Going Down With the Ship

Posted by jlubans on July 21, 2021

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I seem to be stuck on this question:
How is it that some groups (at work or at a training event) speak up and offer insights vs. those that offer little and hardly speak.
Is it just the luck of the draw?
In my workshop experience, I prayed for an active participant or two. I called them my spark plugs.
Invariably, their visible engagement sparked the involvement of the more cautious.
Or, are there some groupings predictably ripe for failure?
In the latest episode of my training soap operas, I was one of a team of facilitators working with first year Engineering students.
We were on the lake shore with several teams of 4 or 5 students. Their timed challenge was to construct a raft out of supplied materials: wooden poles, ropes, barrels and their ingenuity.
At the bell, they were to float out into the lake and race around a pylon. First one around the pylon wins the day!
Obviously, we were hoping for a display of teamwork and skills like effective communication, idea-sharing, listening, accommodating different styles, and negotiating.
Once these students graduated, they would be expected to collaborate, to work in teams, and to engage with others. The design rationale for the rafting event was to give each student an opportunity to try out and build his or her group work skills.
At least thats what I was looking for.
If those skills were on display, I missed them in the construction phase. My group was hesitant with no one taking the lead.
Regardless, they managed to construct what looked like a navigable raft and lined up with several others on the lakeshore to sail off toward the beckoning pylon.
Whats the worst scenario? They all sink. You got it!
Can it get worse? Yes.
In the debrief, when asked about take-aways from this activity, there was little apparent reflection.
Debriefing provides a valuable opportunity for teams to assess possible problems in execution. Was the failure caused by one person dropping the ball or more widespread dysfunction? Was the deadline impractical? Were the objectives unclear and nebulous? Was there a lack of planning? Those are a few of the topics that could come up, but they were not mentioned.
I asked, What would you do differently? No comment.
What did you learn about yourself as a team member? No comment.
What worked? What did not work? A few mumbles.
Now, 20 years later, the lead facilitator (by the way, the most personable of persons) told me: No raft performed as I might have expected; the 'winner' swam their failed raft around the pylon and brought it 'home to victory' towed behind their swimming members.
But, he made a proviso: We did not, prior to the event, experiment ourselves to testify that 'it could be done' but that is really not the point, is it?
A highly functional cohort could have failed miserably to 'get round the pylon' but still come away with several, if not many, applicable learnings.
Were these students too worried about failing?
No doubt theyd been told that Failure is a great teacher, probably even by the Engineering faculty. Yet here was failure staring them in the face with nothing (it seemed) learned.
One teamwork researcher has found that better teams (are) simply more able and willing to discuss mistakes. High functioning teams create a climate of openness, which allows them to report on mistakes, get to the bottom of problems and streamline processes.
So, had we not provided them with a psychologically safe space in which one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes? Possibly not.
These students had gained entry to a highly selective school so they probably had good thinking skills, along with an ability to communicate ideas. Their silence in the debrief remains a puzzle.
Were they not used to working in teams?
If not, then this was a prelude to the engineering workplace, where no engineer gets to sit in a corner and work by himself or herself.
Did we contribute to the days failure? Maybe.
I could have asked the students what could I could have done differently?
Perhaps that nod toward vulnerability would have broken the dam of pent-up thoughts.
They might even suggest that it was our fault not theirs that wed set them up for failure.
Could be.
As noted, wed failed to test the ship worthiness (albeit the design was commonly used with success by many others).
What does this have to do with the workplace and problem solving?
Well, everything.
What do you, as a manager, do when your subordinates say nothing about a work problem? When they stay silent even while you strongly believe they have ideas to offer? How do you get them to unleash their good ideas? If theres an elephant in the room how do you get your direct reports to talk about that elephant?
Now, it is about here where most management writers make out a list of must dos. I will skip that!
Unlike a one-day trainer, a manager has time on her side. With time and sincere effort many of the silent can be brought around to speak up and to frankly talk about that elephant. (Bear in mind, that elephant may be you!)
In any case, your listening to others cant be fake.
Insincerity will reveal itself immediately after a listening meeting. If you ask for ideas and use none -without explanation - what do you think that says to your staff?

Like this blog? Buy my latest book of workplace fables

And, dont forget my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle is available at Amazon.

Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

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