A Conference For, By And At The
Not So Common
NFC: You'll have to forgive me for being cynical. But isn't all of this common sense?
McIntyre: The sad thing about common sense is that it really isn't very common. It's common sense not to run up big balances on you credit cards, but people do it all the time. So a lot of things that are common sense in organizations, often either can go contrary to human nature or contrary to organizational reality. For example, it's common sense that people in different departments in an organization should collaborate with each other for the good of the company. But the way our organizations are usually set up, with people in different departments, they have conflicting goals just by nature of what they do. If I am in sales for example, I want to please my customers, I want to get more orders, I want to get larger commissions. So therefore when customers want a product defined in a particular way, then I want to tell them that we can do that. But if I'm in engineering maybe it's too difficult to design it that way, and I'm looking for a product that's easier to design. If I'm the manufacturing department, I want something that's easy to manufacture, so that I can meet my production goals. And that may be contrary to what the sales person is trying to get accomplished. And there are all of those built in difficulties in organizations.
NFC: Where is your energy really at, working with management teams?
McIntyre: At the organizational level, I think what I get most energized about these days is trying to help organizations actually live their values. And trying to look at the things that management teams espouse when they talk about the values we have and what our mission is. And really try to construct and environment where the people in that organization are treated in such a way, and dealt with in such a way that the people do actually live those values.
NFC: You spend some time in your book talking about trust. Is there a way to get around that word trust? It's so heavy with authority, control and burden.
McIntyre: I think the problem with a word like trust is that it's a fuzzy word. One of the things that I often will ask groups to do when we talk about trust, is to tell me what it means for them in their context. People can give you a long list of things that trust means. Trust may mean that you're not going to say ugly things about me behind my back. If that's what's going on here and we're saying ugly things about each other, than let's talk about how come that's going on. When we talk about what trust means in management groups, people will say things to me like, "I can count on you to do what you say you're going to do. I can count on you to pull your weight in a project. I can count on you to have the expertise that you're supposed to have to do this job. If you're not going to do what you said you'd do, let me know. You'll let me know up-front." It's not about my really loving you and caring about you and working to see that you're life is a great success. That's really a deeper level than you're going to get to in a work group.
NFC: I do a lot of theater work. This summer I was in a play, and at one point the young stage manager said that we should all go out to dinner so we could bond.
McIntyre: One of my least favorite words.
NFC: I wanted to jump out a window. Luckily, the director said, "You want to bond? Go home, do your work, be prepared."
McIntyre: Yes, exactly.
NFC: But there is this perception of team bonding. …
McIntyre: I wind up doing what we traditionally call team building. I have really tried to find a word other than team building. The problem is, that's the box people try to put that work in. So if you change the label, people may never ask you to open that box. When people are informed that we're going to be doing something called team building, they usually get one of two pictures in their heads. One is that we're all going to go off and have a big group hug. The other is that we're all going to tell each other what we don't like about each other. And it should be neither. Team building should be about looking at where we're going, and what we're doing well, and what's keeping us from getting where we want to go, then agreeing on how we're going to solve the problem.
The thing that makes the biggest difference is intention. If people in a group, or a management team, want to work well together, I don't care what kind of problems they're having, you can work through them. But if they don't, or if several people in the group don't want that group to work well together, then I don't care what you do, it won't. I think one of the critical things is assessing people's intentions up front. And if some people don't want that group to do well together, then you've got to deal with that before you deal with anything else. And sometimes dealing with that means that those people go away.
NFC: Along those lines, you caution a lot of times about an emotional purging. What's wrong with a good venting?
McIntyre: Nothing is wrong if someone helps you come back from it and use it productively. The problems that I talk about are from situations where groups are sometimes taken off with a facilitator and just asked to vent all of the bad feelings about each other. And then they'll tell you that's great. We've got this all out. Wonderful. But internally everybody's going, "Well that guy's a real jerk. I didn't know he felt like that about me." And you really leave things worse than they were. One place this has happened a lot is with diversity training. Let's all go in and talk about all the things we hate about all the other groups. All the stereotypes we have about them, and then say OK, now we all understand our feelings. It's over. And it's worse than it was. To me, I think that diversity training ought to end up with similarity training. We are a lot more similar than we are different. But I think it is very important for people to be able to talk about their feelings. As long as it's aimed at solving problems and making the group more effective.
NFC: That's a good point. We're a lot more similar than we are different.
McIntyre: And the more we emphasize differences, the more we have executive dining rooms, we are just not going to have that unity in the company. I think that if there's one general awareness that I could implant across the human race it would be that if little purple creatures from Neptune suddenly showed up to attack us, that's when we'd all realize how similar we all are. But we seem to see the differences first. And that's why, going back to your comment about these things being common sense, the most common sensical thing of all is to be clear about what our strategic goals are for this organization, so we're all focused on the same goal. That's one of the hardest things to keep management teams doing. Focusing on the common objectives.
NFC: What one word of advice would you give to everyone out there working with management teams?
McIntyre: Probably the most important thing I'd say as they're working with these groups is to try to create an environment in those groups where people can talk to each other openly. Often the problems I see in management derive from people either not taking the time to talk to each other or knowing how to bring up difficult issues.
NFC: What has been your greatest frustration in working with managers?
McIntyre: My greatest frustration is executives who will not deal with management performance problems. There seems to be a reluctance, once people get to a certain level of management, to handle their performance problems the way you would handle performance problems at a lower level. And they either put up with the problem and let it go on forever or they just fire them. That is probably my greatest frustration. Higher level managers being unwilling to manage the performance of their direct reports effectively. Because then, you have people on management teams who are either incompetent or unbearable. Then the whole team gets screwed up. They have what I think of as a toxic person. If you have a person who is not just bothersome, but a truly toxic person, you poison the whole team. Because the team sucks up so much energy dealing with that person, that they just don't have the energy to deal with other things. It's common sense to say this person is screwing up the team, you should get rid of them. But it's amazing how often these leaders, who are in these great positions of power and authority, are afraid to do that. If we all followed common sense, we would all have a lot fewer problems. But we don't.
NFC: What keeps you coming back to a job that can be so frustrating at times?
McIntyre: I think there is something kind of masochistic about those of us who like to do this work, because I have to say, when confronted with a team with difficult problems, it's the challenge. I kind of enjoy that. And I've had people apologize to me and say it must have been such a terrible group. And I say, "No, it was interesting." I've always said that we spend way too much time at work to not have that be a pleasant and enjoyable experience. I think if you can help people work together more effectively and make that work experience more positive, then you feel pretty good about how you spent your day.