A Division Rights Itself in Time for Major Change

The Problem

The finance division of a multi-billion-dollar communications organization was experiencing a problem so severe that it threatened, not just the division, but the entire organization.

How so?

Relationships between staff and management had deteriorated. The deterioration was in fact, so deep that employees sent the CFO a formal complaint letter - signed by each employee. In the organization’s history, such an overt and unanimous protest was unprecedented.

In the letter, the employees aired their grievances. Among other things:

The employees felt undervalued and underused. Management, they said, didn’t seek their input, told them what to do, and micromanaged to such a degree that the managers, in essence, were redoing the employees’ work. What’s more, when an employee went to management with an issue, instead of addressing it, management sat on the issue. The employees interpreted this behavior as a gross form of management indifference.

The result of the employees’ anger and frustration? Culture surveys, engagement scores, and 360 scores were at historic lows. HR received weekly requests for transfer to other divisions. Complaints leaked out to other divisions. Even customers started hearing about the infighting.

For nearly a year, the organization’s leadership searched for the big reason why things had gotten so bad. They couldn’t find such a reason.

The HR Director had tried to improve the situation through training and team building programs. Yet team members pushed back, saying the sessions were superficial and didn’t get to the problem’s root. There clearly was an elephant in the room.

Concern among the organization’s leadership was escalating. Not only were the current problems hurting the organization, but – with a new operating system about to be rolled out – the daily life at the organization was about to become more intense. Methods and procedures would be changing. Team structures would be shifting. A high level of collaboration would be needed to deal with these changes -- collaboration in the current environment simply wasn’t possible.

Leadership needed a solution that would surface and solve the root causes of the division’s unrest. That would name and address the elephant in the room.

The HR Director called us. Could the working relationships in Finance be repaired?

The Solution

As a means of beginning the shift towards greater trust, we brought together the division for an open conversation. The employees were forthcoming with their views about their concerns with management as well as with one another. During the conversation, people opened up and expressed their views, saying things like… “We continually question each other’s intent and misunderstand each other,” “There is a lack of respect across all lines within this department.” “Our job brings stress in-and-of itself, and when we don’t work as a team, this creates more stress." In a moment of trust, one member said “We bring this situation home with us – it’s impacting our lives.”

The group decided to go to work on trust. They engaged in a series of exercises, demonstrating how trust building was relevant to their working relationships. “We need to have trust to have healthy relationships and a cohesive team that will drive the business.”

Members recognized the barriers the lack of trust creates. “The current lack of trust makes us reach out to each other less and it affects the way we communicate.” And, each of the division’s team members, regardless of rank or level of responsibility, discovered they wanted the same thing: respectful relations based on a foundation of trust. “We need to learn how to work together.”

 With both leadership and employees on the same page about the need for trust, we needed to provide them with an in-depth look at the division’s level of trust. To provide this baseline understanding, we administered our team trust assessment100% of the division’s employees participated in the survey.

The results of this baseline assessment pinpointed the root cause of the division’s relationship issues. The elephant in the room was finally revealed…though it wasn’t the size or shape people had expected. Trust hadn’t been broken by a lone incident. It had been gradually diminished by a pattern of pervasive, subtle misunderstandings and breakdowns. While these breakdowns and disappointments were small and seemingly inconsequential, they’d accumulated to create an impact equivalent to a major betrayal.

From the assessment, leaders learned how unknowingly and unintentionally their patterns of behavior had contributed to distrust and had caused employees to second-guess their own capabilities, and question their authority to do their jobs. “No matter what we do, no matter what we produce, it is never good enough,” shared one team member.

Leaders learned that employees perceived their expectations to be vague and ambiguous. People were reluctant to take risks and try new things for fear of the ‘punishment’ they’d receive if they made a mistake. There was a tight lid on information that crippled progress. People experienced their leadership as a ‘secret inner circle’ – a perception that eroded trust.

In turn, employees learned how they made trust vulnerable. In fact, the team trust survey showed that team members practiced trust-breaking behaviors more often than trust-building behaviors - both with management and with one another.

When people were frustrated with a team member, they tended to talk about them behind their back. Gossip was in overdrive and everyone contributed to it.   Team members learned how judgmental they were with each other. Criticism and blame was eating away team spirit.

Using specific data from assessment results, we worked with leaders to develop a customized solution for rebuilding trust. We began working with the team in one-on-one-meetings, small group discussions, and division-wide working sessions (known as Trust WorkOuts®).

Where there had been paralyzing deterioration in specific management and employee relationships, we facilitated “Relationship Workouts.” These sessions provided a safe environment for people to be heard, understood, and work through the history of issues that had over time accumulated.

Through a comprehensive multi-month process, we guided the division through the Seven Steps for Rebuilding Trust®, and equipped all team and leadership members with the awareness, knowledge, tools, methods, and language they needed to build trust. People learned to practice trust building skills in real time with real work issues.

The Results

Six months later, we conducted a post-assessment to help the division track it’s trust building progress.

The results? Relationships had been completely transformed across the division. 82% of negative trust breaking behaviors had been shifted to positive trust building actions. The team had cultivated a healthy foundation of trust, with core trust building behaviors being practiced “Frequently” to “Almost Always.”

People had learned to behave differently. They’d developed the courage to try out new ways of interacting with one another. Instead of blind assumption, they gave one another the benefit of the doubt and talked directly with those they had issues. Instead of pointing fingers, they took responsibility and reached out for help when they needed it. Instead of holding on to past hurts, they let go and moved on.

Team members had redirected how they engaged with one another and with management. And management had retooled how they related to their people and to one another.

“Employees are not micromanaged and are allowed the freedom to make decisions,” shared one post-survey respondent.

“There is less tension and more collaboration,” said another.

“The good results we have as a team and as individuals are linked to the level of trust we have in the team,” said a third.

Performance across the division had gotten back on track in time for the new operational system rollout. The team’s ability to turn out a superior product on or before deadline, had become a source of pride.

Importantly, the team came to understand the role of trust building in creating effective working relationships.

“Relationships can overcome betrayal,” shared a team member.

 “This process can and has made relationships stronger,” said one team member.

“I got my power back,” said another.