One small manufacturing company we helped a few years ago had a typical top-down managerial hierarchy, with the bosses making all the decisions and the workers doing little more than following orders. Morale was low. Results were only fair.
The owner of the company asked us to help him totally transform the way the company operated, with a focus on giving the workers a tremendous amount of authority to make day-to-day decisions, with the managers acting as support instead of as “bosses.”
We conducted workshops with all of the company’s employees and started the process of culture change. Within days, many of the employees started making suggestions for improvements in the company. Supervisors were allowing workers to make more and more decisions on their own. A lot of excitement was generated; many of the changes workers suggested were instituted.
At this point, Bob, the manager of a department of about 35 workers, went on vacation for a week. Two days after he left, Jean, one of the supervisors who reported to him, handled something on her own that everyone had agreed would be done by the workers. When Rick, one of the workers, complained to her, Jean said, in effect, “So what? I’m still the supervisor.” When Rick continued to protest, Jean took him to the Operations Manager’s office.
The other workers observed the heated argument and most of them concluded, “We’re back where we started. Nothing has really changed. If you speak up you get into trouble.”
The next week, Bob returned from vacation to discover that morale and productivity had sunk to a new low, with virtually no suggestions or worker participation. What would most managers do in a situation like this? Talk to the supervisor involved in the altercation? Yes, but that in itself would have little effect on the other thirty-some workers. Talk to the workers individually and as a group, telling them that one incident isn’t really important and that the new era of openness and involvement will continue? Yes, but through what filter will anything the manager says be heard by the workers? “I hear what you’re saying, but you weren’t here last week, and you didn’t see with your own eyes as I did that ‘We’re back where we started. Nothing has really changed. If you speak up you get into trouble.’”
Here’s what Bob actually did: He called a meeting of the department’s entire workforce and asked that someone explain exactly what happened while he was away. One of the workers described the incident between Jean and Rick. Bob thanked him and replied, “So most of you concluded, ‘We’re back where we started. Nothing has really changed. If you speak up you get into trouble.’ Right?”
A scattering of “Yeah” could be heard.
Bob continued, “That’s a reasonable conclusion, based on what happened between Jean and Rick. Right now, however, I’d like you to play a little game with me. It’s called Possibilities. I’d like you to tell me at least four or five other things that last week’s incident could possibly mean. I’m not trying to invalidate your conclusion, which is as good as any other we’ll find. I’d just like you to tell me what other interpretations might be possible?”
After a few minutes, the answers started coming from the floor:
- It could mean that Jean hasn’t bought into our empowerment program, but all the other supervisors have.
- It could mean that Jean has it in for Rick, but she wouldn’t be a problem for any other worker.
- It could mean that Jean was having a bad day and she is as committed to the new empowerment program as anyone.
- It could mean that Jean is willing to delegate most of her work except for the job involved in last week’s problem.
After several more responses, Bob said, “Can you see that what most of you concluded—‘We’re back where we started. Nothing has really changed. If you speak up you get into trouble’—is only one valid interpretation of what happened, but that a number of other explanations are just as valid? … So what you concluded isn’t necessarily the truth?”
Heads started nodding up and down.
He continued, “Didn’t it seem last week when Jean and Larry were arguing that you could see right here on the factory floor, ‘We’re back where we started. Nothing has really changed. If you speak up you get into trouble?’”
One worker yelled out, “If you had been here, Bob, you’d have seen it too!”
Bob smiled. “Did you really see that? If you did, I’d like to know, was it on the wall or the floor? Was it red or green, striped or polka-dotted? Big or small?” Bob waited a few seconds… “Or did you just see Rick and Jean arguing, and the only place—‘We’re back where we started. Nothing has really changed. If you speak up you get into trouble’—has ever been is in your mind, as an interpretation of what you really did see?” They got the point.
Bob turned to Rick. “By the way, what happened when you went to the Operations Manager’s office with Jean?”
“He told us to work it out ourselves,” Rick answered.
Bob turned back to the group. “Anything else?” He saw a lot of sheepish grins. “Let’s go to work.”
In most companies, hardly a day goes by that some employees don’t observe something and then reach a conclusion that negatively affects their behavior from then on. Usually their manager will try to change their thinking and behavior with logical arguments. But if the employee thinks he can “see” his conclusion, logic will never talk him out of it.
If you can help the employee identify the belief he formed from the situation—such as, “So-and-so can’t be trusted” or “That new plan will never work”—the process described above can be used easily, with one employee at a time or with a large group, just as Bob did.
Here are the simple steps of the belief-elimination process:
- Acknowledge the belief as a valid interpretation of the events.
- Find several other interpretations that are just as valid.
- Recognize that you never “saw” your conclusion in the world. It was only something you made up and exists only in your mind.
- The belief will disappear.