Leadership Skills / Industrial Training / Workforce Development / Change Management / Operational Excellence

Is your plant red? blue? purple? yellow?

Learn how a training exercise can shed light on plant team personalities, cohesiveness

By Cliff Williams, People and Processes

As we go about the business and busy-ness of our jobs, we too often fail to recognize and embrace the differences in the people around us – different skill sets, different attitudes, different points of view, different backgrounds, and even different values. If we look our organizations or even a given department as one-dimensional, then we miss out on opportunities to engage with people, and we’ll never reach our full potential. I truly believe in this, but I realize that this kind of engagement isn’t always easy to do, and it’s not always easy to recognize its importance. I have changed jobs numerous times, but I have only ever “quit” once – I’ve moved to a better position or moved ahead of anticipated plant closures, but only once did I quit just to get away – and it was all because of not recognizing differences.

Here’s the story: I was working for an organization that I had really looked forward to joining – for years it had been known as an inclusive, engaging, empowering organization that really focused on its people. There was even a hotline to the corporate office that employees who had a complaint or a suggestion could call and be guaranteed a reply. The organization’s reputation was unblemished, and I was glad when I was approached to join. Even though the hiring process was somewhat convoluted – it took two months and included two aptitude tests – I was excited and figured the process was so complicated because the company wanted to ensure that it was hiring the right people. What I didn’t know was that the private organization’s owner had passed away and his family had brought in outside help to run the business.

I started out full of enthusiasm, visiting the plant twice before my start date to meet my new co-workers and interview the leaders of the departments I would oversee to get a feel for what the challenges would be. It didn’t take me long, however, to realize that things were not as I had imagined.

A rude awakening

The people who were working with me in the maintenance and reliability department were pretty good, though they were somewhat hesitant to take risks and consistently tried to deflect responsibility. The interactions with my boss and my peers troubled me – there wasn’t any inclusiveness, and my peers (most of them) seemed all too happy to pile blame on anyone they could. The reason for this became apparent quickly: Anyone who accepted blame was told by my boss to stay after the morning meeting. The day came when I was told to stay back, and when the others had left, my boss went into a rant and screamed for an explanation as to why what had happened had happened. As I learned, he didn’t seem to accept an explanation for anything that he considered to be an “excuse,” even when the reason was valid, and he wouldn’t stop ranting until you fully accepted responsibility and told him you would develop a solution – even if the matter was outside of your control. Most of my peers took the same approach with their groups. When I talked with the one exception, the production manager, he told me that he had been with the organization for quite a while and that most of the other leaders had been chosen recently by my boss. He told me of the great times they had under the old owner and how things had changed drastically under the new regime – on one recent occasion, a visitor from corporate had ranted about the slow progress being made on a company-wide initiative. The production manager said that when he brought up that the initiative ran contrary to the existing culture of inclusiveness, he was told to “forget that nonsense.” When he mentioned the hotline, he was told that “no one pays attention to that anymore” and if he believed that anyone at corporate was worried about what employees felt, he was “very much mistaken.”

This atmosphere, and my trepidation, continued for months, and I noticed that the production manager was being told to stay after the meeting more and more. There were times when I felt the need to defend and support him, as I knew he was being held accountable for something over which he had no control, but my boss usually cut me short.

The other strange thing was that the rest of the management team seemed extremely comfortable with this whole process and usually had ready-made excuses that shifted the blame away from themselves. I eventually reached a point where I was being blamed for the lack of progress of something that required more input from others than it did from me on a regular basis. I held meetings and private discussions with those who needed to give input and appealed to their integrity, then their team spirit, then their responsibility but nothing seemed to work – they weren’t the ones being told to stay after the meetings so they didn’t care – and they certainly didn’t care about teamwork or synergies! Things got to the point that my boss finally called me to his office to talk about this issue. I started off by trying to accept most of the responsibility for what had happened but mentioning that it was actually a team initiative. My boss pushed me until I got to the point of telling him that it was because of the lack of effort or interest of other team members that the progress was so slow – something he already knew as he had chosen the team and assigned the responsibilities. Once I had identified the area that was hindering the process – and so the person responsible – my boss seemed happy. He told me has was glad that I had finally identified the problem and that my next course of action was to arrange to bring the person responsible up to his office. He said that until I did that then he, my boss, would hold me accountable.

Conflict mismanagement 101

I didn’t feel good about what I’d been asked to do. I also couldn’t see any way that my relationship with this person would be better in the future if I went ahead and did this. I decided to talk with the production manager, as the person who was getting in the way – a production superintendent – reported into him on a daily basis. The production manager was sympathetic but unsurprised, as he told me that this individual had caused many of the problems being addressed at the morning meetings. He told me that the individual was very adept at doing what was important to my boss and what he was accountable for at the expense of everyone else’s needs.

The production manager suggested that if I wanted to have a confrontation in the boss’s office, I should make sure that I had proof of what I would say, as he was sure that the superintendent would have material to support him. This really wasn’t what I expected when I joined the organization, and I thought that I would have one last try at getting the superintendent to see what he was causing. The meeting didn’t go well. The superintendent said he had no interest in what I had to say and that he would take care of what he needed to take care of and that I should do the same. When I pointed out that was exactly what I wanted to do and mentioned the project, he smirked and said that he wasn’t responsible for the project’s success.

I was waking early every morning and getting upset about what I was going to face at the plant. Things got worse when I saw HR going through the production manager’s desk and I was called to the meeting room. My boss explained that the production manager was not the right fit for the organization and so they had been forced to let him go. Everyone in the room knew I had supported the production manager, so all eyes turned to me when the boss suggested that if anyone else felt they didn’t fit in, then maybe they should reconsider their future with the company.

Color me surprised

Then something happened that I thought would make things a lot better – the leadership team received a notice from the corporate office detailing a new project that the HR department was taking on. All plants and the head office would go through a psychological analysis to identify team members’ personality and dominant behavioral traits. HR explained that we needed to be sure we had a balance of all types of personalities and that we would then learn how best to communicate and work with each other.

We all were sent a questionnaire to complete. About six weeks later, we received a package that explained how the analysis worked, what the results were, and what the results meant. Colors were assigned based on different personality traits; I was predominantly yellow with a touch of green. My dominant traits were of the motivator-inspirer type – the analysis indicated that I tried to get results through involvement, engagement, and motivation. It also provided an explanation of the other colors, from yellow through green, red, orange, purple, and blue. On the wheel, blue was directly opposite yellow. Blue’s style was described as directive, autocratic, and demanding.

An analyst from corporate reviewed the findings ahead of a training session scheduled for a month later on how we should approach the various colors. The day of the training arrived, and we all met with the analyst individually and then as a group. My boss seemed quite amused to learn that there was at least one motivator-inspirer in the group – he had been told generally how the group split out but not which color each person was. He felt that the makeup of the plant was fine and that once we had received the training, we’d be able to improve our performance. The analyst explained that to achieve optimum performance, the group needed balance, as each color had its strong points and weaknesses and each compensated for others.

We spent the next few hours learning how to recognize each color and the best way to communicate and work with others. It became obvious that flexibility wasn’t one of our strong points – pretty much everyone took the same communication approach no matter which color they were addressing.

The analyst then laid out a giant circle split into different color segments. Each of us was asked to guess someone else’s color and then to stand in the segment we had been guessed to reside in. That exercise suggested our staff was relatively evenly spread out.

Next, the analyst had us go to our actual colors – the HR director to red (collaborative), the continuous improvement manager to purple (part analytical, part collaborative), me to yellow – and the remaining 12 to blue. There was silence in the room as we looked around at the very lopsided circle of colors until the analyst stated the obvious: This was not the best breakout for an effective and balanced workplace. My boss didn’t seem to be as dismayed by the overloaded blue segment as by the fact that I was standing alone in yellow – it was as if he didn’t want to believe he had hired me.

When we sat down after the color display, the analyst asked each of us how long we had worked for the organization and who had been involved in the hiring. It became apparent that most were shorter-term employees and that my boss had been involved in most of the hirings. The analyst explained that this was a failing of the hiring process (something that most took offense to) in that HR should have ensured that the aptitude tests we had taken in the interview process were taken into consideration in the hiring. My boss broke the resulting silence by saying that if people felt like they were a good fit, then that should be enough. The analyst explained that it’s not unusual for people look for the traits they possess when interviewing, and that even though this isn’t typically a bad thing, problems could crop up if one person was involved in all of the hirings and had extra influence.

At the end of the day, I took the opportunity to have a private word with the analyst. When I asked if this type of thing was normal, she told me that she had never seen anything like this in her career and she couldn’t imagine what the atmosphere was like at the plant. When a majority of individuals fall into the blue segment, she said, the environment can become confrontational. I told her that I had been having a tough time and asked if there was anything I could do to improve the situation. She explained that the fact that most of my co-workers were diametrically opposite me meant that I would have to change my natural behavior pretty much all of the time. In her opinion, she said, I had two choices: quit or go insane. My normal motivating-inspiring approach not only would have no meaningful effect, she added, but also it would alienate my peers and make them resent me.

A cautionary lesson

As much as I’d love to tell you that things started to improve at the plant, they didn’t – it was as if the session never took place. After about three months, I quit – I took a job I wasn’t sure that I’d like, but I had to get away from the environment before it affected my health. Shortly thereafter, I received a couple of calls from other supervisors who had reported to me, asking for a reference as they, too, had decided to leave. About two years later I received a bunch of e-mails from former co-workers telling me the plant was closing, as it had never reached the mandated performance level.

Now the lessons from this: If you take a closer look at what goes on in your department, do you know what people’s natural traits are? Do you know what motivating triggers they have, and can you communicate in the way needed to activate these triggers? You need to have a cross-section of traits, skills, and attitudes if you want a department or the plant as a whole to perform to its maximum efficiency. As you work to get everyone to the same level of involvement and empowerment, you need to recognize that there are different ways of achieving this.