A Case of Good Nurturing: Checking In
Keeping the work on track by creating supportive environments and touching base frequently
It is not enough to agree at the outset on the goals and processes of a collaboration. To ensure success, like delicate plants, collaborations need constant care and attention. Sometimes, circumstances change and the kind and degree of participation by the collaborators can vary. To stay on the right path, collaborations need to be nurtured carefully and regularly.
A few years ago, Laura received a promotion. As the new Associate Director of Human Resources at a large, reputable non-profit organization focused on educational research, Laura wanted to go beyond the usual imperative for collaboration: she determined to increase professional relationships among her department’s twelve-person staff. Because each individual was responsible for a specific area (e.g. payroll, medical insurance, crisis management), the collection of individuals rarely worked as a whole. Indeed, some staff members confided that they didn’t know others well nor have an understanding of others’ daily tasks—even those who might sit in the next office. In light of many complaints that the human resources department “just doesn’t get the work of the organization,” resulting in inadequate services, Laura wanted to create a healthy atmosphere within the human resources department. She set out to build close working relationships, which she thought would eventually increase the quality of the services and resources that the department would provide to the organization as a whole.
If she were to facilitate her department’s working as a collective whole, Laura realized that she had to create opportunities for the staff to get to know each other. She scheduled three retreats where members gathered at locations away from the office. Unsurprisingly, the staff dreaded the first meeting. Some individuals started to gripe, “Why do we need this?”, “This is excessive—why not just plan a meeting for two hours?”. and “What a waste of time, when we could be getting our real work done.” Despite hearing the noise bubbling up in the office, Laura refused to let these complaints derail her plan.
In fact, Laura raised the ante of the meetings. Even though her budget was small, she decided to “go all out,” for the first meeting. She booked a room at a new, trendy boutique hotel, and made a lunch reservation in the elegant formal dining room. She put together gift bags—consisting of personalized “HR” t-shirts, leather-bound notebooks, and fine chocolates. A positive professional tone had been set. Though they had initially arrived to the first meeting reluctantly, the workers were immediately impressed with the care Laura exhibited and felt motivated to reciprocate her effort.
During the morning of the first day, Laura asked members of the group to use the Values Sort from the Good Collaboration Toolkit. This tool is designed to help workers consider important values and ponder how these values relate to the mission, purpose, and goals of the group. After much discussion of the specific values, she asked individuals to each pick the one value (out of a list of 30) that held the most significance to them in their work. The group was pleasantly surprised that this simple instruction inspired rich discussion of how they might collectively agree on the values they might seek to promote as a department. The day ended with time together in the hotel lounge, and a group that seemed happy. Staff feedback on the meeting was positive and Laura observed a significant shift in the staff members’ outlook on their work and towards one another. Relationships were beginning to form. The first retreat had been worthwhile.
Two months later, at the start of the second meeting (held in a beautiful conference room of the city’s public library), Laura presented each individual with a special stone, each etched with the value he or she had picked as most important. The individuals around the table were touched. Laura then showed the group a duplicate set made of the value stones. The second set would be mounted in a “shadow box” at the front desk of the department. This physical representation solidified the group identity and, as Laura said “shows who we are and this is how we roll….” Once again, the group was moved by her attentiveness and care. Quickly this time, with no need for a fancy lunch, the staff got down to business and made progress on future plans. Goals and timelines were established. In small working groups the members articulated issues, gave feedback and shared promising ideas – gaining further insight into each other’s work, how they are interconnected, and the advantages of working together. Throughout these meetings Laura remained alert to how everyone was participating. She underscored that “if someone isn’t engaged, I need to find out why and check in.”
The third meeting took place in the wine cellar of a local restaurant. To facilitate conversations in the retreat sessions about what was working and what was not, Laura drew on the Revisit Passion and Engagement exercise in the Good Collaboration Toolkit. This ploy can be risky (because people can share negative sentiments). But Laura felt it was necessary for the group to have an open discussion to affirm that the time together had been worthwhile and to revisit the original goal of these meetings—to provide improved services to the organization as a whole. In her words, Laura needed to make sure that “people still feel committed to the process—an essential part of collaboration.”
At the conclusion of the third meeting, the group decided unanimously to continue these retreats over the next six months. Laura joked that she would seek a bigger budget! However, one person stated that there was no need for that, “Now that we know how important it is make the time periodically to listen to each other, talk with each other, and accept all kinds of feedback, the office conference room will suffice.”
Good collaboration needs to be carefully monitored and nurtured; it does not just simply happen on its own. For Laura, showing people how much she cared (with carefully-selected food and meeting spaces, and well-crafted etched rocks), taking the temperature of the group from time to time, and inviting both positive and negative feedback throughout the process, were all key to the process.