Everybody believed Paul was the problem. His teammates complained in anonymous interviews that he was overly critical and negative. They said he dominated conversations, and became aggressive when someone disagreed with him. Despite acknowledging his deep technical knowledge, Paul’s teammates said that if he left the team they would be more effective. Ouch. But Paul wasn’t their only complaint. They also grumbled about not having influence with the senior executives who sponsored their work. And they criticized Mary, the team leader, for not confronting Paul or their senior leaders. I had been hired by Mary to facilitate the development of her team. Part of my agreement with Mary was to provide the team with the anonymous input from my interviews. I commonly use this approach (called action research), but I had never heard such a hairball of negativity from a team before.
I met with the head of the European region right after a daylong meeting of a global leadership team. I asked what he thought of the decisions the team had made. He said the meeting was “the usual nonsense. We nod our heads, and go back to our parts of the world and do whatever we want.” Another client, the leader of an IT function, was told to reduce headcount by 20% but not miss deadlines on high priority projects. Despite disagreeing with the wisdom of the decision, she laid off eight programmers. She then hired a flotilla of temporary programmers to meet her schedule targets. This ended up costing more and led to lower morale of the remaining employees.
Wayne is an accomplished and overburdened senior executive who hates dealing with his direct reports’ conflicts. He once told me that he’d rather have a spike driven into his eye than listen to them complain about each other. But leaders like Wayne often fail to realize that what appear to be interpersonal conflicts are often just the visible symptoms of deeper, more strategic problems. After all, people generally want to get along with each other. And most of us don’t go to bed plotting how to annoy our colleagues.
As the saying goes, ‘trust is earned by the penny, but spent by the dollar.’ In other words, while trust is constructed through countless transactions, it can be shattered with only one negative interaction. Even an inadvertent betrayal of trust can wipe out an entire account. While it is easy to understand why organizations require high levels of trust to operate effectively (imagine trying to delegate or collaborate without it!) it’s less clear how to re-establish trust when it has been violated.