Views for a Change
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.
Stock Piling Before the
"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
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
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.
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."'
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."