Tag Archives: teams

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?”

Whispers at the Water Cooler

“I don’t get it,” Alicia explained. “We just had a meeting on how to rescue this stalled project. No one came up with any ideas. For an hour. It was like waiting to go see the dentist.”

“So, your team didn’t isolate the problem,” I prompted.

“Oh yeah, they did, just not in the meeting. We wasted an entire hour. Only when the meeting was over, I find out, at the water cooler, the project is stalemated because the two project leaders are angry at each other.”

“Someone told you at the water cooler?” I asked.

“Oh, no, I only found out by accident. There were two people whispering a little too loud. I put two and two together.”

So, why didn’t this come up at the meeting?”

“I don’t know,” Alicia wondered out loud. “It’s like it was a secret. A secret everyone was too scared to talk about.”

A Manager’s Goal

“I thought I was very clear,” Marianne grimaced. “It was important for the team to understand and take ownership. This is a very important team goal.”

“Describe what you see?” I asked.

“Their words are supportive, but their actions are passive. There is no skip in their step, no sense of urgency, no critical eye for detail. It’s as if they are just going through the daily motions.”

“You described the project, what you are trying to accomplish. Whose goal is it?” I wanted to know.

“Well, it’s a team goal,” Marianne explained, sounding like I should have figured that out on my own. “I need the team to work together, support each other, cooperate. That’s why it’s a team goal.”

“Have you ever heard that if it’s everyone’s accountability, it’s no one’s accountability?”

That was a stumper to Marianne. A slow burn in her brain. “So, I have to single one of them out?”

“If it’s not the team’s goal, whose goal is it?” I repeated.

Marianne did not like the realization. “If it’s not the team’s goal, it must be my goal,” she flatly stated.

“And, if that’s the case, what changes?”

Written vs Verbal

Reggie was adamant. “I believe that using a written memo is the best approach to communicate my vision of the project, because it ensures consistency and allows everyone to refer back to the information whenever they need it. I feel that face-to-face communication might lead to misinterpretation or forgetting important details.”

“Written memos are useful,” I replied. “Tell me more?”

Reggie was quick to continue. “Sometimes I feel like the message gets lost or diluted when I communicate verbally. There have been instances where team members seemed distracted or didn’t grasp the complete vision during our face-to-face discussions. That’s why I thought a written memo would provide a clearer message.”

“Maybe that’s the downside of a verbal conversation. What about the upside?” I pressed.

There was a pause. Lasted forever, but silence often does the heavy lifting. “A verbal discussion, in a meeting, allows for immediate feedback on the project, understanding its purpose, its scope, its sequence. It may also surface questions that everyone has, but most are too timid to ask about. It might also create a sense of connection and trust in the team.”

“In what way could you combine both the clarity and consistency of a memo, a written description, with the improvisational value of a robust discussion?”