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Taking the “A” Out of Teams. Anxiety That Is

Over the years, my clients have fretted about managing their teams and wondered if they could ever learn how to be a good facilitator. A new client raised the same question and I finally gathered my thoughts in this letter below.

Dear Simon,

I’m writing this in response to some of the questions that were left hanging after our last session. Specifically, you were concerned about your skills to run good meetings. They cause you stress and you dread them. Your leadership team meetings frustrate you and your staff meetings are a downer. Although you (rightly) have confidence in your listening and relationship skills, you are struggling to translate those abilities into a group setting.

I’m hoping this memo provides some guidance.

First, as the newly installed leader you have inherited a boat load of “pre-existing conditions.” You have some preliminary diagnoses on certain individuals, some working theories about larger systemic issues and some signs of improved health in a few one on one relationships. That’s a good start. What is less clear are the many hidden agendas, axes to grind, real damage and how all these people and issues interact. You are being confronted with an array of all these things every day. Your approach so far has been to deal with them one at a time; relying on your super-spidey interpersonal skills to improve each situation.

Hold onto those abilities and insights. You will need them.

Secondly, teams are interpersonal dynamics on steroids. Lots of steroids! I’ve seen incredibly effective leaders go batty when trying to manage their teams. Have you ever played pinball? (I must admit, I spent way too much time in college seeing how far I could go on one quarter.) You pull back the spring and release one ball. It jumps all over the board and you try to control its trajectory using highly sensitive flippers. The ball bounces hither and yon as you rake up points; successfully navigating the back and forth. Imagine releasing all five balls at one time. Your eyes and fingers dart from one ball to the other, trying to keep everything in play as long as possible and hoping you don’t drop any balls. That’s what team interactions can feel like. Your ears and eyes jump from one person to the next, noticing body language or silence, reacting to tones of voices, wondering when to jump in or sit back, worried about two people colliding or leaving the discussion. Just like pinball, there are moments of excitement or disappointment. You get a free play or game over.

Teams can be messy and exhilarating.

Third, facilitating productive team discussions can be learned. Having a good foundation of empathy and interpersonal awareness is the starting point. What happens next requires self-awareness and discipline. Get comfortable with silence and disagreement. Learn to let go of smoothing things over. Trust that others can step up. Learn to hear above the fray and comprehend the non-verbal cues. That’s the short list. (More on how to do this later.) Once you feel adept at these abilities, it becomes a question of patience and good judgment. Sometimes you will need to be the Decider and other times you will need to be the Sherpa. That will become evident.

Facilitation is both science and art. The artful part takes over once you have learned the science.

Finally, these meetings are opportunities for others to get valuable face time with you. For some, that means persuading you on an issue. For others, it means joining with you on key initiatives. Until a team or staff is in the high functioning range, people are not coming together to interact with each other. You are their focus. They are jockeying for your favor and their stature in the organization. It’s a bit ugly and political but that is what happens when a new leader is installed. Who will become your favorite? Your aim is to facilitate their thinking and decision making with each other. You understand the value of everyone’s input and don’t want to set yourself up as the One.

Again, hold onto those ideals. For now, though, you need to recognize the team is at a more chaotic stage of development.

Most leaders in your shoes can relate to your challenge. While the 1:1 encounters may be productive, staff and leadership team meetings feel overwhelming for new leaders. Take a breath, appreciate that this is normal, let some air out of the “urgency tires” and be assured that you will get loads of chances to get this right. Meetings, unlike other organizational activities, are universally disliked. The format and content are tough to make thrilling and the dynamics just make them all the worse. Any one good meeting will be a momentary lift with only a remote expectation that it will happen again anytime soon. So, relax. You can improve this situation slowly but surely.

Let’s start with others wanting face time with you. Layer that with hidden agendas and dysfunctional dynamics. Think of it this way. You are a hard-working Dad who gets home late from the office most nights to your 5 kids who are clamoring for your attention. They will shove each other, tattle, jump up and down, scream in your face or cry just to get to you first. It doesn’t matter if the behavior is polite or not. They will do whatever works to be first, the favorite, the most important. They don’t want to share you with others and they want you to agree with whatever grievance they conjure up. They want you to kiss the booboo and tell them everything is alright. Teams are a lot like families (except we can’t fire our kids).

How would you handle this as a parent? You already understand all these kooky dynamics. You know all about sibling rivalry, discipline, structure and valuing each child. You don’t get sucked into the whining, they absolutely must brush their teeth and, no, they can’t stay up later. Although your team is a group of adults, the same principles apply. Give each one enough 1:1 time so they are comfortable in their relationship with you. (Thankfully, this is one of your strengths.) Create certain structure, guidelines (sic. rules) and parameters that set the norms for expected behavior. As the leader, consistently follow through on those rules, don’t play favorites, listen to each person and don’t allow for misdeeds.

Even if you are not the strictest disciplinarian as a Dad, watch how your wife does it and the positive impact it has on your kids. You will come to see the antics of this room full of adult staff in a whole new light if you use this parenting analogy.

Although it can take years to perfect the art of facilitating great teams, I can boil down the essential science of it into a few bullet points.

  • Forming, Norming, Storming. These are the stages of team development. In the forming stage, everyone is still getting acquainted and trying to figure out who is running the show. Norms are set both formally and informally as protocols are put in place, talkers and non-talkers emerge and the leader’s style becomes apparent. Once the norms solidify, the members will begin to challenge the order of things in the storming phase. If the original norms are strong and/or functional, the group will settle back into good operations until someone new enters, someone leaves or the norms are questioned again. This is just the ordinary ebb and flow of team development. Just when you think things feel stable, you can expect a conflict to erupt. Manage and ride the waves. As the new leader, your team is in full blown storming and looking to you for clues about the norms.
  • Be clear about your own principles. You have already made it clear that you value open discussion and consensus. Communicate that to the team by offering an explicit description of what you do and don’t mean by that. For example, you want to hear from everybody but that doesn’t mean that the conversation can remain open endlessly without a decision. I urge you to do some additional thinking about your principles and see if you want to add or change anything.
  • Structure is essential. Agendas, time management, note taking, follow up on action items and hearing from everyone are good disciplines to install. Lots of dysfunction occurs when there is an absence of these things because the vacuum needs to be filled. People will either be proactive and rush in willy-nilly to play a part or become passive and drop out. Take the reins, provide control.
  • Manage the voices. All teams have folks that will take over the discussion or cut people off or sit silently or shoot down every idea. You job is to ask some to back off and others to speak up. “I’d like to hear from Susan” is a polite way to stop Andy. “Jerry, you clearly have something on your mind” invites the cross-armed scowl-faced one to enter the discussion or to mind his non-verbals better. (Some non-verbals are not just seen. They are palpable.) The more you direct the flow of discussion to equalize it, the safer people feel to join in, the less emboldened the disrupters will feel and the more productive the discussion will be.

These are some of the basics. Sometimes I think that people get anxious or overwhelmed about facilitating teams because it feels scary. If you go back to the pinball imagery, it can be daunting. But if you can think of it more like parenting, something that is more familiar to you, you might minimize your concerns. We’re not born knowing how to be a good parent, but lots of on-the-job training teaches us over time. The same will happen for you with your team.

 

 

 

 

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