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Does Your Leadership Team Need Group Therapy?

“Let’s pull out the couch. The doctor is here!” A refrain I often hear from my team clients that isn’t exactly true. There is no couch and I’m not a doctor. But they are expressing a sentiment about what it feels like to do the tough work of examining their individual and group dynamics. It does feel a bit like therapy because they are asked to speak authentically to each other in productive ways. They are being asked to improve their bonds so this “family” can function in healthy ways so that all can thrive.

But it isn’t therapy. We just aren’t used to being coached to respectfully say what we mean, not passively or aggressively dig at each other, openly support our peers, minimize the competitive posturing and to actively create a psychologically safe work environment. It is one thing to aspire to work collectively and quite another to learn the skills and develop the self awareness to make that happen.

Lucia was hired to save a broken field office that was in danger of being shut down completely. She was selected because of her strong track record in developing high functioning leadership teams. Within a month of her tenure, she was experiencing significant buyer’s remorse. She had never sat with such a dysfunctional group of people and she was baffled about where to start.

I began to work with Lucia and her team by her fourth month. She regaled me with data points about each leader and what she had uncovered about their performance and what it was like to work with them individually or collectively. I spent 1:1 time with each team member to arrive at some initial thoughts about their separate perspectives. There was the usual finger pointing and multiple agendas but I uncovered two things I wasn’t expecting. One member seemed mentally disturbed and another seemed completely out of his element. I’m used to uneven performance on a senior team but it had been quite some time since I encountered someone who probably should not be in charge of anything, let alone other people. I had to strategize with Lucia about how to delicately and sensitively remove this person.

Once the unstable person left the team, she was no longer the lightning rod for all the woes. The member who was in charge of a function that he knew nothing about began to stick out like a sore thumb. He began to lobby for greater authority and prominence; his belief in his abilities was so strong (yet blind). Lucia successfully contained his ambitions as she worked hard to pull this team together.

In time, it was apparent that Lucia had such an odd mix of people on this team she inherited. She provided them with a very clear direction and set of principles and coached them to get on board and improve their individual and collective performance. Ultimately, she made several key decisions. She brought in a strong number two person who she had worked with in the past who could help develop the team and high performance. She decided to invest in developing one person who was too junior for his role but had potential. She replaced the under-performer for a much more qualified person. And she relied most heavily on the other team members who appreciated her leadership and were fully on board. Lucia was able to turnaround this team within 14 months and the office has been a top performer ever since.

Here are the lessons to glean from Lucia’s experience.

  • The leader needs to be clear about expectations and make some tough calls. Most leadership teams are aimless and not held to high standards. Lots of unproductive behaviors go unchecked so individuals are allowed to do whatever. Leaders must define expectations and hold people accountable.
  • Individual or team dysfunction feels unsafe. Even good and talented people will withdraw, act out or under-perform if they fear being attacked or judged. Having members in the mix who are either unhealthy or bad actors will prevent the team from becoming productive.
  • It is good news/bad news each time the leader removes or adds someone to the team. There is a sigh of relief followed by worry that they may be next when the thorn in the side leaves. Conversely, when a superstar walks into the group it feels threatening because the bar has been raised.
  • Creating healthy team dynamics is a process. It requires lots of 1:1 coaching, facilitating new ways of talking in team meetings, developing habits of giving feedback and patiently guiding everyone towards new behaviors.
  • The leader must always model the new norms. This means holding herself to the same high standards, acknowledging mis-steps, taking risks to be more open and vulnerable and using “we” more frequently than “I”.

Team development (group therapy!) is a high risk activity with extremely high yield. Imagine the leadership team working so well together that it sets the example for the rest of the organization. Imagine how productive discussions, decisions and collaborative work would be. Imagine how much less noise there would be if no one was complaining about those idiot leaders.

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