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In the previous entry I described how complicated things get when more than two or three people are in the room.  If you are not a master facilitator, you’ll need to break this down in ways that play to more basic skills that we can all do.

Spend time one on one with your team members.  This doesn’t always work out perfectly but if you can establish productive individual relationships with your direct reports that will often carry over into the team setting.  If they feel that you are pleased with them or have a good connection they have less reason to act out in the group.  (Think families and siblings and vying for parents’ attention and favor.)  They may even try to be helpful.

These individual conversations are the best way to gather early support for your agenda. You know those leaders who get up in front of a team and lay out a plan that is guaranteed to make everyone revolt but instead people line up enthusiastically?  It is like watching a master.  You try to imitate the words, the posture, the tone but you definitely do not get the same results.  Your team rebels…loudly.  Your error was believing that all the alignment happened in the team meeting when, in fact, it happened behind many closed doors way before that moment.  Speaking individually in advance is more than a vetting process.  It is cementing productive relationships and creating alliances.

Do the heavy lifting of lots of private discussions before convening your team.  Most of us are more comfortable speaking one on one than we are in group settings.  So this is a two-fer.  You’re more in your element and you are solidifying your partnerships.

Determine the three norms that matter most to you about how you want the team to operate.  Whatever you do, do not conduct a group brainstorm to develop team norms that get posted on the wall in your conference room.  If I see one more list of “Respect each other, Speak one at a time, Embrace differences and Sing Kumbaya” I’ll puke.  Meaningless.  Nice idea in theory but totally meaningless in practice. (Again, apologies to all my former clients out there with laminated posters.)  First of all, there is limited self-monitoring to achieve these behaviors and secondly there is precious little monitoring by the leaders.  Violating team norms is rarely called out in meetings but you can count on getting dinged in your performance review or a 360 process.  Passive aggressiveness at its best.

What is more effective is to decide which few behaviors are non-negotiable for you.  Things like being solutions focused or hearing from everyone or follow through on decisions or conducting project postmortems or always taking the customer’s perspective or no personal attacks.  Whatever you select, be certain they are deeply held beliefs and let your team know that these three things are must-haves for you.  Let them know they will definitely hear from you if they disregard these norms and that the consequences will not be pretty.  If there is a pattern of neglect they will get demerits.

People are going to be human.  They will sometimes be disrespectful or talk over each other or get combative.  You don’t want to ask for the impossible or create a completely bland environment.  Accept the many “human moments” and try to facilitate good behavior but hold onto and lead from your few baseline principles.

Focus on the work not the personalities.  Easier said than done.  Part of what twists us in knots as leaders and members is that the egos and antics present in teams can be very distracting.  Not to mention entertaining.  A former client of mine used to rate each team meeting on the “entertainment value” it brought to him.  If he left laughing and shaking his head, that was a great meeting.

Here is the bottom line, minimal requirement of your team.  They have to deliver results.  They do not have to get along.  They do not have to have fun.  They do not have to get to know one interesting thing about each other that no one else knows.  They do not have to become cheerleaders.  They just need to deliver.  Period.  Therefore your only responsibility as the leader is to be sure that they do just that.  You don’t need to worry about all the touchy feely stuff if that is not your thing.  Just get them focused on the work, the project plans, hitting the milestones and moving onto the next set of initiatives.  If you are a good manager of individuals and the work, you can do that with the whole team present.  Ignore the riff-raff and just manage the work.

You may not get points for being the most inspiring leader but you will score for taking care of business.

Use your gut. How many times have you sat around the conference table thinking, “What the hell is going on here?  Doesn’t anyone else think this is bullshit?”  But no one speaks up.  And then you are wondering if it is just you being overly sensitive.  Newsflash: when it feels funky to you, it feels funky to others.  The good news is, your sensing meters are working.  The bad news is, you need to take action when the alarms go off.

Your gut gives you lots of signals.  It picks up on the non-verbal undercurrent of the team dynamics.  It lets you know when people are checked out or when they are saying yes to appease but really mean no or when the tension is ready to burst.  The worst thing you can do is nothing.  It will be bad for you and bad for the team.   Without any intervention these unspoken forces will cut into the team’s effectiveness.  Acknowledging the elephant in the room won’t be fun but your team will appreciate that you are dealing with reality.

I’m not recommending that you slam your fist on the table and say, “This is bullshit!  No one is saying what’s really on their mind.”  I know that’s the fantasy pinging around your brain but that’s generally not a good idea.  As the leader you can simply say, “I hear the agreement but I don’t think we’ve had an open debate yet.  I want to hear other points of view” or “This isn’t feeling productive.  We can either adjourn or talk about what is really going on here.”  Find your own way to interject.  Everyone will be grateful.

The best teamwork happens between meetings.  If you’re waiting for that magic moment when the team members come together in unique, creative and (dare I say it) synergistic ways in the course of a meeting then you must also be waiting for Godot.  Ain’t gonna happen that way.  That’s not to say you won’t have some great debates or make some well-reasoned decisions or have new ideas when you are altogether.  What I’m saying is that the special sauce is what happens in between meetings.

If team members are working collaboratively on issues that extend beyond their functional borders then you know you are on the right road.  So how do you get them to take that step?  Go back to your good management skills and sort out work assignments in a way that optimizes the inter-dependencies.  Person A can’t complete a task without the involvement of Person B.  Better yet, tie their bonuses to the teamwork.  Don’t make up crap; keep it real.  But create the necessity for coordination and consultation amongst members.

When all else fails, hire an expert and learn from that person.  Look, managing a team is such a high order skill that you might have to bite the bullet and get expert help.  Most of us have served on many teams and most of us have far more terrible stories to tell than great ones.  We may have enjoyed the work or our colleagues but we have very few examples of great team leaders.  If you are still in contact with someone like that, reach out and ask him/her to mentor you.  If not, go find one of those PhDs.  You need to be coached.

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