This past week I led programs with Metro-DC city and county government agencies that are in the throes of reorganization: a) the quasi-private/city government agency is anticipating major overhauls and upgrades to their information processing systems which may result in significant job restructuring and redesign, as well as possible job loss, b) the county government folks have been caught in the web of budget cuts and position downsizing (or RIFs – “Reduction in Force”) for the past two years. The palpable psychological tone of the city folks was uncertainty mixed with anxiety, while an edgy feeling of helplessness colored by cynicism and callousness (signs of third stage burnout; email me for the classic article) predominated at the county offices. In fact, liaisons with both groups warned me to expect some anger and attitude, especially from the county contingent.
As it turned out, the two workshops – an all day program with the city agency and a two-hour class with county personnel – were very productive. We began transforming group angst into open and meaningful sharing, to change the unspoken mantra of “we’re on a sinking ship” to “we’re all in this boat together” (even if does have too many holes). Both agencies have already expressed interest in follow-up workshops. So how do you get angry, cynical and/or anxious participants to engage with you and interact with each other to generate: a) an unexpected level of openness and candor, b) appropriate venting of frustration and anger behind the palpable fear and hovering feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, c) a quality of interaction that cuts through feelings of isolation and rejection while allowing for respectful “agree to disagree” dialogue, and d) tension relieving and anger reducing problem solving strategies that are generously and compassionately shared with one’s colleagues? How can you become an “orchestra leader” helping others bring out their best music? Consider “The Stress Doc’s ‘Top Ten Commandments’ for Transforming Reorganizational Crisis into Relief and Reflection, Rejuvenation and Recommitment.” Let’s begin with three foundational, stage-setting interventions:
1. Bring Your Inner Clint Eastwood. I recall a workshop with overworked, angry employees at Howard University Medical Center in Washington, DC. After about an hour of venting and testing my ability to handle their frustration and understand their plight, one of the participants said aloud, “This guy’s like Clint Eastwood.” (While said admiringly there was also a touch of playful irony: for these folks, perhaps, a white male seemingly had to be a cultural icon to relate and connect meaningfully with this predominantly female, African-American audience.)
For me, a vital thread among the Medical Center program and the recent forays into the city and county lions’ dens was not being intimidated by audience aggression. A cool and comfortable demeanor, voice tone and body language suggests a willingness to listen to anger and tolerate some attitude, while at the same time not accepting abusive language. This posture also reassures the less aggressive in the room that I’m not going to let the program run rampant, and will rein in any excessive provocation. Informing folks of my experience as a “Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant” for the US Postal Service usually gets a laugh (especially with my military audiences); more important, this information establishes my street and stress cred: “Hey, this dude is battle-tested!”
2. Warm Up and Cool Down the Audience. After outlining the program objectives, I usually share some edgy humor. For example, a haughty state department manager once challenged me during a stress program, provocatively asking, “What do you call it if you don’t have any stress?” My immediate reply to Mr. Bluster: “Denial!” After the laughter subsides, I move into an initial small group warm-up exercise which has participants sharing signs of transition stress. People quickly discover how our 24/7, “do more with less” days/daze puts us all on a familiar stress path. (Not only are colleagues walking in your shoes…they are feeling your bunions.) I also play with the stress smoke signals while bantering with the audience: “How many folks eat more than usual when feeling those stomach stress knots?” Many hands shoot up. Conversely, when I ask, “How many lose their appetite and eat less under stress?” a few hands flutter. Of course, my immediate reply: “And we hate those people, don’t we!” Venting and laughing at our own flaws and foibles is good way to reduce elevated blood pressure, for individuals and groups. And as I’ve previously penned: “People are more open to a serious message that is gift-wrapped with humor.”
3. Structure Stress and Conflict through the Cognitive Challenge of TLC and PANIC. The city employees and managers anticipating a major restructuring did two small group assessments – first a Personal then an Organizational Analysis of the perceived looming changes. Here’s a brief outline:
a) Personal-TLC. Each participant shares with his group to what extent he or she expects the reorg to involve unsettling TLC:
T = Threat to job, career path, promotional opps, being pushed out of skill and comfort zone, etc.
L = Loss of control, whether of operations or emotions, of identity, work or support group, dreams, etc.
C = Challenge involving both the danger and opportunity to develop new skills, explore new roles, etc.
b) Organizational-PANIC Assessment. Now the groups discuss their sense of PANIC:
P = Purpose of the reorg, from both the perspectives of upper management and employees
A = Actuality, that is, will the reorg really happen and, if so, what will it look like?
N = Needed/Necessary, that is, do people believe this transition is essential and, if so, detail management-employee strategies and steps necessary for the reorg to be effective and efficient
I = Impact, personal, professional and organizational in the short-term of the reorg
C = Consequences, for people and the organization in the long-term
These assessments allow for a level of emoting, sharing and brainstorming that is intimate yet still professional, appropriately shaped by engaging both head and heart in a supportive and analytical small group context. They also generate “raw” data for Four “R” – Relief and Reflection, Rejuvenation and Recommitment — problem-solving. Open ended venting can more readily regress into a “gripe or blame session” that may feel good for some but, ultimately, encourages the shirking of personal responsibility and doesn’t challenge the group to turn crisis and conflict into creative collaboration.
Three necessary transition stress interventions for engaging an audience on “The Reorg Rag” ™ have been outlined: 1) “Bring Your Inner Clint Eastwood,” 2) “Warm Up and Cool Down the Audience,” and 3) “Structure Stress and Conflict through the Cognitive Challenge of TLC and PANIC.” The first intervention requires the leader to be battle-tested, to be prepared – head- and heart-wise – to walk into the lion’s den. The second involves an ability to quickly thaw the icy mistrust and begin to engage even the most anxious or cynical. Generating universal empathy and some healing humor (especially the self-effacing variety) are critical for your opening gambit. And the final strategic step is providing the audience fun and thought-provoking problem solving exercises that allow for both appropriate emotional venting and diagnostic-tactical analysis of the crisis state, to better appreciate both the danger and opportunity in times of change and conflict. As American philosopher and 19th century pioneering educator, John Dewy, observed: “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.”
And Part II will continue the transition-transformation process by outlining a variety of psychological and interpersonal interventions. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as “Motivational Humorist & Team Communication Catalyst” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN programs for both government agencies and major corporations. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant. He is providing “Stress, Communication and Team Building” programs for the 1st Cavalry Division and 13th Expeditionary Support Command, Ft. Hood, Texas. The Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite” — www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected]