Donna* was adamant: “Shelby can’t tell me how to run my department. It’s too bad he doesn’t like the theme for next month’s newsletter. It’s my prerogative to make these decisions, and I don’t intend to negotiate everything with him.”
I asked Donna if she wanted the freedom to act, respect for her authority, and a sense of flow and trust in her relationship with Shelby. Donna concurred and added that she also wanted more ease in their communication.
Later I talked with Shelby, and he expressed significant pain about his experience of Donna making decisions that limited his ability to carry out his job responsibilities. He related several such incidents to me. When I suggested that we could find a way for him to be fully open with Donna about his concerns, he laughed in disbelief. “There is no way I can tell her the truth. She doesn’t want to hear it. In this economy I can’t risk losing my job.” I could sense Shelby’s passion and commitment to the success of the department and the organization, and that he really wanted the authority and support to carry out his various initiatives. I also imagined, and he concurred, that he wanted clear and prompt communication, in the absence of which he was often left in the middle of a project without either freedom or guidance.
Despite his disbelief, Shelby was willing to put in the effort of working on how he might present his concerns to Donna. We worked together on separating out his many judgments of her, and instead focusing on the clearest description of what actions she took that were challenging for him, and what was important for him in those incidents. After some weeks, he agreed to take the risk of presenting his concerns to Donna. To his utter amazement Donna was entirely receptive, and graciously took responsibility for taking actions without considering their effect on Shelby.
I wasn’t as surprised as Shelby was. In order to come to this meeting Shelby had to learn some powerful lessons that dramatically altered his way of approaching Donna. The most obvious one was the experience of empowerment from finding the willingness to face consequences and trust that he can survive them. Coming to the meeting with less fear meant he was more relaxed and calm, which made it easier for Donna to hear him. Another significant milestone for Shelby along the way was developing curiosity about Donna’s experience. As he stretched to understand her, he was reminded that she is a human being completely like him. In addition, seeing things from her perspective, even if only inside himself, he could see more easily their shared purpose, and could speak to that when he brought up his concerns. Not experiencing an attack, Donna then had nothing to oppose, and could open to hearing his concerns.
When I met with Donna afterwards, it became apparent that while she felt more receptive to Shelby, she was still concerned about what she saw as his inability to accept her authority. The dilemma she was facing is common: when would she involve Shelby in decisions, and when would it make more sense for her to make executive decisions and expect Shelby to follow and support her authority?
In exploring this dilemma Donna learned that getting Shelby, or anyone else, to do something just because she has the power, is an expensive currency. The price she pays is not only in Shelby’s goodwill and productivity. She could see that she would also pay the price of information being withheld from her when it’s contrary to her viewpoint, with potentially negative consequences for the department. At the same time, she knew that plenty of situations would by necessity require her to make decisions quickly, with ease, and without having to involve Shelby or anyone else. That freedom was essential to her in order to fulfill her responsibilities.
At this point we brought Shelby into the conversation. Together we identified three things she could do to address this dilemma with Shelby. One was to distinguish between the convenience and the necessity of making decisions without consulting with Shelby. The second was to share with him more transparently about decisions she made on her own. And the third was to invite feedback about the effect of her decisions on his ability to perform his job. Over time this combined strategy would increase trust and result in exactly what they each wanted. Shelby would have more willingness to accept decisions Donna made without consulting him, and Donna would have more willingness to include him in decisions.
Is collaboration across power differences possible or an oxymoron? When people in authority assert their power as a matter of principle rather than based on need, and when people with less authority operate out of fear, there isn’t going to be enough trust for collaboration. When communication and agreements are explicit, roles are clear, and learning is an integral part of the work, power differences are much less likely to interfere with the flow of collaboration and mutual support towards a common goal.
Here are some opportunities for learning about applying NVC in the workplace:
• The Art of Effective Feedback, in Oakland, with Maja Bengtson
• Feedback without Criticism, on the phone, with Miki Kashtan
• Making Collaboration Real Conference, in San Francisco, with Miki Kashtan and 7 other trainers
• Making Collaboration Real Yearlong Program, in Marin County, with Miki Kashtan and Martha Lasley
• Creating Workplaces Where People Thrive, in various locations, with Gregg Kendrick
* Not only are the names made up, the situation I am describing is also fictitious, composed of bits and pieces of real situations I have worked with.