure the full fact pattern and set of possibilities emerges? How are communication breakdowns handled?
I thought of these questions during a recent client chat and remembered a situation I had with Los Alamos Labs in New Mexico some years back. While the tale is a bit outdated, it will serve as a starting point for my belief that team miscommunication is costly for both productivity and people, and happening more often these days with new-forming teams, remote relationships, and distance meetings. And it’s not a difficult problem to fix with a few new skills.
Here’s my Los Alamos Labs case study that might provide a few thoughts. I’ll follow it with ideas and suggestions.
LOS ALAMOS LABS
In the 1990s, Los Alamos Labs had a mailroom [Yes! We used snail mail in those days!] that sorted and delivered incoming mail – contracts, client letters, invoices, etc. It took them 6 days (6 days!) to distribute it; leadership wanted it done in one.
After months of failing to shorten the time line, leadership decided to contract out the work and fire the 26-person mailroom team. Before they took that drastic step, they brought me in to see if I could solve the problem with a team-building training program.
Speaking only to the client who hired me (Big mistake, it turned out) I created a nifty program. I arrived at the client site an hour early to observe the team in action before delivering the training. I immediately noticed much larger problems than merely team issues.
To begin with, the racial disparity was glaring: as the company was in New Mexico (a largely Hispanic population), there were 24 Hispanic (LatinX) people and two Anglos (White); it was quite obvious they didn’t speak to or listen to each other. The two Anglos stayed to themselves, never connecting in any way with the other 24 in the hour I watched them.
Next, there were cliques that operated in sort of a ballet, speaking, connecting, moving within their small groups with none of them going outside their cliques for questions, discussions, or sharing. So either their jobs were unique to each person, or there was massive inefficiency.
Didn’t seem like my team building program was an answer. I promptly threw away the program, went into the assigned training room down the hall, and put two facing chairs in the middle of the room with the rest of the chairs in a circle facing the two middle ones.
When the group came in, I told them I noticed some communication issues that I found disturbing, so before we did the real ‘training’ I wanted any personal issues resolved.
I invited whoever was having a personal issue – a grudge, an annoyance, a distrust – to sit in one of the middle chairs and invite their colleague to sit in the other and discuss the problem. I sat on the floor between the two chairs as the interpreter.
Nothing happened for 15 minutes. Silence. Then I stood up and announced I’d sit there all day if need be, but maybe the manager should begin. Surely he was annoyed with someone!
Roberto reluctantly came and sat on one of the chairs and said that instead of sharing his annoyances, he invited anyone annoyed with him to sit across from him and share their feelings.
After a few minutes, a young Hispanic woman came and sat down.
Theresa: I thought so hard about the delivery problems we were having and came up with what I thought was a great idea. But you gave me five minutes and basically didn’t listen. IT’s happened before when I’ve brought you new ideas. I’ll never bring in any new ideas again. And now we might all get fired because nothing has changed. I tried.
Roberto: I was annoyed too because I thought you were complaining about…
I stopped him so I could translate what she was actually saying:
SD: I heard Theresa say she’s having trust issues because she spent time and care presenting ways to try to resolve the problem and felt you ignored her. As the manager your job is not only to make sure your folks trust you but acquire as many ideas from your team as possible. Try a different response.
Roberto: OK! Um. Theresa: I’m so sorry I didn’t hear you as you deserved to be heard. And I’m sad I’ve not heard your ideas. I’m sure all of your ideas are certainly worth discussing. I sometimes am focused on other issues and don’t listen properly. What can I do to regain your trust? And can we set a time later this week to discuss any ideas you have that might help the group be more efficient?
After Theresa came one of the two Anglo people saying he felt the group had a racial bias against him. (Note: racial bias in New Mexico was a long-term cultural issue that affected everyone. I lived in Taos for 11 years and bear the scars.) Again, Roberto started off defending himself, but with my intervention opened up a race-based dialogue that continued within the group most of the day.
Turned out, most of the team members had grievances they shared. By the time everyone was finished discussing angers, annoyances and biases, it was 11:30 at night.
To their credit, there was great authenticity, honesty, and quite a few tears and hugs. Ideas were shared, brainstormed, listened to by all. When there were misunderstandings people were asked to clarify. Ideas seemed to have wings, flying around the room. Everyone was listening attentively and respectfully. We even had a few laughs (A few in-jokes of course, but mostly I was the ‘butt’ of the jokes for sitting so long on the floor. No idea why I didn’t sit on a chair for god’s sakes!).
On Day Two, I led the newly-formed collaboratory through ideas and plans for better communication, more productivity, sharing, and task efficiency. Within days after our time together they brought the 6-day delivery time down to one day and kept their jobs. Problem solved.
One more thing: the team took those 2 middle chairs and put them outside their manager’s office. Every time there was a confusion or disagreement, the people involved went to the chairs: “Let’s discuss this. Meet you at the chairs at 2:00.” The next year they sent me a photo of all of them next to the chairs. On one of the chairs sat a Malcolm Baldrige Excellence Award. They were holding a banner that said, “THANK YOU SHARON-DREW!”
Ahhhhh. I love my job. Although next time I used that strategy I did sit on a chair. 😊
I’d like to think that the skills involved with the final excellence were ones any team could adopt.
- Willingness to be honest and authentic regardless of the ‘politically correct’ rules of social conversation.
- Willingness to be vulnerable, admit wrong-doing and apologize.
- Willingness to be honest about racial issues and hold Truth above feelings or fears.
- Willingness to look at the problem and recognize what was working, what responsibilities they had to take to make it right, and willingness to fix it.
- The necessity of the whole team being present as witness and judge, through discomfort and exhaustion. There was no place to hide – everyone knew the truth, and it had to be spoken for the greater good, separate from roles or personalities.
- Patience to sit for 14:30 hours to resolve all the issues.
The role I played as translator was also vital. Not only did I provide safety, but it took the sting out of any blame and played a role in a meta understanding, away from unconscious human/racial biases or personal traits. Because I didn’t know any of these folks, I was not tangled in any past relationship, role, or status issues. I suspect that another outsider, from another department maybe, could have done the job. But bringing in a consultant isn’t a bad idea when an impartial eye/ear is needed.
This team was so comfortable with their long-standing cultural norms that their communication problems were endemic and led to ineffective work habits.
How many companies face the same problem? How many groups just keep on keepin’ on in ignorance or denial, making excuses and playing the blame-game with their resultant failures? How many groups only collect data from a chosen few and omit the entire population that would yield imaginative ideas that conventional leadership seems to ignore? How many important, creative, and valid ideas get ignored because of gender or race or sexual preference issues?
The cost of doing nothing is high:
- A minimization of good ideas. Client-facing employees are often omitted from company change and problem-solving because they’re not ‘on the leadership team.’ Yet they have great ideas that leadership doesn’t think of. Use these folks. You hired them each for a reason. Put their ideas into action. Your employees are your competitive edge.
- A minimization of collaboration and job effectiveness. With cliques, lack of diversity, teams bound by job descriptions and hierarchies, there’s no opportunity to pollinate new ideas, try new actions, make new norms. And without these, the company dies from its core.
- A continuation and exacerbation of problems. Accepted communication practices get factored in to the culture and become built in forever, taking failure along for the ride and causing fall-out to become normative. A well-known global software company I worked with saw no problem with treating staff and clients from a win/lose position. “I need to have control and make people do what I want. I was told to do this on my first day here.” It was endemic. Brought in to get the leadership team to work from integrity, I mentioned that Win/Win was the goal. They were confused when I said Win/Lose equaled Lose/Lose, which cost them trust and creativity and ultimately business. “But what do I need Win/Win for? I’m the one in control. They have to do what I say regardless”. Hmm. How’s that working for you?
- A colossal time waste. I recently went through a review of my state taxes due to a glitch in the system from 1994. There were 6 departments involved, and none of them spoke to the others. If I didn’t call the other 5 when something occurred, I got caught up in the lag between departments, dates, paperwork. By the time we were done we all hated each other. They asked what the rush was, that it usually took 6 months not 6 weeks (I bet!) and I just didn’t understand their system. Nope. I did not. Talk to each other! Make sure there are systems set up so everyone has the same data at the same time. In 2022 that’s simple, no?
- Unnecessary resistance: Without everyone’s buy-in, without everyone who touches the proposed solution having a say in the outcome, there will be resistance that costs unknown time, money, personal fallout. With proper communication up front, everyone is on board and has a stake in the success of the project. There is absolutely no need for resistance. If you’re getting resistance, you’re doing it wrong.
- Dimished results. Until or unless
- the full set of facts are known and gathered from the full spectrum of resources,
- the full complement of possible ideas are tried,
- the downsides are factored in before completion,
a project will not be successful. Nothing else to say.
THE TOOLS YOU NEED
Here are the necessary skill sets for effective team communication:
Unbiased Listening. This sounds much easier to do than it is. Let me start by saying that nothing has meaning – no words, no dialogues, no sounds – until our brains translate it. Like the earth has no color – color is a function of the rods and cones in our eyes translating incoming vibrations – words have no meaning until the incoming sound vibrations get translated within our neural circuitry (I wrote a book on this: What? Did you really say what I think I heard?).
In other words, we only understand what someone says according to our existing brain circuits. Listening is a neural/brain thing: we can’t hear others without bias.
For those who are curious, sound enters our ears as vibrations without meaning (i.e. not words!). They become signals that seek out ‘close enough’ circuits already existing in our brains from some prior experience and get translated accordingly.
In other words, everything we hear gets translated by our subjective experience. Sad but true. And we think we listen attentively, but can only hear/understand what our brains listen for. Obviously this is where misunderstanding and miscommunication come from. People DO listen. They just hear what their brains interpret for them according to their historic, subjective beliefs.
The easiest way to fix this problem is to say during a conversation:
I want to make sure I understood what you said. I will say what I think I heard, and ask that you please correct me so I can get it right.
This way you can take away an accurate understanding without guesswork, even if you initially thought what you heard was accurate.
Gather data from every person or you’ll not have the full fact pattern. Too often we gather data from the folks we consider ‘obvious’. not necessarily the full set of stakeholders who are part of the problem and hold some very necessary data.
So many customer service initiatives are developed without the input of the customer facing folks and omit addressing real customer needs. How many times are HR folks omitted because, well, why use HR (except that the initiative will transfer, fire, reorganize people)? Think of everyone who will be touched by the final solution and bring them in at the start.
Ask the right questions. This one is a head scratcher because conventional questions are meant to gather data biased by the needs, language choices, and goals of the Asker and which subsequently gather very restricted data from the Receiver. Obviously, the odds are good that the question will be misinterpreted. So using conventional questions will only discover some percentage of an answer.
To manage this problem, I’ve invented a new form of question (took me 10 years!) I call a Facilitative Question. Different from a conventional question that seeks answers for the Asker, FQs lead Others into their brains to discover a much, much broader set of possibilities beyond the biases of the Asker. After all, retrieving good data is a mind-brain issue. It takes a while to learn to formulate as specific words in specific sequences are used so the brain peruses its unconscious. But once you learn how it changes the arc of all conversations.
Do a congruence check. Are all team members contributing? If not, there’s a reason. Are they feeling unheard, that their ideas aren’t ‘big’ enough? Do they feel powerless? Do they feel any gender, race, or ability bias?
All voices are necessary. Bring them in or you risk restricting all that’s possible, not to mention setting up the initiative for failure and resistance.
Only hold meetings if ALL members are present! Do not hold a meeting if someone is ill or can’t make it. It biases the outcome, causes resistance, and leaves out important ideas.
IS YOUR COMMUNICATION WORKING?
I have some questions for teams to consider:
- Is your team is functioning optimally? What would suboptimal communication look/sound/act like?
- Do you have any vehicle in place to take a meta stance and discover problems without biases or defense?
- What do you have in place to ensure you’re not operating with any racial, gender, or ability prejudice? It’s inherent and unconscious. How do you test it?
- Do you regularly get resistance – either from your own team or during client initiatives? What are you willing to do to develop strategies that enable group buy-in from the full set of stakeholders (i.e. including ‘Joe in accounting’)?
- If you regularly notice dysfunction, during an initiative or with less-than-steller results, what are you doing about it?
I believe this is a problem that needs focus, especially with so much change occurring in our organizations now. Make it a priority. Your productivity, creativity, stability and integrity depend on it.