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A Small World After All Case

Author: Rodney L. Lowman Online Pub Date: March 06, 2016 | Original Pub. Date: 2011 Subject: Organization Development, Management Consulting Level: Intermediate | Type: Direct case | Length: 3929 words Copyright: © SAGE Publications, Inc. 2012 Organization: Mercury Standard Corporation | Organization size: Large Region: United States of America | State: Maine Industry: Other manufacturing Originally Published in: Anderson, D. L. (2012). A Small World After All. In Cases and exercises in organization development & change (pp. 201–208). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications Inc. Print. ISBN: 9781412987738 Publisher: SAGE Publications, Inc. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781506314204 | Online ISBN: 9781506314204javascript:void(0);javascript:%20void(0);javascript:%20void(0);javascript:%20void(0);http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781506314204

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Learning Objectives

To explore when it is appropriate to use individual level assessments (tests) as part of an organization development (OD) effort. To understand contextual issues that may arise in doing OD in a company located in a rural community. To determine what an OD consultant should do when a planned intervention seriously misfires.

As a specialist in organization development (OD), Sam Shruggins, a short, pudgy man of 50 with a reddish face, had worked with a variety of organizations and on a wide assortment of issues in his mostly rural part of the state. Being rather isolated geographically, the companies Shruggins worked with were primarily small to medium sized, but he had built a successful practice and in time was known as being the “go-to” person when OD was needed. Over the years he had developed a favored approach that usually worked pretty well for most of the problems he was asked to address. Typically the approach included some type of testing as part of the assessment phase.

Mercury Standard

The engagement with the Mercury Standard Corporation, located about 3 miles outside of the small city of Brewer on a lovely and well-manicured acreage adjacent to a golf course, at first seemed pretty routine. He had been called in to assist with what he understood to be a team development effort. Myron Morton, the vice president in charge of operations at Mercury, as most people locally called it, had heard Shruggins speak at one of the Brewer Rotary Club meetings. Sam had spoken about creating effective teams and barriers to working together effectively. The situations he had described in his brief talk included a number of examples that seemed to describe Mercury’s senior management team to a T. Pleasant to one another on the outside, the team was generally conflict avoidant and was viewed by Morton as ineffective in dealing with real issues.

Concerning what Morton viewed as trivial issues (such as whether to take the Martin Luther King holiday) they could fill an hour-long meeting with lively discussion and points of view. When it came to discussing a strategy for growing the business or talking about new marketing efforts, however, Morton had to pull to get any real discussion going and rarely did anything come of it.

Morton had worked at Mercury only 4 years—still a newcomer and outsider by local standards. He came there from Capital City, the state’s second largest city, to assume a vice presidency and what was for him a promotion. Morton’s wife, a home maker, had been raised in a small town and had looked forward to returning to a similar place so that the couple’s two soon-to-be teenaged sons could have a tamer, safer place in which to pass their adolescence. He himself had hailed from a larger city in another state and preferred a less rural location, but when the offer came in they agreed that they would give it a try and stay at least until their boys had graduated from high school.

In the third year of Morton’s new job, his boss, Mr. Pettis LeMaster, the company’s CEO, suffered a recurrence of prostate cancer and became increasingly absent as he traveled to the state’s medical hub in Metro City, the state’s largest city and commercial center. In his

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absence, and with the board’s approval, he asked Morton to run the executive committee meetings and to continue to oversee operations. LeMaster continued to manage the work with the board, most of whom he had known for more than 40 years since he had founded the company.

Not too much was said directly to Morton about the interim arrangement he was asked to fill. However, his wife, who had become active in several women’s clubs and civic groups, learned from an acquaintance that Esther Michelson, Mercury’s chief financial officer (CFO) who had been at Mercury since its founding, was not too happy about this arrangement. It felt to her, it was reported, that she and her longstanding service and loyalty had been overlooked when Morton was asked to take the interim lead. On the quiet side and always the “lady” when dealing with others in a public context, Michelson never said anything to Morton about her feelings and after his wife had relayed the information about what she had said to a mutual friend, he decided to let it pass.

Most of the other members of the senior management team were locals who had worked their way up in the company to their present positions. Only three of the seven members of the executive committee (other than Morton and the CEO) had college degrees. All were considered successes in their local community. If they had had any negative reactions to Morton, they never told him about them. Although Morton would not have chosen most of the senior executive team members, he did not feel it appropriate to remove any of them in the current circumstances, but he did want to take the team to a new level of functioning. In a small town he knew you could not move too quickly or expect too much too soon without facing a lot of push back from unexpected sources.

Mercury was one of three employers in Brewer that had more than 100 employees. With 500 employees, Mercury was the second largest employer in the city, the local general hospital being the largest. Mercury was considered to be one of the best employers by many locals because it paid good wages and because its benefit package was particularly attractive with generous health, dental, and retirement benefits. Although Mercury had had its ups and downs over the years, salaries and benefits had always been protected for those who remained with the company. In fact, Pettis LeMaster was something of a local hero for what he had done with Mercury and his loyalty to the community. Several attempts at buying out the company had been made, but on each occasion LeMaster fended them off, even at a cost to his own financial well-being. Personally, LeMaster didn’t really need any more money—he had no plans to leave Brewer (where the cost of living was fairly low) although he did want his wife, children, and grandchildren to have a sufficiently large inheritance that they would never have to worry about money.

The First On-Site OD Meeting

To someone who did not live there, Brewer was a rather uninviting town located on the Frazier River, which connected Lake Suffrage and Lake Bedrock, two of the larger lakes in the region, both of which were popular with boaters in the short chilly summers. While Mirishmar, 3 hours west of Brewer, had developed into an attractive and thriving college town, Brewer always seemed frozen in a time that was at least a century or so ago. Called a “blue-collar town,” that term may have accurately described what Brewer once was but was no longer accurate since most jobs these days in Brewer had become white collar and in the service industry. Still, the self identity of being a blue-collar town lived on. As in many small towns, a small group of professionals and business leaders controlled much of the money locally, there was a moderate-sized middle class, and a larger poorer class who were still struggling to make ends

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Sam Shruggins had been to Brewer on many occasions; earlier in his career he had done some consulting work with the local hospital when it planned what turned out to be a successful expansion strategy. This particular wintry day for his first return visit to Mercury was one of the worst of the already long and bleak winter that year, but Shruggins was an old pro at getting around icy snowed-over roads and he took pride in never once having missed a consulting engagement due to weather. When the weather was predicted to be dangerous he came in the night before, as he had done this time. When he did so, he typically stayed at the Native Hotel and Casino, which usually had a mid-week special, and was a little nicer than the franchise motels that plentifully lined Grand Avenue, the city’s main commercial street.

This morning it was slow going getting the 5 miles to the company headquarters. His four- wheel drive truck moved along fast enough but too many amateurs, as he liked to call them, were out on the road that day, slowing everyone down to their timorous pace. Fortunately he had allowed enough plenty of time and still arrived with time to spare at the Mercury plant.

Despite the beautiful landscaping at Mercury, the company’s buildings themselves were quite unattractive. An old transmission plant from the 1920s had been purchased by LeMaster and the company’s other founders when they had started the Mercury Standard plant. What was distinctive, at least in the few nonsnowy months, were the lovely grounds. Trees and paths had been intermixed and the company had installed a popular walking trail that in winter was used by cross-country skiers. The sidewalks and parking lots were always (almost instantly and somewhat mysteriously) cleared of snow and what the buildings lacked in beauty the grounds made up for.

Shruggins parked his truck with no problem that day and walked up to the visitor’s entrance to the company headquarters, a beige brick building with steel awnings over the windows. Inside he was greeted by a middle-aged woman with frosted hair and a huge smile. “You must be Mr. Shruggins. Cold enough for you?” she asked, a little impishly. Shruggins returned his best, most jovial smile, the one he used with company gatekeepers. He was friendly, smiling, and a little flirtatious.

“Mr. Morton is waiting for you on the fourth floor,” she said. “Just put your hat and coat over there and you can take the elevator up. Mary will take care of you there.” Her voice sang and made him feel warm and happy, as it did most people who were greeted by her.

The hat and coat rack were empty—a slow visitor’s day he assumed. A puddle of water quickly accumulated on the floor when the steamy heat from the radiator quickly warmed his black coat to room temperature.

Miss Mary Feldenstein was just off the elevator on the fourth floor. A woman of about 60, she was expecting Shruggins and greeted him cordially if a little crisply. She’d seen a number of consultants come and go since Mr. LeMaster had turned over so much authority to Mr. Morton. There was just the slightest note of coolness in her voice when she offered him coffee and a place to sit.

His coffee had just been served when Sarah Scott, whom Morton had brought with him from his last company, opened a door and cheerfully greeted him. “Come on back, Mr. Shruggins. We’re delighted you could get through to us on this snowy day.” Sarah seemed like a woman who could not stop talking and she went on and on, barely stopping for him to reply. “Did you get caught in the snowstorm? I was almost late coming in today and I’m never late. I sure

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hope you didn’t have any trouble.” Shruggins just let her talk, smiling a little, and soon he was in the conference room with the long, dark, black wood table, paneling on the walls, and photographs of the current board members—all white males who appeared to be over 60. The lack of windows lent the room a sense of importance, as did the tall chairs, but the cheap wood paneling on the walls sent a mixed message.

“Mr. Morton will be right in,” Sarah said. And before he could even sample his coffee, in walked Mr. Morton. At the Rotary meeting he had worn a suit and had a cordial air about him. Today, however, he was in a shirt and tie with black slacks. He greeted Shruggins quickly, made the obligatory comments on the weather and sat at the head of the long table.

After the small talk (perhaps a minute’s worth) Morton said, “I appreciate your coming. I’ll be frank with you. This team needs to move faster than they are going now and I’d like your help with that. I also have some duds in the group but I feel like I’m stuck with them for now. I’d like you to get this team more aligned and at least pulling in the same direction and to perform at a higher level.”

“I’ll do my best,” Shruggins said. Just as he was formulating how he would best ask his usual string of questions about the team and Mr. Morton’s perceptions of the issues, Morton said, “I’ve arranged for you to meet the team now as part of our regular Monday morning meeting. You’ll have a chance to get to know them and we can determine the best way to proceed.”

Before he could respond to that statement, in came Sarah Scott, letting her boss know that the team was ready to join them. She noted that Mr. Appleby (the head of marketing) was not there yet because of car problems. Morton’s face briefly turned red but he quickly said, “Bring the others in, please.”

Shruggins was not too happy with this beginning but he concluded that if he wanted this OD job he had to go along, at least for now. For starters, his goal was to engage with the entire team, not just with Morton. The group assembled but most looked a little apprehensive and a couple of them downright anxious.

Like most first OD meetings, this one went fairly well. Participants were polite and after a while, when the purposes of the OD effort were explained by Morton, a little humor crept in. Shruggins explained that he would like to meet with each member of the team individually to get better acquainted with them all. People seemed relieved that they would have a chance to privately present their point of view. Since Morton had indicated the time for this meeting was up, they agreed to get together again in 2 weeks on the same day and time. After the group meeting, he said he would begin the individual interviews.

At the end of the meeting, Shruggins distributed an assessment for participants to complete individually and to bring back to the next meeting. It was a short form of a five-factor measure of normal personality commonly used in personnel selection (see, e.g., Rothstein & Goffin, 2006) and Shruggins had often used this test early on in OD efforts. He had found it to be a harmless measure that served as a good ice breaker and tension reliever. Although he did not train as a psychologist, Shruggins had attended a course by the test publisher, who on this basis allowed him to purchase the measure. The participants all laughed a little and made comments about the “shrink” finding out all their secrets, but no one objected to completing the measure either in the meeting or thereafter.

The Second Meeting

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Two weeks later the snow in Brewer had mostly melted, the roads were clear and the sun actually peeked through. People greeted him pleasantly and the management team seemed to be in a good mood. This meeting had, with some effort on Shruggins’ part, been scheduled for 2 hours. The first part of the meeting was spent talking about the individual interviews that would commence that day and the general way that he liked to work to help teams grow. He applauded the group on its willingness to agree to work together and to tackle the issues before them.

The second hour of the meeting was spent reviewing the results of the assessment measure that each had completed and brought with them to the meeting. Shruggins had found from experience that having people take a short measure like this was a good way to open people up and to demonstrate that there were many differences in peoples’ personality and that this had implications for how they could best work together successfully. Shruggins had used this particular test and approach dozens of times before and it had always been an effective way to get people thinking and to break down some of the barriers to beginning serious work together.

After a brief discussion of the purposes of the assessment process, and the reminder that the results were just for their own use and were confidential to them, Shruggins had the participants self-score the measure. He had given them a self-scorable form and asked the staff to pull the measure apart, which resulted in the scoring template being made visible. Within 5 minutes, all participants had their numbers, which they then plotted on a graph that assigned them to a category (e.g., high or low openness) on each of the five dimensions measured by the test. He then presented a short lecture on the five personality factors using the abbreviation OCEAN to describe the five variables of openness, conscientiousness, extroversion/introversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (McCrae, 2009). Many in the group asked relevant and sometimes lively questions. A few were silent and Esther Michelson in particular seemed preoccupied and unengaged. When he discussed the neuroticism dimension, she seemed to be blushing. Shruggins also noted that several of the participants seemed to be sneaking peaks at their neighbor’s results so he reminded the group that these results were just for one’s own use, not to be shared.

In a Small Town, There Are No Secrets

Later that evening, Sarah Scott, who sat in on all the meetings to take notes and as the secretary to the senior management team, and who also had completed the test, called her best friend Louise Carson to discuss what had happened that day in the meeting. She talked about the measure of “normal personality” they had completed and noted that Esther Michelson, who she had sat next to, had seemed quite upset during the meeting. She told Louise in confidence that Esther had scored high on something the consultant had called “neurotic” (something like that; she remembered the names of the scales spelled out OCEAN) and the two laughed at how accurate that test was in nailing Esther’s rather acerbic and sometimes brittle personality. She also stated that her boss, Mr. Morton, had told the group he had come out introverted on this test and that she had heard someone who had been in the group say after the meeting about his remark, “well that sure explains a lot of things.”

After the call, Louise, who, since her retirement from Mercury, had become an active volunteer in the community, spoke to her friend Barbara Jackson and in passing mentioned the “juicy gossip” from Mercury. Barbara in turn spoke that evening to her acquaintance and bridge partner Millie Talson, who then spoke to her best friend Betty Buran, a columnist for the local newspaper, The Brewer Morning News. Buran’s husband had formerly worked for Mercury

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and had been laid off in one of the cut backs that took place last year. He had not found new work and was getting by doing odd jobs.

Around town, especially among those who subscribed to larger newspapers, the local newspaper was something of a joke, snidely known as the Morning Snooze. It mostly consisted of birth, death, and athletic contest announcements and the arrest records from the day before, along with a few by-then stale national news stories. The writers on the paper were poorly paid and they took their solace when they could by writing opinion articles disguised as news stories that made their targets look bad. The maligned individuals usually cancelled their subscriptions, especially when the paper refused to print letters to the editor with their side of the story. The paper’s editor fancied himself a muckraker and was independently wealthy, so he did what he wanted and did not much care if the circulation was declining.

Within a week, Barbara Buran’s “About Town” weekly gossip column featured a short item about the personality test results of Mercury’s executives. In it she opined, “Your humble columnist is no psychologist but she has learned that some of the senior executives at Mercury Standard took a test administered by a visiting consultant and that certain executives came out on the test as being neurotic and introverted. Far be it from this source to say who should be working as executives at one of our city’s major employers, but might the company’s recent layoffs have been avoided by—well—a better adjusted group of senior executives?”

Like most newspapers, this one was available online. Soon the comments about the Mercury executives were available on the Web. Readers could write in online comments and a number of snide comments (e.g., “They didn’t need to bring in an overpriced OD consultant to find out that some of the honchos at that company weren’t playing with a full deck. I could have told them that for nothing!”) were posted. Some members of the board read the story and contacted LeMaster to find out what was going on with this unfavorable publicity. “Was Morton really the right person to fill in for LeMaster?” some asked.

The Monday after the item appeared, Morton had Sarah Scott call Shruggins to tell him they were not going to be pursuing the planned OD intervention at this time due to “other pressing business matters” but they would get back to him if additional help was needed. Morton declined to return Shruggins’ several calls. There was no further discussion of the incident in the senior executive group and, once the dust blew over, business went on as it had done before the ill-fated OD efforts. However, whenever behind-the-scenes conflict arose among some of the senior team members someone would refer privately to the other parties as “that neurotic,” “the introvert in our midst,” or that “closed minded progress-blocker,” depending on who was doing the talking and who wasn’t around to hear.

Discussion Questions

Should Shruggins have used the personality test in this manner? Was he qualified to use it? Were there steps that Shruggins might have taken before using the assessment measure that could have minimized any misuse of the test? Did Shruggins (and did Morton) have any responsibilities once the situation blew up as it did? Would it have been better not to have used the assessment measure at all?

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References McCrae, R. (2009). The five-factor model of personality traits: Consensus and controversy. In P. J. Corr & G. Matthews (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of personality psychology (pp. 148–161). New York: Cambridge University Press. Rothstein, M., & Goffin, R. (2006). The use of personality measures in personnel selection: What does current research support? Human Resource Management Review, 16(2), 155–180.

Further Resources Eyde, L., Robertson, G. J., & Krug, S. E. (2009). Responsible test use: Case studies for assessing human behavior. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Groth-Marnat, G. (2009). Handbook of psychological assessment (5th ed.). New York: Wiley. Lowman, R. L. (Ed.). (2006). The ethical practice of psychology in organizations (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781506314204

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