Sunday, February 13, 2011

Knowing When It's Time to Ask Someone to Go

As a for-hire facilitator and process consultant, I see a lot of groups when they're not at their best. While I always approach a job as if it's not too late to turn things around and heal all the hurts in the room, some of the time it is too late. Today I want to write about the telltale signs that it's better for all concerned that one or more folks move on.

Much of my work as an outside facilitator is putting out fires, by which I mean working with unresolved distress. While I have developed a protocol for doing this with which I've had a lot of success (it's a four-step process: a) what are the feelings?; b) what's the story?; c) what's at stake?; d) what do you want to do about it?), sometimes—maybe 3% of the time—I fail to make a good connection with all the players and the process falls flat.

Beyond moments when my personal skills (or judgment) are insufficient for the need, I've learned that there are other conditions under which it's time to let go, rather than to keep digging. Let me walk through the patterns:

1. Cracks in the Foundation
For healing and recovery to be possible, it's necessary that all parties can see each other as well-intended and capable of hearing accurately and working constructively with input that differs from their own. If things deteriorate to the point where you can't trust where someone is coming from (it appears they consistently advocate for their own interests at the expense of the group's) or the person in question does not appear to be capable of taking in what others are saying or working with what they say in a good faith efforts to find common ground, then it may be time to pull the plug.

The idea here is that trust in everyone's good will and the ability to hear and work with the views of others are foundational to building and maintaining a healthy group. No matter how elegantly you craft agreements or solve problems, if the group's work sits on a poor foundation, it is always susceptible to structural failure.

Caution: Before moving to this conclusion, be sure that you've first made a full effort to establish that you've accurately heard what the perceived obstinate person has been saying and attempted to bridge to them (they may have the same story about you!).

2. It's Not My Fault
Occasionally (not often) I encounter a person who seems to get into difficulties on a regular basis, yet never accepts any responsibility for why things are hard. It is always the fault of others. They are only satisfied when all efforts to improve things are being undertaken by someone else. In my experience, this kind of person is extremely difficult to work with cooperatively. If you have one of these in your group, I'd encourage them to leave.

Caution: Don't place a person in this category (of total inflexibility about accepting any responsibility for difficulties) based on a single incident. We're talking about an recurring pattern.

3. Lack of Will to Work on the Dynamics
A more subtle version of knowing when to quit is if things get to the point that all (or most) of the stakeholders are so weary of the skirmishes and entrenched positions that they've given up. That is, they've lost hope that things can improve. While everyone may continue to have good intent and able to demonstrate an ongoing ability to work constructively in the group (at least some of the time), there may nonetheless develop a system failure (humans have limits!) where it's for a change and it isn't any one person's fault. When the group has gotten discouraged to the point of despair, it may be time for the group to reconfigure.

A small portion of my work with conflicted groups has been of this nature. Even where I could see a pathway to recovery, there wasn't the will to attempt it and I was effectively being asked to perform a "memberectomy," where I labored to get folks to see how it was in everyone's best interest that one or more left the island.

Caution: In my experience, groups often reach a stalemate of this sort because they lack the skill to work with distress, before they lose the will to work with distress. I urge groups to try getting help before giving up.

4. Too Much Me & Not Enough We
Sometimes you'll have a group member who needs a lot of personal attention, to the point where it's consistently distracting the group from its mission. Often this person has gone through considerable struggle in their life and comes to the group with a lot of baggage. While they may be fine (even wonderful) when they're not triggered, the reality is that they'll triggered a lot, and it's draining the group's batteries having to tow them repeatedly out one or another their (many) emotional ditches so that the group can get back on the road and make progress on the work it's in the world to do.

The dynamic here is that this person needs a good bit more from the group than they're able to give, and the imbalance is unsustainable. If this dynamic is allowed to persist without addressing, it can lead to the loss of more productive members who get too fatigued by what's happening to continue their involvement.

Caution: There can be many things contributing to why a person is frequently triggered and it behooves a group to proceed slowly enough in assessing the situation that it looks closely at the ways in which the group's culture and structure may be unwittingly contributing to what's manifesting distress. That is, don't ignore the possibility that the upset person may be the canary in the coal mine, giving the group early warnings of unhealthy or inadvertently prejudicial practices that the group would be much better off addressing.

• • •
Even if the group becomes clear that it's time for someone to leave, it can take a lot of courage to start talking about it. It's hard to have these kind of conversations and maintain a stance of compassion and authenticity. Usually there's a considerable backlog of unresolved tensions and it can be very hard to avoid this appearing as a witch hunt—especially to the "witch."

What's more, it can be excruciating for a cooperative group to draw a firm line about unacceptable patterns of behavior—to the point where the offending member suffers an involuntary loss of rights, the most serious version of which is loss of membership. Even asking someone to leave (as opposed to attempting an expulsion) can be very hard to do, as it calls for a firmness and judgment that most people who join cooperative groups have hoped they could leave behind.

While it's understandable why it's hard, it must be done nonetheless, because the alternative is often worse. Sure, sometimes the difficult person will leave on their own. But sometimes they won't. They may not have any options that look better, or the wherewithal to manage the search for another situation. They may be stuck and not know how to put together or execute an exit plan. They may even think the current situation—never mind how painful or intolerable it may be for others—isn't that bad. They may be used to being an outlier wherever they go and where they are now may offer more humane and gracious treatment than what they typically experience. So why leave?
In the worst scenarios, the challenging person may persist in the group, and you may lose wave after wave of good members who would rather depart than confront. I've seen this happen and it can be tragic.

Sometimes, in the face of sustained evidence of stuckness—despite your best efforts to make things better—you can no longer afford to give more chances. This monograph is aimed at helping groups be clear enough to know when they've arrived at that fork in the road, and brave enough to take the right path.

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