Bringing Back Morale with VBL
A Case Study of Mistakes and a Recovery

Published in The Spinal Column, Nelson-Marlborough Health Services, Nelson New Zealand, October, 1999

by Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D., © 2000

"I will never speak up again!" she said with an angry scowl.

"Linda" had attended a meeting with twenty or thirty other employees to provide open and candid feedback to their boss, an executive, managing three hundred workers, supervisors and managers in a large telecommunications company.

When "John," the boss, asked for comments about how people perceived the organisation, Linda decided to be honest. She said, "I wish you would pay less attention to finances, quotas, and performance measures, and more attention to our concerns as people."

Upon hearing the complaint, John erupted into blaming, pointing his finger and saying, "I cannot believe you are saying that! We have worked hard for each of you and your concerns! We have put in new procedures - offered training classes - set up meetings like this to listen to you - increased wages and more. Why don't you appreciate the effort we have made?"

The room went silent. Linda sunk slowly into her chair, her eyes lowered in fear and embarrassment. She declined further comment in the meeting. John ended the meeting, still angry.

Now perhaps you, the reader, are wondering if this story has a happy ending. Normally it might not have. The people involved in this interaction, including the boss, "John," had been through some Values-Based Leadership (VBL) workshops several months previously, part of a major effort to enhance leadership development throughout their division.

After the meeting, Linda confided in her immediate supervisor "Mary". When Mary asked her how she was feeling about the meeting, Linda said, "I will never speak up again."

Mary felt empathy for Linda. She didn't offer solutions in reply. She listened with her heart, both for venting-type anger as well as for violated values. "I don't trust John not to attack me," Linda said. "How could he do that in front of all of my co-workers just when I got the courage to say what was on my mind?" As Mary listened, Linda began, eventually, to calm down, feeling heard and understood.

After seeing Linda calm down a bit, Mary said, "What are your options?"

Linda said, "To shut up, do my job, and eventually find a job working under someone else."

Mary said, "Okay, that is an option. In the short run, if you take that option, how will you feel?"

"Hot. I'll be simmering," Linda said.

"So let's see if we can practice our VBL. John's outburst obviously violated you values," Mary said.

"Yep, it did," Linda said.

"Which ones?"

"Trust and respect, mostly," Linda replied.

"So if I talk with John and he agrees to discuss the situation with you in private, would you be willing to talk to him?"

"Ah . . . let me think. I suppose so, but he would need to apologise, obviously." Linda said.

"All right, I'll see what I can do."

That night Mary called me and we reviewed some possible ways in which she could approach John. The next day, in a private

meeting, Mary asked John about his thoughts regarding the exchange with Linda the day before.

"I guess I really messed up, didn't I?" John said.

"What do you think?" Mary said.

"Well . . . I doubt Linda will speak out honestly, if at all, any time soon. She must have felt that I attacked her in front of all the others."

"So if that is true," Mary said, "what can you do? Would you be willing to have a VBL session with her?"

"If I ever want anyone in that group to speak up again, I guess I better mend things with Linda. Do you think she would be willing to talk with me about it?" John asked.

"Yes," Mary said, "I think she might. I suggest that you ask her to meet with you, saying you are sorry for how you responded to her in the meeting."

"Okay. I'll do it. I'll look over my cards, materials and notes from the VBL workshop. Maybe that and some serious thinking will help me to get some ideas about how to structure our conversation. I'd like it to go well for both of us," John said.

The meeting took place the following day. During their meeting, Linda and John did the following:

The session between Linda and John took a couple of hours. The subsequent meeting with the group took place the following week. By all accounts, the group emerged much stronger as a result, having healed serious violations of trust and respect.

Although I wasn't present at the group meeting myself, several of the people called me and told me how much they appreciated the courage that Linda, John and Mary showed to do what it took to resolve the situation. Linda and John actually replayed key parts of their discussion for the group to see, hear and comment on.

* * *

This story - an account of actual events with only the names changed - illustrates a number of VBL skills.

Leadership Counselling
and Mediating
 What Mary did
 Venting (with Mary), Requesting to John and responding to Apologising (by John)  What Linda did
 Healing, Activating Empathy, Requesting, Apologising and (eventually) Leadership Counselling  What John did

When someone says anything like, "I will NEVER speak up again!" recognise that all is not lost. Recognise that this is a natural reaction under stress and values violations, one that I call Avoiding. Recognise that closed feedback loops can be opened, violated values healed, trust and respect restored, and morale renewed.

John had VBL training and still lost his cool, engaging in destructive victim behavior. That can happen to anyone, and happens to most of us from time to time. Yet, any of us can recover from these mistakes. VBL is not about perfection, but about improvement.

What happened in this story has happened many times, in different forms, in many organisations. Because NMHS is committed to using VBL there are great opportunities throughout the organisation for enhancing morale and fulfilling important personal, professional and organisational values. It does takes work. It can't be done overnight. Yet using VBL pays off if you continue to work on it. For more information about VBL skills (Values-Based Leadership), contact Marian Richards, Training and Development Facilitator, at ext. 7281.

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