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Bringing Back Morale with VBL

A Case Study of Mistakes and a Recovery

Published in The Spinal Column
Nelson-Marlborough Health Services
Nelson New Zealand, October, 1999

© Copyright 2000 by Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D.

"I will never speak up again!" she said with an angry scowl.

"Linda" had attended a meeting with twenty or thirty other employees to provide open and candid feedback to their boss, an executive, managing three hundred workers, supervisors and managers in a large telecommunications company.

When "John," the boss, asked for comments about how people perceived the organisation, Linda decided to be honest. She said, "I wish you would pay less attention to finances, quotas, and performance measures, and more attention to our concerns as people."

Upon hearing the complaint, John erupted into blaming, pointing his finger and saying, "I cannot believe you are saying that! We have worked hard for each of you and your concerns! We have put in new procedures—offered training classes—set up meetings like this to listen to you—increased wages and more. Why don't you appreciate the effort we have made?"

The room went silent. Linda sunk slowly into her chair, her eyes lowered in fear and embarrassment. She declined further comment in the meeting. John ended the meeting, still angry.

Now perhaps you, the reader, are wondering if this story has a happy ending. Normally it might not have. The people involved in this interaction, including the boss, "John," had been through some Values-Based Leadership (VBL) workshops several months previously, part of a major effort to enhance leadership development throughout their division.

After the meeting, Linda confided in her immediate supervisor "Mary". When Mary asked her how she was feeling about the meeting, Linda said, "I will never speak up again."

Mary felt empathy for Linda. She didn't offer solutions in reply. She listened with her heart, both for venting-type anger as well as for violated values. "I don't trust John not to attack me," Linda said. "How could he do that in front of all of my co-workers just when I got the courage to say what was on my mind?" As Mary listened, Linda began, eventually, to calm down, feeling heard and understood.

After seeing Linda calm down a bit, Mary said, "What are your options?"

Linda said, "To shut up, do my job, and eventually find a job working under someone else."

Mary said, "Okay, that is an option. In the short run, if you take that option, how will you feel?"

"Hot. I'll be simmering," Linda said.

"So let's see if we can practice our VBL. John's outburst obviously violated you values," Mary said.

"Yep, it did," Linda said.

"Which ones?"

"Trust and respect, mostly," Linda replied.

"So if I talk with John and he agrees to discuss the situation with you in private, would you be willing to talk to him?"

"Ah . . . let me think. I suppose so, but he would need to apologise, obviously." Linda said.

"All right, I'll see what I can do."

That night Mary called me and we reviewed some possible ways in which she could approach John. The next day, in a private meeting, Mary asked John about his thoughts regarding the exchange with Linda the day before.

"I guess I really messed up, didn't I?" John said.

"What do you think?" Mary said.

"Well . . . I doubt Linda will speak out honestly, if at all, any time soon. She must have felt that I attacked her in front of all the others."

"So if that is true," Mary said, "what can you do? Would you be willing to have a VBL session with her?"

"If I ever want anyone in that group to speak up again, I guess I better mend things with Linda. Do you think she would be willing to talk with me about it?" John asked.

"Yes," Mary said, "I think she might. I suggest that you ask her to meet with you, saying you are sorry for how you responded to her in the meeting."

"Okay. I'll do it. I'll look over my cards, materials and notes from the VBL workshop. Maybe that and some serious thinking will help me to get some ideas about how to structure our conversation. I'd like it to go well for both of us," John said.

The meeting took place the following day. During their meeting, Linda and John did the following:

  • John apologised.
  • Linda accepted his apology.
  • They replayed the original version of the interaction, switching roles with John being Linda and Linda being John.
  • John did Leadership Counselling, (a VBL listening format), asking Linda about her experiences during and after the outburst. He also asked her about the problems she was attempting to voice in the meeting. He asked her what she wanted instead, and what values achieving those goals would fulfill.
  • Linda used Requesting, (a VBL format for bringing forth a problem), saying what she experienced during and after the outburst in the meeting, as well as describing the problems she wanted to voice in the original meeting.
  • Linda went on (following the Requesting) to describe what she wanted for her job, her group, and her future interactions with John. She also described how she would work to achieve those goals and how this would renew her trust in, and respect for, John and the organisation.
  • John continued and deepened his apology by describing why what he did was wrong and resolving to do whatever he could to listen instead of blaming and behaving defensively in future meetings.
  • Linda listened to John's perspectives (using Leadership Counselling) to understand John's frustrations at not having his efforts for people appreciated. John went on to describe what he wanted from Mary and others in the group in that regard.
  • Linda and John then agreed that they would meet with the group of people who had been at the meeting and describe how they dealt with the issues and healed their values violations in their VBL Session.
  • The session between Linda and John took a couple of hours. The subsequent meeting with the group took place the following week. By all accounts, the group emerged much stronger as a result, having healed serious violations of trust and respect.

Although I wasn't present at the group meeting myself, several of the people called me and told me how much they appreciated the courage that Linda, John and Mary showed to do what it took to resolve the situation. Linda and John actually replayed key parts of their discussion for the group to see, hear and comment on.

* * * 

This story - an account of actual events with only the names changed - illustrates a number of VBL skills.


VBL Pattern

Person Who Did
the Pattern

Leadership Counseling
and Mediating

What Mary did

Venting with Mary
Requesting to John
Responding to Apologizing (by John)

What Linda did

Healing, Activating Empathy, Requesting
Apologising and (eventually)
Leadership Counseling

What John did



When someone says anything like, "I will NEVER speak up again!" recognise that all is not lost. Recognise that this is a natural reaction under stress and values violations, one that I call Avoiding. Recognise that closed feedback loops can be opened, violated values healed, trust and respect restored, and morale renewed.

John had VBL training and still lost his cool, engaging in destructive victim behavior. That can happen to anyone, and happens to most of us from time to time. Yet, any of us can recover from these mistakes. VBL is not about perfection, but about improvement.

What happened in this story has happened many times, in different forms, in many organisations. Because NMHS is committed to using VBL there are great opportunities throughout the organisation for enhancing morale and fulfilling important personal, professional and organisational values. It does takes work. It can't be done overnight. Yet using VBL pays off if you continue to work on it. 





Tags: conflict resolution, improving morale, listening to employees, organizational change, respecting complaints, responding to grievances, values based leadership