A Dead Fish Under The Carpet!

Dead fish

Mediation or Exit Preparation? A Dead Fish Under The Carpet! I’m a qualified Workplace Mediator and have worked across a number of contexts, all of them had reached a point from where it appeared the situation was:

  • Likely to deteriorate
  • Cause others to take sides and “bear witness”
  • Affect business outcomes and performance

It sometimes appears that engaging a mediator is an admission of failure within the organisation and there’s another and perhaps more damaging reason for delay. Put simply, some places and teams don’t much like the idea of a 3rd party digging around and perhaps revealing behaviours and actions that they would prefer remained hidden. I understand this but it doesn’t take us anywhere. 

Here’s an image for you. Someone has lifted your carpet and placed a dead fish under it, and it smells. Now, you can open as many windows as you want, use litres of air freshener and pack the room with diffusers. Guess what? Until you lift the carpet and get the dead fish out, expect the smell to linger and get worse.

Here’s a story about case the speaks to the Dead Fish Under the Carpet image!

Client:  “John, can we have a conversation about one of our Senior Team?”

Me:      “Sure, where do you want to start …”

Client:  “Well it’s a bit tricky …”

I’m very seldom approached unless it is a “bit tricky,” and if only it were “a bit.” Generally, by the time I’m approached to mediate, things have escalated to a point where each party has an unhealthy focus on the destruction of the other.

Personal, professional or both, it doesn’t matter, it is winning that counts. 

Perhaps one of the more painful examples of this centred around a case where a Leader had been appointed with the specific brief to improve the performance of a badly performing team, one where its poor outputs and client feedback were likely to lose them an essential “professional kite mark.”

It was serious.

The appointee set about halting the decline by applying a coercive approach to leadership as described by Daniel Goleman[1]. Put briefly, “Do as I say to the standard I set,” with a low tolerance of failure and challenge. And it worked! Client satisfaction increased, professional awarding bodies could see evidence of improvement and sales increased. Great stuff! But there’s a “but” and I guess we all know it;

“What will get you there won’t keep you there.”

It was only a matter of time before complaints grew, morale declined, and performance decreased. Behind every one of these descriptors lay several stories of personal and professional damage that would have a lasting effect. Cliques formed on both sides, the unshakable beliefs of some were complimented by the worrying dissonance of others and it was this group, those who knew that poor choices were being made but felt they had no choice but to go with them, that suffered most. 

Our interventions, our suggested ways forward were stymied by a desire on each side, to set their collective radar to pick up potential attacks from the other or divergence from what each thought the other had committed to. 

Eventually the client asked me if I felt the situation might be salvaged. It couldn’t: we had reached a pathological point from where the destruction of the other side mattered more than resolution. The appointee who had effectively saved the team was given a negotiated settlement and a decent reference.

What a waste. Sometimes we need greater clarity than we might think necessary for people to get the message. It’s not about being popular, it’s about being clear. We also need to support our change makers. To do that effectively, we need to understand that being good in one area doesn’t mean similar performance and outcomes in others. Our colleague would not let go of a command/coercive style and the tool of success became the device of failure.

We need to articulate change and outcomes as a developmental journey and be clear about the behaviours and attitudes needed at critical phases on the way, including when it will be necessary to set pace and insist on standards. To do this, it is essential to build trust and vital to create a shared understanding of good outcomes in several professional and personal dimensions giving direction, support with as little direct intervention as is possible and as much as is necessary. There’s a Leadership Skill Set there that used well, will increase the likelihood of achieving good outcomes.

Act sooner rather than later or prepare for a dead fish event. Good luck!

The team had a new leader appointed, some had been so bruised by the process, they felt they no longer wanted to work for the organisation and because of this, good, experienced people left, damaging the business offer, creating shortfalls, instability and gaps as replacement professional were interviewed, appointed and inducted. Those who stayed? The events had polarised them and the alliances that brought them comfort and security were no longer required: their impact and contribution to collective memory remained and were less than helpful in promoting healing.

The team leader? A decent person who had little flexibility in their management style had to face the a few “dark nights of the soul,” dealing with anger, frustration and the need to carry the heavy load of an early exit from a prestigious, high-profile role. 

The organisation? It failed to cover itself in glory: the Team Leader’s management style needed to be challenged and required outcomes identified, named and supported.

Me? “You can’t win ‘em all!” I get it. My conviction that earlier support and intervention is the better option has again been reinforced, the sooner we can “lift the carpet and get rid of the dead fish,” the sooner and sweeter the room will smell.

[1] Primal Leadership. Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Annie McKee: Harvard Business Review Press