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

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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.

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