Making a U-Turn from Unsafe Work Direction

by Rachel Schaming, Executive Coach, PCC

Fred was a newly selected leader for a student services department in a large community college with multiple campuses. Fred had a stellar academic career as a faculty member, Dean, and Vice President. As he moved upward in his career, he began to wrestle with leadership skills he had not acquired. Complaints increased from his direct reports. They were being asked by Fred to cut corners through the purchasing process impacting the quality of construction projects centered on safety.

Fred was invited to participate in a leadership development class sponsored by the college. Early on in the class, Fred stated that he felt pressure to deliver results on time and within budget constraints. He was deeply concerned that the pressure was creating ethical breaches. Fred was acutely aware his employees were demoralized with the situation and were voicing complaints to the Office of Dispute Resolution. Fred was experiencing anxiety and internal conflicts.

Class discussion centered on questions to Fred to surface his personal values. He quickly was able to articulate them – honesty, transparency, and respect. Fred worked on scripting how he would frame a conversation with his boss. Fred practiced, with the support of his classmates. He admitted feeling anxious and fearful that the conversation would break down into angry chaos. Class conversations centered on the skills of emotional self-management when in a challenging conversation with heated rhetoric. Fred practiced his script with various classmates (peer coaches) to gain confidence. Fred recognized the enablers to support the conversation and increase his confidence for the conversation were: (1) preparation – gathering information and data, (2) preparing a script, (3) practicing the script with his classmates, and (4) thinking through possible emotions that could surface during the conversation. Fred felt confident that given the opportunity, his boss would choose to amend the current practice for the greater good in the college.

Following his script, Fred began the meeting with his boss by saying:

Thanks for meeting with me. I’ve made some notes about a few things I’m concerned about. As you know, we’ve been cutting corners over the past few months in an effort to increase efficiency and productivity. This has impacted employee morale. I’ve been informed that employees are so concerned they are going to the Office of Dispute Resolution to file grievances. I want to work with you to find a better way for us to increase productivity without cutting corners.

Fred reported that he managed his emotions throughout the conversation. He stated that practicing with his peer coaches made all the difference in his confidence in entering the conversation with the boss. Fred returned to class a few days later. He stated the conversation with his boss had occurred. He added the boss initially was very angry in the conversation. Fred told the class he remained calm and focused on his values and what he wanted to see through the purchasing process to gain realignment with his cherished values of honesty, transparency, and fairness in interactions with others.

Over the subsequent month, Fred reported that the boss did not change the production processes. Fred was relieved when the boss requested a second meeting. This time, the boss was calm and prepared to discuss what he and Fred needed to do to get back on track in the production department. The two worked together to prepare a project plan with a concrete timeline for the improved production changes.

Fred’s situation and how he prepared, practiced, and delivered his script encouraged others in the leadership class to identify, plan, and prepare for their own values-based conversations. Other classmates identified situations they had been avoiding by using excuses such as “it won’t make any difference” or “that’s the way it is here”. Classmates recognized that it was relatively easy to make a decision about what to do when they needed to voice their values. The challenging part was in planning how to do it. Scripting was the critical component that follows the surfacing and articulation of values. Fred was a role model to the class in modeling the way with the Giving Voice to Values process.

Of particular value to this class was thinking through ways to voice and act on their values while side-stepping arguments and rationalizations. For example, we considered together and practiced how to say “no” respectively. The class was asked to confront the questions, “if my hands weren’t tied, what would I do or say?”

These leaders shared that when they write out what they want to say and are able to practice the script in a safe environment, they gain confidence and competence prior to a pivotal conversation. These conversations may involve a measure of risk and feelings of fear and anxiety. 

Through participating in this class, Fred and the other leaders in the class gained confidence in knowing what to say, to whom, and especially how to say what needs to be voiced.

Executive Coach Rachel Schaming, PCC

About Rachel Schaming, Executive Coach

Rachel specializes in supporting institutions, organizations, and leaders in preparing for and managing pivotal conversations, such as giving feedback on employee conduct issues, terminations, downsizing and layoff conversations.

Rachel is on a mission to preserve workplace relationships by making challenging conversations positive and respectful.


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