One morning in early December, I stood looking forlornly out The Shed door. After all this time, after all the stop and go, go and stop, it looked as if we were finally stopped.
I had just spent ten minutes on the phone with Judy. She’d bypassed the usual greeting chatter to say, “Heather, I’m sorry, I have some bad news.” Tears clogged her voice. “I’ve been given notice at Smithford and have only two more weeks of work.”
The blood began rushing in my ears. I tried to muster appropriate words of sympathy and indignation, but my mind was trapped in something like the horror I imagine you’d feel watching a freight train speed toward a gaping hole in the tracks.
I listened frozen as Judy described the hard times the company was experiencing, then said, “Getting laid off leaves Michael and me with no financial security; we can’t live off Michael’s earnings and it could be a long while before I find work again.”
Finally the crash happened: “I don’t know how to say this, but we just can’t commit to anything at this time. I mean, Michael and I aren’t going to be able to go ahead with building the house. It’s not fair to ask you guys to keep living in The Shed, and Eve and Daniel are on a course to leave the city – so you’ll have to go ahead without us.”
“Oh, Judy,” I mumbled, surveying the incomprehensible debris and unable to find anything articulate to say.
She continued. “I know you’d like me to say when we might come good but I can’t. It’s all too insecure right now. We might know in another three months, but it could be much longer. We’re going to have to pull out.”
I noticed numbly that Judy’s way of responding felt familiar. Whenever her financial security was threatened, life tightened a noose around her and she fell prey to a deep-seated pessimism. At this point I’d like to say my natural empathy and communication skills kicked in, launching me into empowering support…but not bloody likely. Instead, I fell victim to my own well-known voice, which whispered balefully to me, “You idiot, you know you’re always going to be disappointed. Nothing ever works out like it’s supposed to.”
Like a ventriloquist, I sent out the dummy to say a few wooden things. I expressed my disappointment and at the same time tried to leave doors open. “Let’s give it a day or two before we decide anything,” I said.
It was fifteen minutes before I could bring myself to find Rick and tell him what had transpired. His usual optimism failed him. “It’s too late for anybody to change their minds,” he shouted. “We’ve hired a builder!” He kicked at the lawnmower he’d been pushing. “Well, better now than when the first big bill comes, I guess,” was all he could say, yanking his ear protectors back on and restarting the mower with a fierce tug.
My heart felt leaden in my chest but underneath my apathy stirred a hot fury. I felt I couldn’t take it out on Judy because she was in plenty of pain as it was. I couldn’t take it out on Rick because…well, because he was my friend and ally and the one real constant in a world where it seemed as if the rules of the game kept changing. For a while I took it out on the garden, which needed a good pruning anyway.
Later in the morning, the phone lines began ringing hot.
Michael called, feeling lacerated by Judy’s job loss and her ready assumption that he would not be able to provide for their future. He was flat as a tack and barely able to speak.
I rang Daniel, full of indignation. We shared a few scathing comments, then speculated about whether there could possibly be any future together for the Shedders.
Eve rang and commiserated. After I ranted a bit, I wondered aloud if there were other friends who might step in to fill the gaping hole that yawned before us.
“Heather,” she said gently, “it’s too soon to start making plans. We’ve got to be willing to sit in the middle of this for a few days until we see what might emerge.”
“What could emerge? Michael and Judy don’t have the money.”
“It’s never just about the money,” Eve replied steadily. “We need to have time to look more deeply.”
“That’s just you trying to be enlightened,” I said in disgust. “Wouldn’t you rather murder somebody?”
I sat down with Rick over a subdued lunch, and described the morning’s conversations. For once, he didn’t have a lot to say, and none of it was upbeat. I knew him well enough to predict that his equanimity would return by nightfall, but meantime he was angry and upset.
As luck would have it, Dallas, our would-be builder, rang that afternoon. “I’ve got the contracts ready,” he announced with suppressed excitement. “Shall I come over in the morning?”
My leaden heart gave another unhappy thump.
“Listen, Dallas, we’ve had a hiccup here,” I said carefully. “I’m hoping it’s not serious, but Michael and Judy have expressed concern about being able to afford their share. I’d like to hold you off for a couple of weeks until Christmas, when we’ll have a chance to sort this out.”
“Oh, well,” he said, hiding his disappointment under a tradesman’s resilience. “These things were sent to try us.”
“I’m so sorry, Dallas, but don’t give up. Bear with us. This is part of what it’s like to work with six owners.”
“Well, make them see sense,” he said. “And keep me posted. I’ll be hanging out on your meeting.”
I woke the next morning, late, after a sleep-deficient night, with an idea.
True to form, by bedtime Rick had been ready to take a longer-term view and we’d had a lengthy talk about how we could possibly get the project back on the rails again. He and I agreed with Eve’s assessment that it’s never just about the money, and that there were lots of other factors in the mix. As a result of this conversation, I had spent much of the night considering what I knew about teams, and in particular our broken one. After all, I did have considerable expertise in this area. For one thing, I had designed a program called Building High-Performance Teams, and had trained the key concepts many times to corporate clients. For another, I had a proven track record for building around me successful teams – ones with strong relationships and exceptional results.
One thing I knew was that a group working to accomplish something together cannot succeed without what was called “vulnerability-based trust”. The good news is it’s possible to deliberately create trust with people around you. The bad news is you have to do it by being willing to be vulnerable. Although the Shedders had been a team for several years, I could see we hadn’t been successful in building adequate trust, and we didn’t have a history of being truly vulnerable with one another. To the contrary, we were competitive, needed to appear capable and didn’t want to alarm one another when we were feeling inept or needy.
In this, we were just like most teams around the world.
This was the idea I came up with:
It was two weeks until Christmas, when Rick and I were planning to spend a few days at the house in Longueville, taking advantage of city life while catching up with the Shedders and other friends.
What I wanted to do was organise for the six of us to work through a formal process during this time together. It would be facilitated by someone outside our group, so all six of us could participate fully. I had used the process I had in mind a dozen times, mostly in situations where a team was stuck and needed to stand back and rethink. It was a highly structured method, but scary because it encouraged people to say things they hadn’t said before and to listen to things they hadn’t been willing to hear. The process had never failed me, so I had complete confidence in its ability to fix we six people who had seemingly lost our way.
If the session got the result I most deeply wanted, it would get us back on track. But what if that wasn’t possible? What if money really was the issue and there just wasn’t enough of it to go ahead? Well, in that case I knew that the process would allow us to clearly see each other’s perspectives, understand that this alliance was something that couldn’t happen, and leave us with a picture of how to disassemble what we’d put together – without damaging our friendships and mutual respect.
The process required a fearless facilitator. I had just the person in mind: an old friend and colleague, Robert, known to and respected by all six of us.
I unveiled the idea to Rick over coffee that morning. “Too formal,” he announced. “We should just sit and talk it through. We’re all competent communicators.”
I disagreed. My view was that we had sat and talked our hearts out and our heads off, and that wasn’t going to move anything this time. I felt we’d be able to dig in much deeper if we used a more structured process. Eventually, I got Rick’s grudging support and went on to try and enrol the others.
Eve and Daniel were easy. They trusted my instincts and figured we had nothing to lose.
Judy was easy. “I don’t think anything can make our money problems go away, but it would be good to talk it all through in a disciplined way – with someone like Robert to make it safe,” she said. “You never know what could come out of it.”
Spot on, Judy.
Michael, however, spat the dummy. “Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re not airing our dirty linen in front of someone else. Besides, I’m tired of talking and I don’t see any point in picking and digging at this again.”
I sat with that for a few hours, then rang him back. Michael, of all people, as an accomplished facilitator himself, should understand what a process like this could offer us. “Come on, Mike, let’s give it a try. It’s three or four hours of our lives; it can’t do any harm.”
Michael’s anger was palpable. “It could do a lot of harm. For example, what if Robert gossips about it? It’s a small world in business out there…”
“We’ll swear him to confidentiality, Mike. He won’t say anything. Besides, you’re always the first to support transparency in conversations…”
“Surely it doesn’t require a facilitator to get six people to have a transparent conversation,” he snapped. “I won’t do it.”
“Michael, you’re a facilitator yourself. If anyone knows the value of an external coach, it’s you.”
“Well, I would not hire me for this job,” he replied.
It took a long time and a willingness on my part to hold a rather ferocious tiger by the tail, but eventually Michael budged a fraction. “I’m not remotely happy about it but if the five of you insist on going ahead with it, I’ll be there.”
I took that as a victory and contacted Robert. I explained our situation and my idea. I concluded my pitch saying, “The downside is you’d get to spend the day working as hard as you’ve ever worked in your professional life, and you won’t even get paid. The upside is you’ll learn a new facilitation process that will knock your socks off.”
Robert may well have considered the upside and the downside, but in the end, it was simply his inherent and powerful human decency that decided for him. “Of course,” he said. “For you guys, anything.”
We organised the session for Boxing Day and arranged to speak in a few days so I could teach him the process.
I took Robert’s participation as a victory.
I’d won a few battles but, as I admitted to myself after some gruelling body surfing later in the day, the prognosis for the war was looking grim.
(This chapter concludes in the next post.)