My friend is a home contractor. Clients once called him and said, “We need you to fix our kitchen cabinets.” During the walk through, my friend identified that the cabinets aren’t the problem. The problem is underneath the floor. If they want to eliminate the issues going forward, they need to address that and the client agrees. My friend went to work. He removed all of the cabinets and countertops, took up the flooring, and got to work on the root of the issue. 

When the clients came in and saw their kitchen in utter disarray, they were appalled. Seeing their kitchen completely torn up and unusable was shocking! What did they agree to? They had no idea it would be that way! They had to use their bathroom sink for any kitchen needs. They were barely able to use their stove and oven. This went on for a week, then two weeks – it felt like an eternity. Not to mention they have a stranger in their house, unearthing their entire kitchen  saying, “Trust me,” in an effort to make them feel better. If they had known addressing the underlying issue would be this hard and disruptive, maybe they wouldn’t have agreed to it in the first place. 

The homeowners felt increasingly uncomfortable. They just wanted someone to come in and return it to the way it was before – because it was WAY better than what it looks and felt like now. At least then, they knew how to keep living. They had lived with uneven countertops and cabinets that didn’t fully close for years. What were they thinking trying to fix it?!

However, once they got through those uncomfortable times, and started to see new flooring and cabinets, they started to feel better. They could see and feel the progress. They began to feel the mess was worth it, especially because they knew they wouldn’t have to deal with the underlying or presenting problem ever again. 

This is similar to what happens when someone comes to the ombuds office with a “presenting problem.” They might explain that their team is experiencing low morale and want to simply do some teambuilding and maybe a training or two to get back on track. The Ombuds takes the time to better understand what makes them believe morale is low. Where is that conclusion or determination coming from? After speaking with the team members, the ombuds discovers  there is one team member who is making jokes and comments that makes the other team members uncomfortable. The team member also puts the other team members’ ideas down during team meetings to the point that the others don’t feel comfortable sharing ideas any more. The Ombuds also identifies that the manager of the team is aware of this but doesn’t want to say anything. The manager is afraid if they address the concerns with the team member of concern, it will upset them or worse, they will leave. They are good at their job and the risk seems too great.  

While the Ombuds could come in and do a training or two and maybe a team building activity, the issues of low morale will continue. Morale may even get worse because people might recognize that despite the effort nothing changes. Or they may feel the real issue is being ignored. They may feel the manager values the problematic team member over everyone else on the team because they won’t address the problematic behavior. 

It is the Ombuds’ job to address the underlying problem, the root of the issue. It is the Ombuds’ job to help the manager craft ways of helping the team member understand the impact of specific behaviors, what the behavioral expectations are moving forward, and the consequences if those expectations are not met. The Ombuds can also help the team member make sense of the feedback and navigate making the necessary changes. Only after this work can we do team building activities to bolster trust. 

Of course it is important to acknowledge that while we are helping with the underlying problem it can feel like your kitchen is in shambles. It is an utter mess and everything is uncomfortable. You might even wish you had never started in the first place. 

I wrote this post to remind us all – Ombuds and visitors alike – that doing this work can be incredibly challenging at times. I encourage all of our visitors, and other Ombuds, to engage in the difficult work even though it is uncomfortable, messy and may take much longer than anticipated. It is difficult to keep at it and it can feel like nothing will ever get better. I am here to say, if you keep trying, it will get better! You will have a nicely supported, well functioning, and enjoyable kitchen… I mean team… when you are done – even if it takes a few weeks, or a month, or a year. 

By Teresa Ralicki, Ombuds,
University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office