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has strings attached

At-work sharing
has strings attached

Perhaps that means bringing in a consultant to conduct workshops or retreats. Or maybe it means otherwise fostering an environment where introspection and revelation are expected components of the workplace.
But is the end always worth the means? Is this quest for integration really in everyone’s best interests?
In this self-evaluative, often emotional journey, where probing questions and personal disclosure are the methods of choice, questions of privacy and appropriateness are inevitable, as are queries about the legitimacy of what some see as the latest flavor of the month.
“The problem from my point of view is that these are attempts to manage a relationship that has become largely dysfunctional, largely because of management,” says Chris Garlock, coordinator of the Rochester Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
Garlock has no argument with the theory behind efforts to integrate individual and company values and goals.
But he is concerned about the management half of the equation. Citing recent headlines indicating more downsizing at area firms, Garlock contends it will be difficult to overcome what he terms a complete distrust and overriding fear consuming workers that they will be the next to go. He says fear makes employees reluctant to participate in the open communication style required for such a process to work.
“People are calling up and saying, “We are so frustrated and morale is so low, but if we speak up, we’ll be fired,”’ he says. “I can’t see people putting out on the table without a guarantee of protection. I can’t see people believing (in open communication with management), not in 1996, not with the job market the way it is.”
Others raise questions of how open is too open.
John Halligan, professor of religious studies at St. John Fisher College, believes that the current corporate craze for self- and group-values clarification is in fact a good thing, but he sees danger arising in the potential for employee coercion.
If employees are forced into unwanted, intensive emotional commitment as a condition of employment, Halligan wonders if the company is violating the individuals’ civil rights and rights to privacy. He has been involved in group sensitivity training where individual disclosures resulted in divorces, firings and resignations.
He says that current procedures used by management consultants require people to lower their defenses and express themselves in ways in which they normally would not in the workplace, which is, at best, unpredictable, and, at worst, dangerous.
Exploring people’s emotions can have troubling consequences, Halligan maintains, as some revelations prodded out of employees during training sessions could be personally devastating.
“A company has to take responsibility,” Halligan says of the potential results.
Teresa Miller M.D., a local psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and family medicine at the University of Rochester, agrees that employee participation in self-assessment exercises should be optional.
“I think these kinds of seminars are important in that employers are paying more attention to the employee as a person, but to make them mandatory is going too far,” Miller says.
In private practice for 12 years, Miller harbors two concerns about the impact of consultant-led introspection on the job.
First, disclosures may cross the boundaries of confidentiality, which she believes is inappropriate in the workplace. Second, she questions whether the training and background of individuals leading self-assessment seminars and discussions are sufficient to handle potentially dangerous outcomes. Miller feels that mental-health professionals should be made available during these kinds of activities.
John Engels, president of and a partner in Great Lakes Leadership Group Inc., which specializes in this arena, agrees.
Engels, who calls his work with people at local companies a reflection process–an effort to get people to think so they can learn about themselves–says he knows his limits. He says he knows when to refer a client to a professional–such as a psychotherapist or addiction counselor–with the training to handle issues beyond his expertise.
Noting that any Tom, Dick or Jane can hang up a shingle and go into business as a management consultant, Engels agrees with those who say unqualified “experts” can really hurt a company.
And even “(qualified consultants) make mistakes,” he says. “The key is, are you aware of it and open to feedback?”
Referrals can help companies protect themselves, as can carefully choosing a consultant whose views and methods match those of the client company.
“The wrong consultant could be disastrous. The way they go about their work is absolutely critical,” says Chris Pulleyn, CEO of advertising agency Buck & Pulleyn Inc., which hired Great Lakes to evaluate the organization and implement strategies to improve performance and boost employee morale.
The work has resulted in a flatter organization characterized by work teams that make direct customer decisions. Initially described as “the agency that was too polite,” Buck & Pulleyn now has benefited, Pulleyn says, from a focus on training employees to push back and confront colleagues and supervisors effectively.
Step one required employees to complete a self-assessment tool that showed individual strengths and weaknesses. “If people feel it is in their control, they can do anything,” says Pulleyn.
Pulleyn admits that some of her employees do not react well to the imposed self-evaluation, but says that if someone cannot communicate effectively, he or she will not do well in the requisite tight, streamlined work forces of the ’90s.
“If people are resistant, it’s a good indicator that they might not work well,” she says.
Engels concedes that reluctance does arise, but he says he does not believe in shoving anything down someone’s throat. In fact, he says, he has broken off client relationships when it became obvious that things were not working out.
“We don’t encourage client management to take a “Do this or you’ll be fired’ approach,” Engels says. “(But) we find out why they (the participant) don’t want to do it, what’s behind it, explore the fear and work from the very top.”
(Mary Anne Wentworth is a Rochester-area free-lance writer.)

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