Client’s Concerns: “Strategy Meeting“
As consultants, we have already moderated the annual strategy meeting of a manufacturing company three times. Now the next appointment is due. The client is general manager of a subsidiary; the participants are the general manager himself and his department leaders. Two weeks before the meeting I drive to the business in order to discuss the details of the workshop. As soon as I arrive, I perceive a change in atmosphere. Instead of meeting the general manager as expected, the HR department leader greets me.
To my direct question about what is the matter, she initially responds with silence. Then she says that something has happened, but she is not sure if she is permitted to tell me about it and begins to cry. She tells me, visibly shaken, that the general manager has been dismissed without notice for contravention of the compliance rules, power misuse and embezzlement. One of the employees had bypassed local management and reported it straight to Head Office and during an internal examination, it was proven that this has been going on for ten years. The official version states that he has left the organisation for health reasons.
The strategy meeting should, nevertheless, take place. The business must continue and the department leaders must manage for the moment without a general manager. However, the organisation sets great store on maintaining silence about the actual reasons for this. On my three-hour journey home, I gain more and more clarity about the fact that silence cannot be one of the options. I find myself on an emotional roller coaster between disbelief, anger, feelings of guilt, compassion, insecurity, sadness and fear but also tension, curiosity and a certain ‘sensationalism’. If I feel like this, how on earth are the department leaders feeling? How are we to discuss strategy, when each participant is concerned about completely different matters?
My colleague and I hold a long discussion with the CEO, who then agrees to a compromise that individual conversations can take place before the workshop and we are allowed to find out whether the secret is really a ‘secret’. However, we agree not to address the topic actively but to wait and see what the department leaders tell us. Then we are to carry out the workshop in the way we deem correct. The “communication taboo” is thus lifted and we have the permission to reflect on the disturbing topic. As trained consultants, should we have noticed something? The question is followed by sustained silence. Then the HR manager begins to speak about herself and with it, she prepares the ground for an open exchange.
Bit by bit, each one tells us, sometimes tearfully, how they feel. This is particularly difficult, as, apart from the HR manager, they are all men. As consultants, we allow for pauses and invite them repeatedly to share their thoughts and feelings, and to call a spade a spade. We encourage and explain that everything they think and feel is permitted. Also, that it is completely ok to say nothing. At the end of the day, everything appears to have been expressed and everyone is exhausted. On the second day, the atmosphere is a little lighter. We reflect upon what it means to the team that everyone has revealed themselves and how this will now affect things. We deliver a little theory around the topics of trust/mistrust, autonomy/adaptation, leading/following etc., because understanding can give back the subjectively perceived control.
Months later, the department leaders reported that they had, during these days, “put the matter of the dismissed manager to rest”, he was no longer an issue and the collaboration in the organisation had become more open, considerate and constructive. At the same time, they had all become more critical and they now question much, which they would previously have accepted. They had learned how important it is to give voice to matters that affect everybody. Also, the process had been an extremely painful experience, which had pushed everyone to their limits and was very difficult to overcome. However, it had been “a learning experience for life”.
“Ignorance is bliss.” Understandably, this approach would, of course, have been welcome to the organisation. However, in this case, each team member had an inkling, knew diverse rumours or facts and felt powerless and at the mercy of their own imaginations. The participants blamed themselves or others and were, at the same time, ashamed for blaming someone else. In this way, destructive internal dialogues are created, the trust in one’s own competence disappears and mistrust spreads more and more. Out of shame, each one, in their own way, had withdrawn into isolation, had removed themselves from contact with colleagues and also, partly, with their own partners and friends.
Silence, and silence about silence had spread but was constantly present in everyone. Shame and guilt are among the most uncomfortable feelings that people can have. However, uncomfortable feelings are reduced if they are shared and not judged negatively and when one can explain them to oneself.
Our consulting approach was, therefore, to offer the participants a protected space, in which they could reflect upon the events, share their feelings with each other and develop empathy for each other, whilst maintaining their personal boundaries. The topic, which was implicitly taking up much space, was allowed to become explicit. Through this exchange, reality could return once more and actions could be discussed.
What actually happened, what effect did this have on our strategy and how do we ensure good, trusting contact with each other? The shared decision to discuss these topics openly and to reflect upon them and understand them, helped to relieve the pressure.
To protect our clients and customers, and to preserve their privacy, no real names are used and all descriptions of organisations and areas of work are avoided. However, the cases are real and have played out as described.