CYC-Online 135 MAY 2010
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Meetings, decisions, changes

John Stein

I’ve worked for a number of human service agencies, a few community-based, but mostly residential. Many of those agencies were experiencing some difficulty “low morale and high turnover, allegations and investigations, insufficient funds to cover current expenses, and more. Change was necessary, and I’ve seen several approaches to making changes, and have at times used each of them.

Approach number one (poor)
The Director comes into a staff meeting with a new Policy and Procedure Statement. He or she has discussed it with other “upper level” people and is now presenting it to the “Team” as a fait accompli. The Director distributes copies, reviews the changes, tells staff to place copies in their manuals and implement the changes immediately

In larger organizations with a training division, there may even be agency-wide training on the new procedures.

Anyone who expresses any concerns about difficulties in implementing the changes is labeled, “Not a Team Player.” Team Players, after all, do what they are told ...

The results
The staff who have to implement and live with the changes were not consulted. The message is quite clear. Their opinion doesn’t matter. They do not feel as if they are a part of the “Team.”

The Director believes he or she has done all that is necessary to do to make the changes effective, and moves on to other matters.

Meanwhile, implementation is sporadic. Some staff make attempts to follow the new procedures. Others are not so diligent, for whatever reasons, and keep doing things the way they always have. With little follow up from the Director, it looks as if no one really cares. So why make the effort?

The problem
Staff who have had no input are not so likely to feel a part of the team and support changes. Routines are neither established nor changed by written policies and procedures, by meetings, memos, or even training, but by consistent attention. The procedures that matter are the procedures that in practice, not the ones on paper, at least until the time comes to “discipline” someone. Change requires consistent attention and follow through until it becomes routine.

Approach number two (better)
A new change is discussed in a staff meeting. Perhaps someone suggests a change “the Director or a member of the staff. Perhaps someone brings up a problem. There is brainstorming. Ideas are presented and discussed, perhaps at length. Eventually, there appears to be some consensus and the decision is made to make a change.

The results
There appears to be a consensus that the change is good. Staff leave the meeting and return to work. They begin to think and to talk amongst themselves over the next few days. They identify some concerns with the changes to which they had all agreed. But it’s too late. The decision has been made.

The problem
When a change is proposed in a staff meeting, the person proposing the change has had some time to think about it from her or his own perspective. Others have not. The ideas are new to them. Some people in the staff meeting may be preoccupied with other concerns and not able to give full attention to the changes being discussed. Others may be hesitant to speak out for what ever reasons. With more time to think on the changes while on the job, to sleep on it, as it were, to talk amongst themselves, the apparent consensus breaks down. Staff feel a part of the team, but end up worrying about what they have gotten themselves into. And any attempts by the Director to follow through tend to run into resistance and objections.

Approach number three (best)
The Director announces in a staff meeting that she or he has been thinking about making some changes and invites input. (Or perhaps someone else identifies a problem or suggests a change.) There is considerable discussion, brainstorming, etc. Perhaps a consensus is reached. The Director says that she or he appreciates the input and would like to take some more time to think about it, then tables the matter until the next meeting.

After the meeting, staff have time to think about the proposed changes when they return to their work. The proposed changes take on a different reality when staff are actually on the job rather than in a meeting. They have time to think and evaluate on the job, to more fully consider consequences, to talk with others, to come up with alternatives. And there is no pressure.

Meanwhile, the Director visits with staff informally and listens to what they have been thinking.

At the next meeting, everyone is fully prepared to discuss the changes. When there is a consensus, the decision to implement the changes is easy. If consensus is not yet apparent, the matter can be tabled again.

The results
This approach leads to a more lasting consensus. It makes staff members feel a part of the decision-making process, a valued part of the team. The message is clear, the Director does not make decisions without input from the people who will be affected, those who will have to implement the changes. Of course, it is still necessary for the Director to follow through, to pay attention to staff effort and progress in implementing the changes. Making changes requires effort from the people who must make them. People like to feel that their effort is noticed and appreciated. Change, therefore, requires consistent attention and follow through from leadership over a period of time until new routines are firmly established.

The problem
This approach takes time, patience, and effort on the part of leadership. But I think it’s worth it. There is seldom any urgency to make changes in policies and procedures that have been in place for any length of time. After all, if the matter were urgent, it could not have waited for a staff meeting in the first place, so one more week, one more staff meeting should not be a problem.

Final thoughts
It is not always possible for Directors to accede to the wishes or desires of staff. Legal requirements and licensing rules and regulations and financial constraints and so many other things sometimes require changes that staff would prefer not to make. Even in such cases, however, providing staff the opportunity to contribute their thoughts, ideas, opinions, and objections, listening, considering, and answering, includes staff in the decision. Ironically, they still feel a part of the decision even when the decision goes against their wishes. If it is done right, which simply means, if staff feel that they have been heard and considered.

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