Category Archives: Teams

Accountability for Context

“Tell me more, Joe. When you are given conflicting direction from Russ and Corey, how does that impact your driver crew?” Alicia asked.

“First of all, I have a great crew,” he replied. “They are dedicated and very serious when the going gets tough. They know, at the end of this project, based on delays, there is going to be hell to pay. They know the excuses will fly and part of the blame will land on logistics.

“They also know,” Joe continued, “that, during the project, they have no control over priorities and sequence. They make recommendations, but they are not in a position to know the overall impact or changes in scope or changes in schedule. They are only in a position to move our heavy equipment as instructed.

“I keep it pretty simple. My only contract with them is that they do their best. And if, at the end of the day, the goals aren’t met, then the accountability for the shortfall must be with leadership. It is leadership that determines the schedule, sets the pace, allocates the resources and makes the decisions that determine the outcome.”

Not a Personality Conflict

Russ made his point, that the contract called for certain technical specifications. He also declared his bias, that his bonus was based on the absence of litigation related to project specifications. Alicia turned to Corey.

“Corey, the team gets confused when they get conflicting direction from both you and Russ. Russ stated a good case that we have to stick to the specs. How do you respond?”

Corey’s face was terse. “It is my responsibility to make sure this project stays on track and on schedule. Sometimes we have to make a change to prevent delays. If we don’t make our schedule, we take it on the chin with a delay claim. By the way, I get a bonus at the end of the year when we have zero delay claims against us.”

Alicia looked at both Russ and Corey, then at the team.

“So, we have conflict here,” Alicia nodded. “This conflict was first described to me as a personality conflict, but, this does not look like a personality conflict to me.” She looked straight at the team, one by one. “So, what is the problem, here?”

Conflicting Priorities

Joe explained it well. The contract with his crew was to do their best. If goals weren’t met, the accountability for the shortfall must go to their leaders. It is only the leader who is in a position to make the decisions that determine success or failure.

Alicia turned back to Russ. “So, Russ, you represent the engineering department, how do you respond?”

Russ had been quietly turning a brighter shade of red, and it wasn’t from embarrassment. “Look, it is my job to make sure that the technical requirements of the customer are met. If we make any material changes to the specifications and there is a component failure, we will take it on the chin in a lawsuit. By the way, I get a bonus at the end of every year that we are not involved in litigation.”

The Problem with Leadership

Alicia surveyed the room. Still no eye contact. The silence building like a threatening rogue wave.

“The purpose of the meeting today,” Alicia broke the silence, “is to discuss the conflict between Russ and Corey and determine what is going to change to get the project back on track.”

She had no idea what was going to happen next. This was not a move behind the woodshed, this was a move in public.

“One ground rule in this discussion,” she continued. “I am going to ask some questions. When you respond, you may only speak for yourself.”

There were blank stares as the focus shifted to the team. Joe was the first subject. He was in charge of heavy equipment scheduling and logistics.

“Joe, do you ever receive conflicting directions from Russ and Corey?”

Joe hesitated, but nodded his head affirmative.

“Speak only for yourself, Joe. What impact does it have on your work, when you observe these conflicts?”

Joe was relieved at the question. He was afraid he would be asked to take sides.

“Sometimes, it’s confusing,” he began. “I get started on one thing and I have to stop. I supervise a crew of drivers who move heavy stuff in place. When I have them start and stop, I immediately know there is a problem with the leadership.”

Stony Silence

Alicia tried not to show her anxiety. She was about to conduct this meeting in a way that was unfamiliar, against the best advice she was ever taught in a leadership class. Eleven people sat around the table. Alicia, furthest from the door. Next to her, the two Project Leaders. It was a big project.

“I want to thank you for showing up today,” she began. “And, for your participation. The Phoenix Project is important to this company and you are all well aware of its delays.” Stony silence, the team waited for Alicia, after all, she was the Division Manager.

“The purpose of the meeting today is to resolve the delays caused by this project’s leadership.” She stopped to gauge the response. There was predictable shifting in the chairs. Everyone was very uncomfortable. Not a single person made eye contact with anyone else in the room.

Finally, they were dealing with the real issue on the project.

Different Priorities

“I want to start the meeting by creating some context,” Alicia continued. “My role on the Phoenix project is to put the team together, assign the leadership, make sure there is consensus about its purpose and mission. Then, check to make sure the project stays on track.” Alicia stopped, hoping that was enough. Her focus turned to the two project leaders.

“Russ, you are the project leader from the engineering department, how do you understand your role on this project?”

Russ was quick, prepared and in less than a minute outlined his role to make sure the customer’s technical requirements were followed. There were close to 150 design specifications that would be evaluated at the end.

“And Corey, you represent the production department. How do you understand your role?”

Corey gave a brief overview of the strict time deadlines, including an example of how production decisions sometimes required substitution of materials or a change in sequence.

“And sometimes, there is a conflict in Russ’s quality agenda and Corey’s production agenda,” Alicia stated flatly. “And that is what we are here to resolve, today, the conflict between Russ and Corey.”

And that is when the silence began.

Make the Team Comfortable?

“But I was always taught, praise in public, criticize in private?” came the question from Alicia.

“Of, course, that is what the team would like you to do,” I replied. “And when you take the two project leaders out of the room, you cripple the team from dealing with the problem. The next time it happens, they will look to you to rescue them.”

“But, isn’t that my job?” Alicia pushed back.

“Is your job to make the team comfortable, or is your job to grow the team where they can solve increasingly more difficult problems? They cannot do that, when you solve their problems for them. They can only do that, when you help them solve their own problems.”

The Real Issue in the Way

“Are you kidding?” Alicia protested. “You can’t talk about personality conflicts in a team meeting like that.”

“Why not?” I replied.

“Talk about turning stomachs upside down. My stomach would be the worst.”

“Alicia, consider this. In your team meeting, if every person’s stomach is churning queasy, is it possible that, at that moment, the group is dealing with a real issue?”

Alicia turned wide eyed. “Well, duh!”

“And do you think it’s possible that, until that real issue gets solved, that no other productive work can be accomplished by the team?”

Out in the Open

Alicia looked puzzled. “But I think I really need to have a heart to heart talk with my two project leaders, away from the team. When we have that kind of friction, out in the open, I don’t think the team can be very productive.”

“I agree you need to have a heart to heart talk with your project leaders,” I replied. “But what would happen if you had that talk in the meeting instead of away from the team?”

Making Matters Worse

“Why do you think they were too scared to talk about the real problem stopping this project?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Alicia replied. “I guess I really need to work on creating a more open environment. But I think I have a personality problem. It’s hard to talk about a personality conflict in the middle of a meeting. That’s why it was so weird. We couldn’t talk about the real problem, so we couldn’t talk about anything at all.”

“So, how do you intend to create an environment where your team can deal with the real problem and get back to productive work?”

“I guess I need to pull the two project leaders aside and talk to them in private,” Alicia nodded.

“What if I told you, in the long run, that would make matters worse?”