Don't Leave Them Standing in an Empty Room
By Trudy Triner
As all corporate trainers know, there are very few leadership training activities that have an absolutely predictable outcome. But as I traveled around the world for a large Boston-based training and consulting organization, there was one activity that did. I referred to this activity as a "thrilling" experience as I introduced it to groups in France, Mexico, Hong Kong, and Hawaii. In truth, it was probably more thrilling for me to watch than for them to participate. But the learning was always profound, if sometimes frustrating and even a tad annoying.
Here's the activity. A class is divided into two groups: one is Management, the other is Staff. They are told that, working together, they must solve a physical challenge. That challenge requires Staff to complete a series of physical moves with their bodies, much like a Chinese checkers game. However, only Management is given complete instructions for the task. The two teams are in separate rooms. Only one person from Management can enter Staff's room at a time. And the activity begins.
Here's what happens time and time again. Management works diligently to solve the problem on paper in their room. They sweat. They try options. They even try moving pieces of paper or sugar packets or pencils to represent the Staff. Meanwhile Staff members wait and wait and wait. They begin to conclude that Management is trying to trick them or make fools of them. As time goes on, they begin to get angry. They disengage. Some start to read the newspaper. Others plot revenge and vow to do nothing Management asks. When a Management person finally appears, they usually have paper and pencil in hand, scribble a few notes, totally focus on the task, ignoring the people, and retreat to share their findings with their Management team as they continue to struggle to solve the problem. And so it goes, most often until the allocated time expires. The problem remains unsolved. Staff is frustrated and sometimes angry. The debrief is rich, but often emotion-laden. "Why did you treat us so badly?" Staff will ask. "We were just busy trying to solve the problem," Management says – truly surprised, and somewhat hurt, that their efforts weren't more appreciated.
The secret to success in this exercise, which is almost never discovered, is for Management simply to explain the problem to the Staff and ask for their help in solving it. Staff members become intrigued. They become engaged. They try alternative moves with their bodies and within a few minutes, they solve the problem. They are proud. Management is impressed and relieved. Everyone wins. And it almost never, ever happens!
I was reminded of this activity and its vivid demonstration of the futility of management trying to solve important problems without engaging staff when our Senior Leadership team asked for a training program that would help managers understand the need to engage employees in solving some of the most important challenges in our health-care organization. They wisely understood that without that engagement, it would be very difficult to meet the challenges in store for health care in the coming years.
We partnered with Richard Axelrod, co-author of You Don't Have to Do It Alone: How to Involve Others to Get Things Done, and designed a half-day program for our 650 leaders, managers, and supervisors. We called the program, Engaging Staff to Lead, believing that the ideal was to have staff become so involved, they actually led the improvement effort themselves. And it worked. We saw dramatic improvements in service scores and other important metrics.
After the training effort, the coaching and reinforcement began. During coaching sessions with managers who might be having trouble with staff engagement, I asked them, "How are you learning what's important to your staff?" "How are you supporting them in reaching their goals?" "What do you do to demonstrate your understanding of the world from their point of view?" "How are you demonstrating your appreciation for their efforts?" "Are you providing as much feedback as they feel they deserve?" And, "Are you providing a motivating challenge and empowering them to solve their own problems?"
A light bulb often goes off as managers answer these questions because these are the types of management behaviors that lead to staff engagement. I love those forehead-slapping moments when they realize they've neglected one or more of those elements of engagement. And they love walking away with a plan to engage their staff more fully and avoid all the negative ramifications of leaving staff standing in a room waiting for management to solve all the problems in another room. That is truly a lose-lose situation to be avoided at all cost.
Axelrod, R. H., Axelrod, E. M., Beedon, J., and Jacobs, R. W. 2004. You Don't Have to Do It Alone: How to Involve Others to Get Things Done. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishing.