It’s happened again. You attempted to address an organizational problem by bringing in the experts. However, the workshop was an abysmal failure.
Noting that you were having a difficult time recruiting and retaining women and people of color, you decided to do something about it. You hired diversity experts to conduct a diversity workshop. But it was a disaster.
Your staffers were rude and provocative. Even your star performers appeared disinterested. A few took a snooze. You were frustrated and embarrassed. Still worse, afterwards, they lamented that they had “plenty of work to do and didn’t need a workshop that was a complete waste of time.”
More disconcerting, they complained that they were tired of being used just so you could “put a check in the right box.” The latter accusation made you angry and hurt your feelings because that was hardly your intent.
As you reflect, you recognize that their seeming imperviousness to input and education isn’t just about diversity. You recall that a few months ago, in response to endless griping about “morale problems,” you arranged for a workshop devoted to resolving workplace conflicts. Following a mandatory day of games, listening-skills training and discussions, your staffers were angrier and more frustrated than ever.
An astute and thoughtful corporate leader, you, too, were disappointed, disparaging that the workshops were costly and “nothing changed.”
As you contemplate your failed training and education efforts, you’re puzzled as to why they were so unhelpful.
You can’t understand why your staffers seemed so uninvested in your laudable goals of increasing diversity and building a more “open and constructive” corporate climate. You’d like a more diverse atmosphere. As importantly, you’d like to be able to welcome staffers of all stripes into a friendlier and more receptive workplace.
Diagnosis before treatment
Your efforts might have been unsuccessful because you attempted to solve a problem without first clarifying its genesis.
A surgeon would not attempt to perform surgery without first taking a careful history, completing a physical and ordering blood work. So too, corporate leaders are on perilous turf when they attempt to implement interventions without first identifying, delineating and conceptualizing the nature and scope of the organizational difficulty. Before performing surgery a physician must make an accurate diagnosis. Similarly, before intervening a corporate leader must make a careful organizational diagnosis.
Workshops succeed when they are designed to effectively address a thoughtfully articulated concern or goal. Many experts develop workshops on a particular topic and deliver these workshops across an array of settings. Although the workshops might be informative and interesting, it is unrealistic to expect them to automatically resolve organizational conflicts.
Beyond this, it is important to appreciate that some corporate leaders use this very strategy to appear as if they are complying with an organizational or legal mandate when, in fact, they have no interest in or commitment to any real change. So your staffers’ cynicism, while perhaps unwarranted, might be understandable.
Bringing in boilerplate programs to address certain concerns or teach specific skills can be useful as part of a more comprehensive, coherent plan to address a particular, previously identified, difficulty. But in the cases detailed above, these “one size fits all” workshops likely were unsuccessful because the workshop leaders lacked a comprehensive understanding of the nature and the genesis of the corporate dysfunction.
So how might a corporate leader make more effective use of organizational expertise?
Listen to your corporate body
Ideally, before contacting an expert, the leader should take stock.
Consider the two scenarios described above.
In the first case, the leader needs to ask: Why does this organization have difficulty retaining diverse employees? What happens when we recruit, interview, hire and attempt to retain women and people of color? Is there anything about our corporate environment that makes it difficult for these individuals to thrive? Are there external challenges that contribute to the situation? Do these difficulties relate to shortages of available talent? For example, in the case of an engineering firm, is there a dearth of female and minority graduates with those majors?
Similarly, in the workplace-conflict example, the corporate leader needs to define “poor morale.” How are these morale problems manifested? Is there backbiting? Are employees making end runs around their bosses, or is there some other sort of organizational difficulty? What is it, specifically, that you as a corporate leader want to address?
This homework is critical to organizational change. Often the answers to these crucial questions are not apparent. Here, consultative input can be extraordinarily helpful. In fact, this is the optimal time to involve your consultant. See if the consultant can offer any useful hypotheses on the nature of your difficulties.
Meet before you treat
In this undertaking, be careful to set your consultant up for success. Choose someone you trust. Ask for confidentiality and provide as much information about the situation as you can.
This is the start of a potentially useful consultative relationship. It’s an opportunity to assess whether this consultant will be helpful. If the consultant doesn’t offer an illuminating perspective, odds are the workshop will not resolve your conflict.
Some corporate leaders are reluctant to meet with the consultant before committing to a particular course of action. However, often change starts at the top, and there’s a cascade effect.
If the corporate leader isn’t willing to talk with the consultant, staffers get the implicit message: It’s not really a serious concern. And they follow suit. So skipping this will likely doom the consultative effort to failure, albeit inadvertently.
In fact, this step is so essential that many skilled consultants will not work with corporate leaders who aren’t willing to participate in this process.
Often, a good organizational assessment leads to a decision not to intervene directly with staffers. Instead, the consultant might meet exclusively with the corporate leader to help to deepen the leader’s understanding of the company’s corporate culture and identify steps that can be taken to make organizational changes.
When consultants do offer workshops, they are used as an adjuvant to this sort of consultation and are frequently conducted in collaboration with the corporate leader.
This sort of approach can support the corporate leader in solidifying and strengthening relationships with staffers. More solid relationships, in turn, provide an excellent foundation for building a healthy organization.
Individuals or organizational leaders who are interested in consulting me are welcome to call: 301.656.9650.