It’s a gift when we have the chance to assist a group that really “gets it”, again and again from year-to-year. I had that chance in 2013, helping a campus unit I had long respected with a two-day planning retreat. Not only did they bring their all of their energy and collaborative skills to bear, but over the subsequent months they carried out their commitments.
So you can imagine I was surprised when their director approached me recently for help: the group had become fractious to the point that she was devoting several hours each week to mediating conflict. The source of the trouble seemed to be significant changes that were pending from several retirements – including hers – as well as rumors of reorganizations. The mindset had deteriorated from “Look what we can do together!” to one of “What about me!!??”
I was told that a half-day had been set aside to allow this group of about 25 to talk through all of this and reestablish themselves. Although I made it plain that this was insufficient time to achieve a complete turnaround, there were ways to make it a solid start in a better direction.
The group came together off-site, and spent its time considering “action logics”, those repetitive modes of thinking that drive our behavior in certain situations. First they considered the logics implied by their good work from two years ago, and then the logics that emerged for each of them when they got hooked by stressful situations. They were then invited to each select and commit to developing a new action logic as an alternative to their current stress response. The morning’s work was conversation-based, with carefully selected times to work individually, in pairs, in small groups and as a whole group.
At the end of the session we explained that this was only a start and additional work was needed. All agreed to a suggestion of a specific daily practice that would help them develop these new ways of thinking and acting. They also agreed to meet every two weeks for six weeks – in two separate groups to keep the conversations at a good scale - to review progress and renew commitments. I agreed to attend the sessions with them.
As it turned out I had to miss their second sessions, for which one person from each group was appointed to take my place. This gap in my involvement turned out to be fortunate, for when I returned for the last sessions after four weeks away the change in them was immediately evident. People who had been reticent before were opening up with humility and describing new awareness. Operational challenges that were quick to distract them earlier were set aside replaced by stories of how they were working through things together. There were even expressions of appreciation. My assessment was that they were clearly making progress, and they didn’t need me anymore.
I later queried the director who agreed that the reflection journaling exercise had indeed resulted in positive changes within both of the groups. The focus had become one of what I personally can do to help with the transitions that are taking place rather than fear or complaints of changes that were happening. Additionally, members of the team were able to better understand from a more personal standpoint what their team members were thinking and how they were reacting to various situations. The exercise was beneficial because of the sharing of individual challenges and resolutions that could be applicable to the entire team. Based on the success of this exercise, the team decided to meet once a month to continue the discussions related to dealing with change.
In a subsequent note she added “Thank you for helping us be the best we can be. You have made an incredible difference and I hope it will continue.”