The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts
A couple of years ago, we were invited to conduct a workshop during the annual conference of a property-management firm based in New England. Recent employee feedback indicated that a new problem had arisen, one that got the attention of the CEO. People were on record saying they didn’t feel heard and that important information didn’t always trickle upward. So the CEO sent us an invitation to facilitate a group retreat, where the whole range of employees could air their grievances and talk through how to improve the situation.
The banquet hall they had rented for the day was set along icy New England roads and was replete with faded salmon tones, gold light fixtures, and metal objects adorned with floral prints that the hall referred to as chairs. Describing them as uncomfortable would be an understatement.
To complicate matters, the space was preparing for a wedding or high school prom later in the evening, so tables were prearranged to make space for the dance floor and fabric was draped prettily along the bar. With no carnation on our lapels we were clearly out of place, but so were the scores of management professionals sitting with laptops and spreadsheets at the cloth covered, flower-laden folding tables.
The day had begun with several hours of tactical discussions about the siloed mentality that was hurting the company’s performance. When the time came for us to take the stage, we could see the problem vividly displayed in front of us. Senior management talked over or at team members instead of talking with them. To make matters worse, business units were allocated to specific areas of the room, with all of the accountants seated at one table, property managers at another, social workers at a third, and so on. Several hours of discussion had not achieved any breakthroughs on what to do about the silo problem that was having such a negative impact on employees’ quality of life and performance. The morning session, in fact, provided more evidence of silos, as each team coalesced around its tribal mentality. If the CEO’s intent was to help each employee to develop a full-enterprise mindset—thinking of their individual roles as closely tied to the broader mission of the whole company—it clearly was not happening yet.
We began the workshop by engaging the room with some open-ended questions to develop a sense of trust and psychological safety. We posed questions like: “What are some things the company has done well recently?” and “How has the culture changed over the past few years?” But the cold New England weather seemed reflected in the crowd’s demeanor. Comments were terse, and while we made some progress, the icy tracks had been laid and we were fighting an uphill battle from the start. Every response from the crowd was procedural, as though they were reading answers off a company spreadsheet or punch list. Nobody was willing to go off script and tell us what was really on their minds.
Frustrated that our attempt to engage this group in active inquiry was getting off to such a slow start, we pivoted to a different tactic. We paused and posed one of our favorite open-ended questions for a room full of anxious professionals fidgeting with their watches, hoping the hands will turn faster:
This question can take people aback at first, but it works so well because it prompts them to reflect on their fears and hopes—on what’s most meaningful in their lives. In that moment, it felt as though the tide started turning. The employees, we hoped, were about to start inching away from their narrow focus on the operational challenges of each silo and take on deeper questions about what they really care about when they go to work.
In all of the years we have asked that question at company events, only once did somebody offer an immediate reply. “Nothing!” one person proudly shouted during a keynote address we were delivering. But upon further discussion, we quickly learned that this individual took a sleeping pill every evening before hitting the hay, and thus was seldom troubled by sleepless nights of anxiously staring at the ceiling and counting an unfathomable number of sheep. So, apart from this one medically induced Rip Van Winkle, the question always causes momentary silence from a crowd, as eyes dart down or up in thoughtful silence. It triggers contemplation.
This audience was no different. After a brief pause, predictable answers began emanating from the various tables, always reflecting whatever silo that group represented. The accountants said they were kept awake by gaps in the company’s accounting software. The property managers lost sleep over the logistical issues of keeping their many buildings up and running. The lawyers were concerned with… well, everything. As we went around the room, each table mentioned something procedural, something quantitative and mathematical, something that dealt with zeros and ones or dollar signs. It was all numbers, all the time, until we reached the table way in the back where Hector Ortiz was sitting with his colleagues.
Hector worked as a maintenance technician, and he sat at a table tucked in the back among his fellow custodians, many of whom were wearing blue shirts with white name patches, far away from the dance floor. Their appearance was in stark contrast to their colleagues at neighboring tables, who wore starched white shirts and neatly pressed blouses while manipulating digits on screens. The custodians worked with their hands, engaging with the actual smells and textures of the specific business they were in.
After we posed our open-ended question—What keeps you up at night?—and the higher-ups and professional staff had offered their predictable answers, Hector stood to offer a response that silenced the room. His answer perfectly encapsulated the empathy, trust, and collective values that are so vital to organizational well-being—and that none of the rest of them had thought to address.
Hector said his custodial pain point was “loss.” The maintenance technicians serviced all of the assisted-living centers under the management company’s portfolio. So, in addition to landscaping duties and exterior painting, these employees were also responsible for the interior upkeep of resident apartments. Every time a light bulb needed to be replaced or the garbage disposal became clogged, it was the custodian who dropped by to lend a hand. Given that many of the elderly residents lived alone, they welcomed these visits; to them, these custodians weren’t just the hired help but friendly companions and, to a certain degree, family. Everyone in the room who was not a maintenance technician was shocked by the scope of Hector’s work.
Hector shared the story of one resident, well into her nineties, who often asked him to perform additional odd jobs around the apartment, the most common assignment being to open a pesky jar of pickles. Over time, one pickle jar after another, they forged a human connection, a friendship that extended well beyond vinegar, salt, and water. They shared family stories, trivia answers from last night’s Jeopardy!, and friendly well-wishes for the resident’s never-ending parade of doctors’ visits.
Hector never thought that by performing such handiwork he would become so emotionally invested in this relationship. But when the requests to open a pickle jar inevitably ceased, he was devastated. Each custodian around the table had a similar story, one of friendship and loss. Not one pain point from that group spoke to quantitative, logistical challenges; each custodian understood that the emotional connections to the residents were the most important aspect of their work.
After the custodians shared their stories, the floodgates at neighboring tables opened up. Seemingly everyone had something to share with similar humanistic concerns. The ensuing conversation was animated by an uncommonly human quality as the participants conceived, discussed, and created innovative solutions to their array of workplace challenges. It wasn’t exactly clear what was going on, but it was obvious to everyone in the room that the group had never had an experience quite like it. Employees expressed gratitude to Hector, as well as the other custodians who had shared their experiences, for opening their eyes to a part of the company they’d never really thought about.
Once the stories got going, everyone started to talk across their silos. The legal group, always frustrated that property managers and social workers weren’t quickly providing them with essential information to share with outside regulatory bodies, listened to what lay beneath the tardiness they resented. Whereas they’d previously thought that the employees in these other groups were lazy, or just didn’t care, they now realized that they were actually overwhelmed due to problems with staffing following a couple of retirements and a maternity leave. So the different groups started trying to sort out which information the lawyers needed at what time and what information could reasonably be deferred.
Over the ensuing weeks and months, leaders and workers across the company reported that collaboration, productivity, and quality of life had increased substantially as a direct result of the program. One of the steps taken by this company after our seminar was the hiring of a grief counselor to speak with the custodians when they lost a customer or, more aptly, a friend. Through active inquiry and an emotionally transparent exchange of ideas, the company discovered a deeper truth together. Our follow-up interviews with seminar participants revealed that the Think Talk Create process seemed to be sticking, with a greater sense of psychological safety and openness to discussion at work. The company’s success, however, was no accident.
We see these humanistic, nonquantitative concerns in virtually every organization we work with. People are seeking this connectivity, yet for some reason professional culture—which is ostensibly focused on efficiency and productivity—often unnecessarily and unknowingly gets in its own way. Through the emotional openness of one custodian, the property-management firm had actually stumbled upon the most powerful driver of organizational performance. That’s because that day—in that poorly furnished room, set to host a wedding or prom—Hector showed his higher-status colleagues how to construct a psychologically safe environment.
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