Courageous L&D – when you have to stand up even though they think you should sit down (and shut up.)

There are times in life when you have to say what you know to be right, have to correct those you know to be out of order and guide those who don’t want to be led.  When those people are much more senior to you, are paying your wages or are a collective, all in agreement against your lone voice, this can be intimidating.

When has this happened to me?  Three occasions come to mind.

1) There is the time I had to tell my boss that the problem she thought I had caused was actually her fault.  That was fun; I had only been working for her for a few months.  To her credit she immediately put up her hands and undertook to personally sort it.

2) There is the time I was training a group of managers on performance management and they were playing “Bullsh*t Bingo.”  They didn’t want to be held responsible for their staff’s behaviour and they were taking it out on me.  (They were also getting cross because I wasn’t saying any of the management speak on their Bingo cards and there was a case of beer riding on it!)  At an opportune moment I did a quick session on passive aggressive behaviour, why people do it and what would be better. We then discussed the Bingo and all the angst that was behind it. It was a really useful discussion and wouldn’t have happened without me challenging their behaviour.

3) And then there is the session with the Doctors.

I worked as the Training Manager in a medium sized District General Hospital, providing the training on manager, softy, HR-y sort of stuff.  The Board was made up of a dozen Directors, some managerial, mostly clinical.   The CEO asked me to run a team building half day to deal with the fact that this group didn’t communicate well.  Half day.  Hmmm.

In brief, what I did with them was run a full Belbin exercise and use the half day to explore the results – their individual results and, more importantly, the team profile results.  Most of them participated with very little fuss.  Except two; we’ll call them John and Bob.  They were both highly experienced, super intelligent, experts in their fields.  They didn’t need to do some silly exercise run by some flaky girl from HR.  They were leaned on from above.  John called me to a meeting at 7 am to discuss all this nonsense.  He arrived at 8 am leaking irritation.  But he did it and indeed turned up on the day.  Bob just point blank refused to participate.

The workshop could not have gone better (ignoring the fact that there was someone missing); they were genuinely fascinated by the results, sharing their own feedback and wanting to explore what they were going to do with it.  All great, except Bob wasn’t there.  John, however, was and was openly amazed by the whole process and loud in his participation and enthusiasm.  Then the crunch came.

At the end of the action planning phase one of the group said “what are we going to do about Bob?”  and en masse the group erupted, moaning about why he wasn’t there, how typical it was, what a disgrace etc etc.  Beef, beef, beef!  And there was a moment, just a split second, when I could have just let them rant.  I could have even agreed – after all, 11 out of 12 were now all talking to each other very happily.  That would have been OK, wouldn’t it?

No, it wouldn’t, for all sorts of reasons and so I had to take control.  To take control of a room full of very intelligent, experienced, experts, high on coffee, biscuits and righteous indignation.

Deep breath.  “Being cross with Bob and laying into him in his absence is of no value at all.  All we know is that from his perspective it made sense for him not to be here today and we have to respect that.  The question is not “why isn’t he here?”  The question is “what are you going to do about it?”

Ironically John stepped up to the plate and agreed to talk to Bob about how good the session had been; no-one could have predicted that.

I can’t claim that this brief workshop turned this group of people into a super team – it was never going to achieve that.  But it did give me a way in to a group that would never have asked me for help before and who were now more than willing to discuss issues with me.

From all of this I have learnt a number of things:

  1. Calm honesty works.  If someone thinks you’ve mucked up, and you haven’t, taking the rap isn’t going to improve their opinion of you.  But having the guts to stand up for yourself probably will.
  2. Just because someone has a low opinion of you doesn’t make you stupid.  Their opinion belongs to them – leave it with them.
  3. People can behave in bizarre, frankly worrying ways.  Trying to work out why is often a waste of time.  Deal with the truth, the now, what you actually know.
  4. Sometimes I’m flippin’ awesome; like most people.