ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

August 1999


Ford Takes Road Less Traveled

Vancouver, Washington: Making Room for Double

Weathering The Storm


Conference Calling
by Peter Block


Brief Cases

Diary of a Shutdown

Views for a Change



Weathering The Storm
Facilitating Team Conflict

Ellie McGrath is talking about the experience of facilitating team meetings. Planning. Prework. Agendas. Ground rules. "You can have everything done right, but everything can go wrong in your meeting," she says. "It's because of this other dimension: the human dimension."

McGrath, an organizational development consultant with Oriel Incorporated, a Madison, Wisc., based company, helps organizations improve business performance. Almost 20 years ago, she was asked to serve on an internal team to address quality issues, worked in sales and marketing at Kodak, learned the basics, liked working with teams, later spent two years at the National Training at American University and set off on a new course.

With a polished resume like hers, you can bet she's seen it all. But that would be unrealistic. "As you get more experienced," she explains, "you're going to have some of those sessions when things go wrong." And that is the real learning experience.
Even in facilitation processes that follow a predictable course, there are moments when things get shaky. McGrath uses the familiar model: "Teams come together and they form. Then they storm. Then they kind of normalize. And then they perform. It's just something that groups go through." It's often during the storm when things can get derailed. That's when a facilitator needs to know what to look for and how to get back on track.

Stock Piling Before the Storm
Careful observation is the first step, according to McGrath. Normal behavior for one group may be abnormal for another, so it's important to get a true read. This is a tricky process, and one that must be handled delicately and objectively.

"You cannot take sides," she warns. "If you take sides in front of the group, everything that is hostile gets turned on you. So you have to have an intervention where you neutralize the situation."

McGrath lays out a simple "intervention continuum" that makes it easier to analyze which actions might be needed. "You want to follow the path of least resistance," she says. "As you move up the continuum, interventions become more and more risky."
The least invasive action is to do nothing: "Let It Slide." In such cases as a facilitator you have faith that the team will solve the conflict or that it will not have any long-term effect.

Closely related are having preventive methods in place. These may include ground rules, planned meetings and clarified purposes for each meeting. These are used to anticipate and avoid pitfalls.

If preventive methods have failed to avert difficulty, the next point on the intervention continuum is to take an indirect action. The best approach is
usually to ask some good questions: "What is the purpose of this activity?" or "Why does this problem exist?" Such questions may enable the group to get itself back on track.
A second indirect method is physical intervention. Used in a minor way, subtle actions can often defuse mounting tension or disruptive behavior in a meeting. This can include walking behind the disrupters and continuing to lead the meeting from that vantage point ("It's a technique I learned from a first-grade teacher," McGrath laughs) or asking people to change seats.

When indirect methods don't achieve the desired result, it's time to move to the more direct means of confrontation and feedback. In such cases, the facilitator changes from an asking mode to a telling mode. This may involve re-teaching a point that has been forgotten or giving direct feedback on a current situation, or engaging the disrupter in a one-on-one discussion during a break. "Good questions," McGrath cautions, however, "are better than good advice."

When all else fails, McGrath implements the final step on her intervention continuum: the emergency halt. She says, "It's the equivalent of 'Reverse engines, full speed!' " It should be used with great care, only when things have gone so dramatically wrong that they must be stopped. This could include actions that are extremely disruptive to the process or difficult to remedy. A halt should also be seriously considered when an action might alienate key people or when someone is being attacked without a group member rising to the victim's defense.

Storm Warnings
When McGrath trains facilitators, she identifies potential landmines, from the "motor mouth" who dominates discussions and the quiet member who is silent for a long time, to situations such as cheap shots when one member attacks another or digressions (which she calls "Lost in the Woods").

She offers practical solutions to each landmine. For instance, the motor mouth may be redirected by assigning added responsibilities such as recorder or by using a "pass the gavel" technique so that only the person with the gavel has the floor.

"The toughest thing is when you get a polarized group," McGrath says. "You've got two people sparring with each other and they just dig their heels in. Sometimes the group can take care of it. They might get sick of it, and they'll take care of it and you don't have to intervene at all. But in a worst-case scenario, you've almost got to call an emergency halt.

"You can do many things. Let them take a five-minute break and think about this. You can give them a question to think about. Or you can say, 'You know, Joe, that's interesting and obviously you have a lot of passion around that.' And then you turn to Sally and say, 'You've got a passion around this. Now we're going to take a break and come back and dialogue about this."'

Braving the Storm
McGrath realizes such presence of mind does not come readily to inexperienced facilitators. She helps train people to run meetings and she says many are daunted by the prospect of such challenges.

She offers a useful analogy. "This is similar to the added effort you must make when you are learning to drive a car. You are told to check your rearview mirror, your speedometer, your side mirrors, cars around you and any obstructions that may arise. Your first few times behind the wheel, this seems overwhelming."

But things change. "After a while, it's second nature." That's not to say, however that everything will go smoothly. "The only way to feel really, really comfortable is to throw yourself into it. It's like going to one of those immersion schools to learn a language."
Good facilitators, McGrath believes, need to remember one overriding point: "You have to be yourself. If you're going to use humor, if you're not that kind of person where it can come off-the-cuff, don't use it. You just have to get in touch with yourself. Find out what your strengths are. Maybe you're a great scribe: you know how to glean stuff from people and get it up there on the board. Or maybe you're a great listener. You can really reflect back. Go from that strength. Build on who you are, and you'll be a great facilitator."

August '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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