Do simmering issues on your team prevent smooth group efforts?
Maybe there’s past ‘bad blood,’ or one party imputes negative motives to the other. Perhaps a dominant personality habitually runs roughshod over the ideas of the other, or two team members have become avatars for two different factions.
For example, in one organization, disagreement in philosophy between two board factions was harming working relationships in the entire organization. The tensions affected the staff mentally and emotionally, and the board members had no clue. As I facilitated their retreat, I had the opportunity to show them the effect of this tension and help them craft a way to deal with the disagreements.
This is a common situation. As a group, you have to work together, but you know there are issues that could derail the process. What can you do?
You need a neutral navigator
A trusted, neutral person – an internal or external facilitator – can address the underlying tension. They help the parties recognize that the tension isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but has to be attended to or it will affect the entire organization.
Several key steps make this trust possible.
- The facilitator must be viewed as neutral. Whether internal or external, the facilitator has to be seen as not favoring one party or the other.
- The facilitator must have a personal, confidential conversation with each party to the decisionmaking process. Whether in-person or by phone, by interviewing each party no one person feels like they have been singled out. Through these confidential conversations the facilitator begins to lay the foundation of trust, and hears how the parties talk about the simmering issues.
- In the meeting, the facilitator identifies the task at hand and gets agreement that this is its purpose. This establishes that there is a higher goal they are all aspiring to.
- The facilitator builds on the individual trust relationship by creating a safe space within the group. This means starting with noncontroversial topics and using techniques so each participant has an opportunity to talk about something personally meaningful. Often, the facilitator can bring the group to agreement about the ultimate value of the organization purpose; this lays the groundwork for a discussion of how the tension is harming their work towards this goal.
Address the tension
- The facilitator brings up the simmering disagreement themself. This is very important. After reiterating and getting acknowledgement that this is a safe space, the facilitator states they’d like to bring up something they heard from several people in the confidential conversations. Then, without naming names, they relate what they heard and the effect it has on the entire organization.
- The facilitator states that tension, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Tension can make for a more robust examination of issues. It is how it is dealt with that’s important. Reiterating the tension, the facilitator asks for situations in which this tension has affected the organization’s operations, and how it is currently dealt with.
- The facilitator’s questions avoid laying blame AND avoid placing responsibility for the solution. Once the group acknowledges the tension, the next question is “what can be put in place that will make it easier to deal with the tension?” This phrasing reinforces the neutrality and extends the trust relationship. No one person is singled out. It conditions participants to think of solutions without implicating a particular person. It is not, “what can Joe do….,” but indicates that they can all implement a system that relieves the situation.
- The facilitator continues this discussion, documents the solutions, and uses techniques for coming to consensus on the process they will follow in the future when the tension arises. At the conclusion, the process is documented and distributed.
Relax and work toward a solution
The key is having a neutral, trusted individual facilitate the discussion. Whether using an internal or external facilitator, each participant knows that they will be treated fairly and not singled out. Members of the group can then relax and work together toward a solution.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a multi-day retreat or a half-day planning session. Without attending to underlying tensions, they can derail getting consensus on decisions.
What’s going on in YOUR teams? Can attention to tensions make your work smoother?
Get in touch for a conversation about how facilitation can make your work easier. Or sign-up here for more ideas about managing boards and planning.
“It is crucial….to identify aspects of the process that worked well and why, and changes to the process that will improve success in the future.”*
If you do 10 things in a day, and 9 of them go fabulously, which one do you focus on? Right. The one thing that was a bust. People seem to find it easier to complain than to acknowledge things that are going well.
The same thing happens when we debrief after a program, project or event. The default feedback I hear from clients seems to be, “well, in general it went well but……” followed by a litany of things that went wrong. “
We focus on the things that didn’t go as planned. Or rather, we focus on the things that weren’t planned at all. The things that went wrong. The unanticipated malfunctions.
We glide right over the first part of the feedback, “in general it went well…” and dive right into trying to fix what went wrong. Worse, we lapse into the blame game – “who messed up?”
What we don’t do is spend time on what went right.
What if we asked a different set of questions? What if we held off the negative dissection, and first asked these questions:
- “What was the biggest success of the night / event / program?”
- “What did we do that made that happen?”
- “What else went right, and What did we do to make that happen?”
- “What can we learn from that?”
- “Is there anything we did that we can transfer to other programs/ projects/ events?”
Observe, acknowledge, and deconstruct the success.
Only THEN move on to what could have been done better. In fact, avoid the blame game completely by asking,
- “What ‘changes to the process will improve success in the future?’”
These words from Barry Lord and Gail Lord, in Manual of Museum Management, offer a positive way to improve on any program or process. It acknowledges that things could be better than they are – no matter what level they start at.
Framing the ‘what went wrong’ question to focus on process instead of who avoids laying blame on a person, and starts the brain working at analyzing procedure.
This applies to every process. From board evaluations to gala events; from personnel reviews to budget analysis; from Thanksgiving dinners to conversations with a partner. It acknowledges that things could be better – more successful – and moves the conversation to developing conditions for success.
Next time you do a debrief, start with the positive. THEN STAY POSITIVE. Watch how much more thoughtful the discussion can be.
Click here to receive more tips and thoughts on board relations, planning and nonprofit management; or get in touch for a no-obligation conversation about how you can improve your board meetings.
*Barry & Gail Lord, The Manual of Museum Management
What makes you different from another institution? Why are there 5 different gardens? Why 8 different homeless shelters? Why 6 different animal welfare organizations?
What are YOU?
Can you answer that question without resorting to “we are not them?” A lot of things are not them. What are YOU?
If you can answer that question, then you can lead your institution, making decisions that affirm your identity, while discarding those that are at odds with who you are and aspire to be.
If your staff can answer that question, then your identity becomes implanted in the minds of your clients and stakeholders, because their every act reflects that conviction of who you are.
If your board can answer that question, then they can stand in front of legislators, funders, neighbors, and friends, and affirm your identity in the minds of your community.
This is who you are
It is this identity that you bring to the table when collaborating with your peers. In collaboration, you each bring resources and skills to the table. How do your peers see themselves? What is their identity? What do they bring to the table? How are you complementary?
It is this identity that colors your pitch when you talk to government officials, about how you and your peers can work together, knowing who will bring which skills and expertise, and why each of you are necessary.
You can see this at work in America’s Garden Capital. The Philadelphia area is considered America’s Garden Capital, with more than 30 public gardens, arboreta, and historic landscapes within 30 miles of the city. They’ve joined together to promote the region, while retaining their own unique identities. One promotes native plants; another has manicured French and English style formal gardens; another mixes outdoor sculpture with extensive grounds.
This is how you make decisions
With firm identities, they promote themselves individually and collectively, boosting their attendance. If an opportunity comes along that doesn’t match their identity, it is easier to reject the opportunity, and actively seek more suitable opportunities. If there are five conferences to which they could send their staff, they consider which ones are most congruent with furthering their mission – the decision is easier to make. If funds are limited, they consider which capital improvement supports their identity, and decide accordingly.
Understanding what defines your organization and what you stand for is a critical foundation for decision-making. It is part and parcel of manifesting your values and priorities in the direction and actions you take. It creates a unified understanding of who you are, across board, staff, constituents and community.
Affirming this identity is integral to a solid strategic planning framework.
What’s your identity?
What does it take to build inclusion instead of diversity?
I started this weekend with a tentative blog post, but when I watched this video I was blown away. I have to share it.
This conversation among inclusion and leadership consultants Desiree Lynn Adaway and Ericka Hines, facilitated by Creating the Future founder, Hildy Gottlieb, is one of the most impactful and inspirational conversations I’ve watched. At an hour long (less if you listen at 1.25X), it is both thought provoking and inspiring….and a little daunting to contemplate.
- What does it take to move a company, a house of worship, a government department, a nonprofit organization, a community from giving lip service to diversity to being inclusive?
- What does it make possible when you do make that move?
- What do people need to understand, to be assured of, to feel, in order for them to make that move?
What would it make possible for your organization if YOU make that move? What would you need to have in place to make that possible?
It’s hard to write a blog post in December without somehow bringing in the winter festivals. They are hard to ignore. Whether we observe a festival or not, we get caught up in end-of-year fundraising appeals; endless staff, neighborhood, organization and family parties; last minute shopping, travel and cooking.
Yet with all this busyness, it is also a time when, regardless of your faith, it is a little easier to see the good will in others.
So today I refer to an earlier essay on Presuming Good Will. Originally written in 2010, the message still resonates.
No one is on a board of trustees because she wants to see the agency die. No one is on a board of directors because he wants to run it into the ground.
There may be strong disagreements, but it’s important to assume the disagreement is based on good intentions, and presume good will on the
part of the ‘other.’
Let’s use this time of year to really see the good will in our colleagues, friends and family. Let’s recognize that we can all agree that we want what’s best for our organization, even if we may not agree on what that best is.
Then let’s bring this perspective with us into the new year, and remember the good will we share as we build towards our respective visions for our communities.
If you are celebrating a holiday this season, I hope that it is warm and meaningful. If not, may you find the time to enjoy the lights and festivities that others provide.
Happy New Year!
Learn more on building a team out of your board members, and bringing together board and staff at www.detwiler.com or reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Congratulations! You’ve built a board with members of every decade of adult life. You have 20-somethings, 50-somethings, 70-somethings, and every decade in between.
Now, how do you strategically take advantage of the fresh ideas while integrating them into existing relationships?
Losing institutional knowledge has dramatic consequences. Leonard, Swap and Barton researched the consequences in corporations, with great lessons for nonprofits. Losing the knowledge of a resident board expert can mean losing key relationships with donors, losing key background on why the community is wary of the agency, not knowing whom to call in important government offices, missing important foundation meet and greets. These relationships were built up over time and the proverbial Rolodex – or CRM – can’t help.
By having a spread of ages on the board, you’ve made these consequences a lot less likely. Since you didn’t wait until all the incumbents retired, you now have a fertile field for collaboration between old and new. Make mentoring a new board member part of the portfolio of existing members and you take a step in the right direction. Ask board members to take new members with them when they meet with donors, foundations and community representatives.
Don’t be afraid that this implies to the world that the older board member is on the way out. Not at all – quite the opposite. It conveys to the community that you have succession planning built into the ethos of the agency. It builds trust. It builds confidence in the longevity of the organization. When the older member leaves the board, the new member already has a budding relationship with the foundation.
Internally, pairing new and returning board members builds trust between them. It’s hard to view an older member as a dinosaur when you’ve spent time with her one-on-one and learned her philosophy of building relationships. It’s hard to view a new member as an upstart when you’ve spent time hearing his new ideas and exchanged thoughts on how to execute them.
The relationships continue when the older board members leave. The trust they’ve built allows newer board members to continue calling on retired members, keeping them engaged. It’s a win-win-win for the organization, the board, and the individuals involved.
Putting different generations on a board together is a great first step. Building a team out of them requires strategic thought, but the benefits are manifold.
For more about nonprofit succession planning, board education and facilitation, go to www.detwiler.com, or get in touch with me directly at email@example.com. If you have an experience to share, let me know!