Interview for Managing Stress and Team Survival In Times of Change
Managing Stress and Team Survival In Times of Change with Mark Gorkin
Michael Smith: This time we are talking with Mark Gorkin about his CFUNITED-05
talk "Managing Stress and Team Survival In Times of Change". So why should a
developer come to your session Mark ?
Mark Gorkin: Programming teams can be highly stressful and I will help people to
learn how to make programming less stressful and more enjoyable.
MS: Can you give some example of programming team stress?
MG: In addition to the always on, "do more with less" environment, team have to
deal with demanding clients. And oftentimes clients have difficulty
articulating just what they want. Or the client believes he or she knows how
long a project should take and it's wildly at variance with what's realistic in
light of budget and time constraints. And during times of change, there may
well be a change of personnel: long-time team members may have moved on. People
remaining are feeling the loss. Then there's the challenge of integrating new
team members, that is, learning a person's work style and developing a good
working relationship. And if the change involves reorganzation or, especially,
some downsizing then survival stress surely comes to the forefront.
MS: Sounds like you have had a lot of experience of team stress - what was the
toughest environment that you worked in and why?
MG: My intervention work often begins when an organization or a subunit -- such
as a division or department -- is experiencing a level of dysfunctional stress
that's beyond management's and/or a union's ability to control. One vivid
example immediately comes to mind: the "blue collar" government division in a
white collar world, castoff by their agency as part of a budget tightening
maneuver. The group of sixty was relegated to the basement of a huge federal
agency, drifting, marking time, not sure where and when (or if) they would
permanently wash up. Not surprisingly, during this period of uncertain survival
all were on edge. Racial tensions flared: some white employees pulled up KKK
websites; some black employees played speeches of Louis Farrakhan on cassettes.
Grievance procedures were escalating. A manager in the Diversity Office finally
realized that the government was hemorrhaging money in this administrative
Armageddon. Was human blood next?
MS: So what did happen?
MG: At this point, "The Stress Doc" was asked to make a house call. The strategy
was twofold: a) provide two one-day "Practicing Safe Stress" Workshops, half
the division in each program and, hopefully, b) reduce sufficiently various
frustrations and hostilities and engender enough confidence and trust so that
management, union and employees would all agree to participate in a follow-up
team building process.
The challenge of running a program for an overflowing with emotional charge
workgroup is, of course, to release real anger without regressing into a primal
scream and attack session. How to start transforming individual and group rage
and hostility into productive passion and assertion?
MS: Wow, that is a pretty scary situation. How did you intervene in this
potentially vicious cycle?
MG: I was brought in by a Project Manager working with the division, upon being
directed by an EEO Officer (who claimed that the government was losing thousands
and thousands of dollars in grievance procedures). First there was a meeting
with management and the union to for designing the intervention process. Next,
we quickly instituted two one-day Managing Stress, Anger and Conflict Programs
for the sixty folks in the division; thirty people per/session. Using my high
energy, powerful yet fun interactive exercises we got people beginning to talk
about the changes, the anger and rage, and the underlying feelings of loss and
helplessness: why had the government seemingly lost faith in their mission; why
were they seemingly determined to contract out their services?
MS: So what did you do to discuss these issues without people getting violent?
MG: My classic discussion and drawing exercise (which will be part of my CFUNITED
workshop) helped the groups discuss then playfully draw out the sources of
frustration and anger. I made sure there was high diversity amongst the
discussion and drawing teams. So many of the adversaries were now working and
playing with each other. The drawing definitely identified sources of tension
and decidedly helped lower the collective blood pressure. People now better
understood how everyone was in the stress boat and that managing the
reorganizational issues didn't have to be a win-lose outcome, i.e., one group
has jobs and another group is on the outs or the street.
MS: Cool. Any other things you did?
MG: We used discussion and role play to further generate issues and to begin some
strategic problem-solving and future planning to improve the sense of team work
in the division.
And after the two one-days, a team building process was implemented, that is, I
began meeting with the various existing teams.
MS: So what was the outcome?
MG: I won't go into all the details but suffice to say there were two major
1) the overt and covert hostile and violent threats ceased
2) and the filing of grievance procedures stopped.
As the Project Manager and EEO Manager affirmed, the critical incident and team
interventions saved the government "hundreds of thousands, if not millions of
dollars" in potential law suits.
So come to my Team Survival Strategies Workshop for some intense and powerful
learning. Seek the higher power of Stress Doc humor: May the Farce Be with
MS: That sounds useful - see you at CFUNITED.