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How to keep team members from going postal

Well, it happened again. The headline last Monday read: “Shooting at Plant Near Chicago; Gunman Dead.”

A man who had worked at a testing plant for Navistar International for 40 years, and who was about to go to jail for stealing engine parts, went on a crazy shooting spree, killed four people, then shot and killed himself.

Can you imagine how terrifying that was for the 1,000-plus people working in the plant when the bullets started flying? And the worst part is that this sort of killing has gotten routine. In 1999, a man with a pistol walked into the Xerox Technical Services building where he worked in Honolulu and killed his entire team. Several post office shootings in recent years have resulted in deaths. There were the day-trader killings in Florida last year, where the trader blew away the people he worked alongside. People are killing the people they work with so frequently that the stories are not page-one material any more.

Sometimes, the killings are random; more often, the killers target team members they worked with for years, and their supervisors. You have to figure something was missing in those relationships.

It’s the flip side of Dilbert: our organizations just can’t seem to perform whatever minimum kindness standards to forestall bloodbaths. After all the TQM, after all the empowerment, after all the office climate committees, after all the caring and sharing and people-orientation that is supposed to be a mainstay of modern management, lots of people are evidently in lock-and-load mode.

What I think of when I hear these stories is, who on my teams is close to losing it? We all work hard. We all are asked to do things that we’re competent at, and things we’re less competent at. We win an occasional battle but more often we lose. Over time the reality intensifies that this is as good as it gets, and certain dreams are never going to come true. And if there’s anyone on my team who gives a damn about it, it sure isn’t very apparent.

A good rule of teaming is to assume that everyone is under a lot of pressure–pressure we are aware of in the office, and also pressure we have no clear idea of, arising from our home lives.

Teams drive themselves very hard to focus on team goals. When the spirit is willing and the sense of teamship is alive, people can do remarkable things together. But we never get to team goals if the pressure of our individual goals is eating away at us. We don’t have to hold one another’s hands all the time, it seems to me. But it’s a smart policy to try to understand where everyone is coming from–what our problems are, and what our dreams are. The truly wise team pencils in these personal goals underneath the team goal, and does what it can to achieve them as well, or at the very least, to acknowledge their importance.

Help Janice get her son Sean into college. Help Fred pad out his last couple of years to retirement. Help Ramon hold onto medical benefits for his family. Help Pete through whatever difficult patch he is going through–you have no idea what it is, but he looks scared, and he doesn’t need you adding to his problems.

When you dump that armload of work on good old Mary Ann and she smiles and thanks you, consider that good old Mary Ann may be sharpening a meat-axe in her mind. Maybe you’re the one who should be telling her thank you–as if your life depends on it.

Mike Finleyis co-author of “The New Why Teams Don’t Work” and author of the monthly Diversions column in ComputerUser magazine.

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