An engineering assistant from a laser company attended a weekend Communication Training with Sage. He was skeptical. His objections bordered on rudeness. Curiosity involves paradoxes, which often go with temporary confusion. He wasn’t open to the feedback of the other participants. He rejected 3 of the 4 Communication Transformers out of hand. Yet he walked away with one specific transformer that made sense to him—appreciative yielding. He liked the way that particular device brought him closer to his wife.
He worked at a laser company where he served a group of brilliant, young engineers. Building lasers is an exacting task. The tolerance for error is extremely small. Even the slightest variance in design and construction spells failure. This particular team was constructing lasers for a Japanese company, whose specifications were beyond anything they had encountered in their professional lives. Up to this point they had only managed to build two flawed machines. The air was charged with frustration. Most conversations consisted of arguments and criticism, which severely dampened the creative atmosphere.
All of the designers had strong opinions about what had gone wrong. Each one formed agreements with various other members of the team on certain issues, further splintering their efforts. Overall they couldn’t reach consensus, let alone create the right conditions for serendipitous breakthroughs.
When the assistant returned from his weekend experience, the team swiftly assembled a working prototype. Leadership inspected their work and asked about the sudden reversal in cooperation. The engineers noted that they had difficulty understanding each other, but they could all speak freely with the assistant.
As their design and manufacturing successes multiplied, the top leaders hired Sage again, this time to sort out conflicts in the head office regarding diversity and chain of command. Within a few weeks they were able to reduce anger and anxiety, thereby increasing their innate curiosity and coming together as an effective leadership team.
As a cutting edge company, they had assembled talented, youthful leaders, each one proven in a particular area of leadership. Up to that point they had been unable to gel as a unit. It only took a few days for them to understand and apply new patterns of communication. Through playful collaboration they were able to easily resolve their issues. As they found their sense of humor and respect, they discovered the camaraderie that forms the fabric of great teamwork.
A few months later they promoted the engineering assistant to head the manufacturing plant. Within months they became leaders in their field.
One of our mentor clients was a senior officer in the legal department of a large gas and oil company. He came under great stress when his company decided to merge with a rival company. We were invited to facilitate the merger between two great power companies. The new leadership was charged with merging more than 80,000 worried people into a cohesive unit.
A modern power plant is an industrial citadel of pressure, politics, and the stench of petroleum. Costly dramas unfold within ornate towering spires and grinding machinery. Dedicated people labor hard in the face of emotionally charged disagreements and imminent danger. Every breakdown between people disrupts the flow of product and profit.
Even greater pressure pervades the bland, gray buildings in which leaders and planners have to make high-risk decisions that affect the tens of thousand of employees who work in those dark, dismal corridors. Suspicions run high. Communications are fraught with tension as professional managers joust for the power to perform thankless tasks, while making life and death decisions. Managers and workers deal with harrowing conflicts and make tough decisions under the shadow of regulations and fragile profit steams.
Few of the beneficiaries of “big oil” hold much admiration for the men and women who put their lives and reputations on the line, day after day, year after year. When you gas up your car or turn up the thermostat in your home, you take the benefits to your family for granted. Most folks have little or no awareness of the sacrifice that goes into making them mobile and comfortable.
When two of the largest US power companies reached the pinnacle of their field, merging was the most effective way to expand. Their decision to merge brought increased government scrutiny, internal lawsuits based on diversity issues, and a collision of cultural values between two very different management philosophies.
Both of these huge companies were leaders in the field of petroleum products. Each was facing multiple legal entanglements, and both were struggling with a history of community resistance. Neither had elevated women or minorities to upper level leadership positions. One prided itself on a “gentlemanly” culture, while the other took a “roughneck” approach to the petroleum industry. Both were bleeding resources.
The newly-formed organization hired us because our fee was 90% lower than traditional consulting firms they were considering. Problem solving was important. But transformation of a big company requires common ground. Communication is essential for mediation, design, and integration.
Our training process organizes around an interview process that brings curiosity and respect to the process of inquiry and information sharing. Good communication resolves double binds and cultivates respect.
As our consultants interviewed the key players in each department, they created a field based on two of our unique communication patterns—observing connections and appreciative feedback. Although these tools sound familiar, it takes a full day of rehearsal to understand and apply each one.
Language is important. But attentive curiosity is the only construct that dissolves the fixed ideas and strong feelings that amplify misunderstandings in the workplace. When we completed our four-month training program with the gas and oil giants, there were still plenty of unresolved issues. Only now the employees had powerful new communication tools.
A few months later the corporate leadership brought us back to go over the results they had produced. By their own performance and financial measures they could see an uptick in results for the people who attended our training program. The major lawsuits disappeared and the two cultures found common ground. Our measures indicated a significant shift in team spirit.
A supervisor described how she could now talk openly with a female colleague whose office was in the same hallway. They had passed each other in the corridor for years without speaking. Now they respectfully compared notes to keep their respective departments in the loop.
The leadership team placed a woman in charge of a $500,000,000 power plant in San Antonio. Her newly discovered ability to command construction guys and to cooperate with community groups greatly reduced the legal complications of bringing that plant online. Competent women and minorities moved up to higher levels of responsibility throughout the company.
Most inspiring to us were letters we received from people who were finding other uses for their new communication skills. One employee, whose teenage son had been experimenting with drugs, had tried everything to get through to him. By applying the communication transformers at home, the family system relinquished blame and criticism in favor of appreciative feedback. After a few weeks the young man requested a dialogue with his parents. They easily resolved their issue.
A major celebrity had made certain errors regarding his investments. Hostile attention from the media put pressure on his business, family, and fans. He lost nearly everything he owned, and was deeply depressed.
Sage intervened by means of private consulting sessions to relieve the mental anguish that was causing him severe back pain and other physical symptoms. Then we met with him, together with his agent and manager, to examine the patterns of communication between them and to consider innovative strategies to launch a new public image.
Our client had mixed feelings about the intervention. He wasn't fond of the tough feedback regarding some of his personal issues. To his credit, he made essential changes in his attitude and behavior.
Within a few months he had recovered his most valuable holdings. He had implemented a new strategy and restored his credibility with the public, which remains strong today, even after many years.
A medium sized cosmetic company specialized in healthy skin care products. As long as the founder handled most of the marketing, sales, and operations, the business performed well. As she hired more and more people to assist, she increased the complications and reduced the profits.
One application of our approach is to delineate cash flow streams and to measure the vitality of team spirit in organizations. Our consultants trained her team leaders in people reading and showed them how to recruit and retain curious, productive people. Consequently she lowered her costs and put her attention on creating a lifestyle that restored her enjoyment and enhanced her image to her clients.