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Learning Methods

The Last Straw
by Todd Packer

Purpose: To identify factors that cause workplace stress and to reduce these factors through group problem solving.

Time: One to two hours

Participants: 8-30, organized into groups of 3-6 members each


bullet Wooden building blocks (preferably rectangular)
bullet Flip chart
bullet Felt-tipped markers
bullet Any anonymous story about workplace violence, not related to the specific work setting
bullet Handouts with lists of resources (crisis hotline, employee assistance, etc.) for participants
bullet Paper and pencils
bullet Timer
bullet Whistle


  1. Brief participants. Explain that they will listen to a story of workplace violence, identify a series of stressors that contributed to the violence, select a stressor, then brainstorm approaches to reduce the potential impact of this stressor.
  2. Have participants form small groups. Read the story slowly. Have participants reflect, then take up to ten minutes to discuss and list stressors that could have contributed to the violence. Encourage them to find at least five.
  3. Explain that each block represents the proverbial "bale of straw" that broke the camel's back. Give five blocks to each group and tell them each group is to take turns sending a representative to the front of the room to make a stack of blocks on the table. The group representative should name the stressor that the block represents and place it on top of the other blocks. Record each stressor as it is named.
  4. The toppling. Eventually, the tower will become more unstable as it grows Finally, the addition of a block will make it tumble.
  5. Identify the "last straw" as the stressor that caused the tower to fall. Have the participants help you recreate the path from the first stressor to the last straw in the case study.
  6. Ask groups to generate strategies for reducing stressors that could lead to workplace violence or burnout or whatever. Ask participants to help you construct an alternative case where the situation is de-escalated and the situation defused. Repeat this two more times to get two more "happy ending" stories.
  7. Ask groups to generate ideas on how they can address the particular stressors in their workplaces. Repeat with some other stressors listed on the flip chart.
  8. Ask group members to bring more blocks forward, announce de-escalation strategies and build a stable structure on the table. List these ideas on the chart.

Adapted from Thiagi Game Letter, Vol. 3, Number 7. October 2000. Published by Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.


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