Deborah and The Starlings – Chapter Two

“Dark roast, large, black.”

Deborah smiled. “That’s pretty basic Jack, are you sure that you won’t try something more exotic?”

“I know what I like, and besides, I wouldn’t even know what else to ask for.”

They settled at a patio table, enjoying the late summer sunshine. “How have things gone this week?” Jack asked.

“I tried to take a more structured approach to this last meeting. You know, a call for agenda items, an agenda, action items, due dates – all that stuff.”

“How did that work?”

“I’m not sure. We didn’t have the endless circular debates of the last two meetings, but we didn’t seem to have any engagement either. I’m not confident that the action items we concluded with are going to get done. Frankly, by the end of the meeting I felt like everyone had just given up.”

“What leads you to think that?”

“Body language mostly. Nobody would make eye contact, people checking their watches and phones, no answers when I would pose a question. What’s going on?”

Jack scratched his chin thoughtfully. “How would you describe the level of trust in the group?”

Deborah looked puzzled. “I’m not sure. We’ve all worked with each other before in other contexts. Everyone is enthusiastic about the goal that this team is supporting. Why wouldn’t we trust each other?”

“Perhaps trust isn’t the best word. Bear with me for a moment. Humans are social creatures. For us to feel comfortable and safe in a group, we have to understand what the social rules are in that group.”

Deborah nodded, “You mean things like hierarchies and customs and stuff like that?”

“Yes, exactly. Until that is resolved people won’t be able to do their best work. In a new group, like yours, where the social rules aren’t established, a lot of everyone’s initial efforts will be spent shaping and developing those social rules.”

Deborah brightened, “Is that what was behind those debates about words?”

“Probably, at least in part. Hey, if I can get you to agree to use my word instead of yours then it bolsters my position in the group, doesn’t it.”

She frowned again. “So what led to the big change in the meeting this week?”

“I can only speculate, but I wonder if the way you took control of things created uncertainty in people’s minds about what the social rules were. Did you share your reasons for changing your approach?”

“Only in passing. I think that I probably said something to the effect that we needed to be more productive.”

“What interpretations do you think people might have put on that?

Deborah put her latte down and pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I guess that they might have thought that I was feeling negatively about them – which would be true. Also that I was blaming them for us not being productive – which is only partially true.”

“If you were in their seat, how would you react?”

Deborah grimaced. “My inner dialogue would not be family-friendly.” She shook her head. “OK, so what do I do?

“What difference would it make if your team had a common understanding of the social rules they were working under?”

“That seems to be where we are stuck. We need to figure that out, but it needs to be done quickly. We can’t afford to spend weeks in navel-gazing!”

“How much time can you afford to spend on this?”

Deborah gave him an irritated glance. “I don’t know. We’ve got a major deliverable in four weeks. If we could be functioning like a team in two weeks then I think we could make that milestone.” She paused. “I think I know where we have to go with this. It’s about creating a Team Charter.” She sighed. “I hate being a part of producing them – it always drives me up the wall that adults have to have conversations about ‘how we will disagree with each other’ as if they were still in junior high school!”

“So how will you lead this task with integrity?”

Deborah looked angry for a moment then laughed. “I won’t. I’ll get someone else to lead this for me. Could you fit it into your schedule Jack? Next Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. I’ll buy you lunch if you’ll do it.”

Jack was checking his calendar app. “Yes, I could give you and your team an hour that day. By the way, there’s this great new Italian restaurant a few blocks away from here. Kind of expensive, but it has a marvelous lunch menu.”