Angela is very upset. As the Coordinator of the Group Home she has worked hard to be supportive and caring towards her staff. She has been proud of her team, their good relationships and their low turnover. She has provided many staff recognition and fun activities. Now she is hearing only complaints. A recent staff survey revealed that staff feels that management undercuts them with the youth. Staff have issues with her, the unit supervisor, and the therapist. Furthermore, Angela is starting to not like the staff much either. They are so ungrateful. What have they got to complain about anyway. Don’t they realize how hard she works and how she is always on call and responsive to them? She notices that they are getting more punitive in their responses to the kids. Naturally she has to step in and change what they have put in place. She is not going to allow the kids to be mistreated.
As a consultant in this situation my first impulse is to work on the content of the complaints. How could the team improve its cooperation when the girls do something wrong? What should the management do when the girls approach them? What should be the response when the gir;ls hurt others? Especially because I am concerned that our responses are becoming punative, I want to jump in and discuss that.
But wait-consider the parallel processes. All this is a symptom. It is adaptive. It is solving a problem. What is the problem? How is it adaptive? I know this team. They are caring, intelligent, thoughtful and compassionate. What is happening here?
When I ask about their recent experience, I discover that the entire client population of this group home turned over within two months. Several were wonderful positive discharges. In a couple of cases girls were finally placed in a higher structured environment which they needed. So all of the youth are new, scarey, feeling unsafe, and acting in dramatic and extreme ways. Several staff have been assaulted. And the atmosphere has been non stop drama and intensity. Furthermore, the new clients are quite a bit younger than the previous clients. Younger, needing more help, with less ability, with fewer skills.
It became clear to me that we needed to start with sharing how each of us had been impacted by these last few months.
We started by remembering the girls who had left. What were we proud of that had happened with a those girls, including those who left for more restrictive environments? Were there ever moments when we could not imagine that they would ever change?
Then we did the following exercise. Each person in the team had a large piece of paper. Their instructions were:
On your large piece of paper make 8 shapes- squares, circles, hearts, combinations, whatever. Then at the bottom make one more shape different from the rest.
In one shape, write some words about things that have made you happy at work in the last three months.
In one shape, write some words about things that have made you sad at work in the last three months.
In one shape, write some words about things that have made you hopeful at work in the last three months.
In one shape, write some words about things that have made you doubt yourself at work in the last three months.
In one shape, write some words about things that have made you feel energetic at work in the last three months.
In one shape, write some words about things that have made you feel tired at work in the last three months.
In one shape, write some words about things that you have enjoyed at work in the last three months.
In one shape, write some words about things that you are proud of at work in the last three months.
In the lower shape, write what your hopes are for the next three months. What would you like to do, learn, accomplish, experience?
Decorate your paper, showing connections, illustrating your ideas, making it reflect your experience at work in the last few months.
When you are done we will share our pages with each other.
As each person shared their responses, several themes emerged. There is a great deal of caring and connection in the team. People take care of eachother, joke together, have fun together. There is a small beginning of hopefulness. People have been very worn out by the last few months, and some have been hurt. Everyone has had moments of doubt. Everyone has also had moments of delight with the girls.
We made no attempt to find solutions or simplify our complex responses. It was enough to share it.
It was clear that we had fallen into the all too easy practice of judging our day by how the girls acted. We talked about how we could shift to judging our day by what we did.
There are still specifics to be worked out and more discussions to be had. But we will start these discussions from a more connected place and with a better awareness of the importance of our mission.
When you experience troubles in your team (and you will) I urge you to look beneath the symptoms and focus on how the work is affecting the people who are doing it. Share that before considering action steps. Share your experiences and thoughts by clicking on "comment" below.
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