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Posts from the ‘Teams’ Category

Making The Hard Choice: A Profile in Courage

Sometimes it’s not about a perfect leader. Someone who excels at inspiration, has a grand vision, challenges everyone to do great things and all those other wonderful traits we all want in our leaders. Sometimes it just comes down to doing what is right and difficult even when you don’t know if or how it will work out. Sometimes it’s just about seeing the problem and having the courage to jump into the deep end and hoping for the best.

Dahlia is one of those leaders. She is the CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit with a mission to effect legislation and policies pertaining to early childhood education. She is passionate about the work and has successfully influenced state and federal laws and funding. When it comes to running the organization, she is a thoughtful and solid leader but no one would say she sets their world on fire. She is well aware of her shortcomings and has worked hard to develop new skills.

Over time, Dahlia has changed the roles and members on her leadership team to amp up the management of the organization and supervision of the talent. She hired me to help develop the newly configured team so they could function more collaboratively and effectively. Without going into all the gory details, let’s just say Dahlia had pulled together a group of smart and well intentioned people who struggled to play well together. I facilitated a series of team discussions to break down defenses and barriers to join in more collective thinking and actions. It was slow and challenging. The team became impatient with my insistence that we keep peeling away the layers to get to more respectful and trusting encounters. They wanted to solve problems and move on.

In my private discussions with Dahlia, she began to surface her increased awareness of dysfunctional team dynamics and her role in them. I coached her to take risks to be more self revealing and open in hopes the others would follow. And they did, up to a point. It was clear there were two team members who preferred to function in their silos and wanted these sessions to end.

An unexpected catalyst left Dahlia with a tough decision. A vital member of the team suddenly left the organization. This person had a very important function and was the most collaborative of anyone on the team. He shared with Dahlia that one factor in his decision was the lack of cooperation from these two team members. He simply had enough. This confirmed Dahlia’s assessment; until these two people had a change of heart no amount of team discussions were going to improve the situation.

We discussed how to proceed. Private one on ones, a team come-to-Jesus meeting, fire one or both of them, some combination of all of them. There were many larger, organizational considerations: filling key functional gaps, destabilizing the staff, derailing projects, creating more departures, making the team’s dysfunction more apparent to all. We talked and talked, testing out each option.

I must admit that in my head I knew the right thing to do. But I thought it was too risky so I kept offering safer options. In the midst of one of these conversations Dahlia simply said, “I think what needs to happen is to bring this to the team for resolution. If we still can’t come together for the good of the agency after all the work we have done, then I will need to make some very serious changes.” Dahlia chose the risky, and right, option. This was a team problem and the team needed to get its act together.

Dahlia was never clearer or more forthright when she began the next meeting. “We have been working for months to let go of our individual agendas and act as a united leadership team to serve the organization. We have failed as a team. Alan’s departure is our evidence. Unless we can collaborate effectively we will fail the whole organization. I fear we already have. We are going to roll up our sleeves, say the hard stuff that has not yet surfaced, figure out how we are going to proceed without Alan and sort out what we are going to tell the staff. Anyone who is not up to the task, can leave now. Anyone who does not step up to do the right thing will be asked to leave.”

Long story short: one person got the message and was able to shape up and the other person was removed. The leadership team turned a corner and accelerated the path to well coordinated collaboration. The conversations were difficult at first but eventually everyone experienced the benefits of saying the hard things, abiding by a set of new and more functional norms and not feeling so isolated from each other. The staff was anxious at first with all the leadership changes but came to experience the new energy and support of the leaders. It took five months from the moment of Alan’s departure for all the changes to settle in and for the organization to stabilize.

For Dahlia, life got much easier. She had a functional leadership team that she trusted to co-manage the organization and staff. She kept taking risks to try new leadership behaviors because she was less uncomfortable and had a big win under her belt. She worried less about losing other key talent. She even got to a place where she was grateful that the crisis had kicked her in the pants.

As for me, I learned a good lesson too. Don’t underestimate the courage of a reserved, decent leader. With so many other bolder leaders I never hesitate to push them to put themselves and their teams on the line for the greater good. I had acknowledged loads of growth in Dahlia but wasn’t sure she was ready to call the team out and address all the defenses and bad behavior. I will remember this with the next Dahlia I meet.

Taking A Break

Thank you for your loyal support of this blog. It keeps me on my toes to speak frankly about what happens on the ground in our organizations. I have lots more to write about but it will have to wait until December. I am immersed in very cutting edge and exciting work about leading innovation that is filling my every moment. I look forward to sharing some insights when I return to my blog later this year.

Before I sign off for a bit, I’d like to share some observations based on reader response to GetRealLeadership.

  • People are hungry for guidance about their teams. I’ve been focusing on teams recently because it receives so many views. It has made me wonder why, in spite of so much emphasis on team building and training over the past 20 years, not enough of it is taking. Is it the pressure of chasing each quarter that encourages poor behavior? Or the mix of generations and difficulties that can create to find productive communication habits? Is it egotistical or self righteous posturing? Is the hierarchy still alive and well? If millennials were raised on constant collaboration and teamwork, where is their influence at work? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
  • Selfless, low ego leaders are hard to find. But everyone is looking for one or trying to figure out how to become one. It is the most searched topic that brings people to this blog. Again, this makes me curious. We’ve had two decades of servant and authentic leadership books. Is there not enough follow through on this popular perspective? While this dialogue has been taking place, has there been a parallel movement to grab and hold onto power? Is the current political landscape just a culmination of a decade of powerful CEOs getting away with horrible deeds leaving the rest of us searching desperately for a very different kind of leader? This topic is alive and well but it is not getting much attention in the blogosphere. Have we become so cynical that we accept that nice people finish last?
  • There is little interest in women and people of color. Every time I write something on those issues there is very little traffic. I have mentioned in the past that this is disheartening to me. There is no level playing field in our companies but it seems this is not a priority or of interest to many people. A generous conclusion would be that many of you don’t believe this is a problem where you work. If that is the case, please write to me and tell me your success stories. I’m dying to hear some good news. But the realist in me sees what is happening in the real world and with the clients I serve. There are certainly some bright spots but the lack of women and people of color in top leadership roles persists. I can’t help but connect some dots between the current political discourse and what is happening in too many companies. Men are forgiven for everything and anything and women are blamed for everything and anything. Wells Fargo CEO finally was forced to step down but he is the exception. All the other bad players continue in their roles and keep accumulating vast wealth. A woman CEO is vilified and taken out in a heart beat for poor financial performance especially if she didn’t turn around a shit situation she inherited from some former male CEO. Sexism, racism and double standards live on in our culture. I expect more from our corporations.

Stay tuned for some very interesting posts about leading innovation in December. This is something every leader and company is grappling with. For some great reading on the topic I recommend Linda Hill’s book, Collective Genius. She and her co-authors offer a very different leadership model. And by the way, it is everything I have been writing about and you are searching for about great teamwork. It is a compelling read.

Please share your thoughts with me in the comments section or via private email at

The Dangers of Affirming our Well Formed Opinions

Let’s face it, we are ALL the smartest and most correct people in the room.We have become experts on a particular topic, advised senior leaders, argued circles around our peers and taken up residence as the Grand Poobah. We are so persuaded that our position is brilliant that no amount of additional input will move us. Because we are the best and smartest. Of course others tend to see us as utter assholes…especially after we proclaim “I told you so”.

Moving past all the insecurities and ego problems this self righteous and closed stance implies, I’m especially interested in why we all have a tendency to fall into this defense (present company included). Interested and concerned because if you have six people on your team and everyone believes they have the right answer there is trouble ahead. The conversation will become combative, loud and unproductive and poor decisions will be made.

First, some research. Psychology and social psychology are filled with theories and experiments that all point to the same conclusion: Once a person has a strongly held belief no amount of data to the contrary, new information or persuasive arguments will change his/her mind. That powerful idea is woven into the fabric of many other beliefs or one’s self definition and it is just too threatening to untangle or change it. (Look up cognitive dissonance, belief perseverance or backfire effect.) The only proven method for changing someone’s mind requires some positive self affirmations before a private conversation. Trying to change people’s minds in a public forum won’t work. Way too threatening.

So think of your team of six. Imagine that four of you fervently believe you have The Right Answer. The other two feel less convinced of their own positions on this issue. While the gang of four duke it out, the other two find this a waste of time. As the leader you try to facilitate a more open dialogue to find a middle ground. As the decibels increase you jump in to shut it all down by declaring The Decision. Discussion over. If hope springs eternal in your heart, you will leave the meeting believing that everyone will do as you instructed. But I know you are not that naive.

Let’s focus on self awareness. Given that most of us will play the part of the asshole from time to time, it is important to acknowledge a few truths.

  • We invest heavily in our public persona. By the time we are successful professionals we have a well crafted narrative. We let others know what prestigious schools we attended, what stellar companies we used to work for, what esteemed roles we held and our string of success stories. To back up that story we display some bravado because modesty won’t get you ahead. Being able to argue a strong position and persuade others is all a part of the profile. And it must be reinforced constantly.
  • Ideas that are different than our own are experienced as a challenge. I express Point A. You express Point B. I immediately react to convince you and others that Point B can’t possibly be right because it contradicts my better Point A. I don’t even take a breath long enough to really hear what you have said, let alone entertain it. To hold my own strong opinion at the same time that you express the exact opposite is tremendously uncomfortable. I’m all instinct and very little thought.
  • It takes a lot of work to change our minds. To open up to other points of view requires some mental and emotional gymnastics. I have to suspend my own thinking, listen fully to what you are saying, sift through what resonates and what doesn’t, integrate that new thought into my long term perspective and then figure out how to use this new hybrid idea. Phew! It’s much easier to just be mentally lazy.
  • We might look weak or wishy washy if we open up to new ideas. Somewhere along the way the notion that changing one’s mind was not a sign of strong leadership. Decisive, carefully thought through, determined, persuasive…these are admirable traits. Open mindedness, flexibility and agility are considered strengths these days but there is not much resonance yet that those traits amount to potent leadership. It is still aspirational for leaders yet a requirement for staff. If leaders demonstrate these traits too frequently they are deemed confusing. The staff clambers for declarative statements and unwavering decisions from their leaders.

There are no simple solutions to this very human drama that unfolds in our teams everyday. Relaxing your strongly held positions is hard work. Helping your team to hear each other ain’t easy. Serving up multiple points of view without seeing that as a battle cry goes against habit. But doing all three of these things will create remarkably different conversations, decisions and outcomes.

Imagine yourself preparing for a critical discussion with your team. Write one sentence that states your position and then leave that note in your desk. As you do this tell yourself to let go of that opinion so you can remain open to what happens in the room. You start the meeting by asking each person to do the same thing: write down their opinion and put it aside. Use some other techniques to draw out each member’s thoughts. For example, rather than saying “I’d like to hear from everyone”, ask each person to move to a private section of the room and write three bullet points about their thoughts on the subject on a flip chart. Then ask the team to wander around the room to read the charts. Have them use markers to put stars by the lines that resonate. There will be a visual display of points of agreement to begin the discussion. This process can bypass the strident “listen to me!!” that is often the start of debates that must result in a decision. Beginning with convergence deflates some of the brashness. The conversation can proceed with greater probability of incorporating multiple additional points of view that contribute to the core consensus.

Bottom line: digging your heels in to maintain your strong opinions is self serving and leads to crappy team dynamics and decisions. Developing a practice of productively sharing ideas rather than egos is challenging but doable. As a wise person once told me: Get over yourself. Better things can happen when you do.

How To Understand and Appreciate Our Team Mates

As I sit with team after team providing guidance for better functioning, I am always struck by the same three related observations. One, everyone seems to be speaking a foreign language. Two, no one is hearing each other. And three, everyone would rather be getting a root canal than be in a room with this motley crew. It’s a wonder that anything gets accomplished!

Sadly, this is the norm for many teams. From a psychological perspective I break it down this way: we have egos that need to be stroked, we each want to stand out from the crowd, we get confused and defensive in group settings, we don’t know what else to do. We are not bad people who mean to disregard our peers. We just missed that day in school. Oh, right! We never ever learned this stuff in school.

We each need to take personal responsibility for getting out of our own way by quieting our voracious appetites for recognition and turning up the volume on positive intentions towards others. That is the starting point for developing an appreciation for our team mates. Easy for me to say, harder to do. But becoming aware that the “me, me, me” meter is running over time is important. Hit the pause button. There is a lot of amazing stuff you’ll start to notice when you do that. Hidden gems to feature and obstacles that are simpler than we imagine.

The path to understanding starts with teams that speak only one language: the native tongue of your country. Not MBA jargon, not company alphabet soup acronyms, not trend du jour memes, not functional discipline gobbledygook. Just plain english (in my case). Years ago while I was working at a newspaper the editor drilled this into me. As a fine written and verbal communicator it made him crazy when team meetings were over run with gibberish. The opportunities for misunderstandings and meaningless exchanges were exponential. He taught me that down to earth, plain-spoken english would improve our discussions. And he was right.

I’m not saying that a team of functional experts should never use their own shorthand. I’m suggesting that mixed teams need to err on the side of normal language and even experts need to revert to english when it comes to debates and decisions. This is the only way a team can establish a common language. Without that, the chances for understanding each other drop significantly.

By now everyone has sat through training courses on effective listening skills. We’ve all learned how to nod our heads and ask questions for deeper understanding and how to draw out the silent ones. That’s all good stuff. Just not enough. If we appear to be listening, is that the same as actually hearing what is being said? Here’s how you can tell if you’ve been heard. Someone says, “Hmmm. I never thought about it that way. Tell me more about how you got to that place.” Here’s how you can tell if you really heard someone else. When you ask a question the person does not reply, “I just answered that same question five minutes ago.” In order to hear someone two things need to happen: you need to have a quiet mind so you can take in new information and you need to assimilate that data. If you are mentally busy thinking of your response to the person or how you want to score your own points or reminding yourself to pick up milk on your way home, then you haven’t heard a word. You might appear to be listening but you’re not.

Walk into a team meeting with this goal: I’m going to speak much less and try to hear much more. Jot some notes as others are speaking. Pick up on key words and themes. Hear content as pieces of data to be mixed and matched and moved around. See if you can pick up on emotional tone. Is the person excited or frustrated or bored? Fit the affect together with the content to see if that reshapes the picture. In other words, sit back and take it all in rather than feeling a need to jump in repeatedly. Speak up when you can add something valuable to the discussion. Especially helpful is your synthesis of the key points in the conversation. Your team mates will be surprised and pleased that someone heard all that and was able to make some sense out of it. Being heard is what we really want. Listening can be too superficial.

I believe these first two issues feed into the third problem: people aren’t enjoying being together. It feels like a chore, one more thing to check off the daily to-do list. Most teams are made up of a cast of characters who are different than we are. That’s a good thing for the business but not necessarily easy to figure out how to get along and be productive. This one is so analytical and that one can’t make a decision and this one loves the sound of his voice and that one never follows through. Why can’t everyone be just like me: charming, cooperative, smart, quick, focused, practically perfect in every way (thank you Mary Poppins)? Our task is to find ways to appreciate those differences and understand the necessity of having them.

I don’t expect us to adore every person we work with but I absolutely believe we can come to respect our peers. If we all spoke one common language and we all made the effort to hear each other (and quiet our inner judges and ringmasters) we would be well on our way to understanding the value of each team member. When I stop worrying about trying to be the smartest one in the room and I sit back and listen, I can actually hear who else is smart. I don’t have to be the only one. I can even hear some valuable insights from those that I don’t have the highest regard for. That can help me realize that I was being too harsh and hasty. When I honestly admit to myself that the reason I go crazy about the overly analytic team member is because I don’t do well with details, I can start to respect her and realize the team really needs that. When I can laugh at myself because a whole room full of Nicki’s would be an absolute nightmare, then I can appreciate the cast of characters that make up our team.

Speaking plain english and hearing each other go a long way towards understanding and enjoying our team mates. These are small but overlooked steps to building better teams.

Do You Know What Your Team’s Purpose Is?

If I asked you what your team’s purpose is would you have a ready and brief answer? Would it be the same response as the other members of your team? I’m guessing the answer is no all around. Oh sure, you know what your goals are and what metrics you must achieve and what strategic mission you need to fulfill and all that stuff that is hammered out each year or quarter during goal setting and calibration meetings. That is what you are supposed to do…as in tasks to accomplish. That is not a purpose, the reason you and your colleagues are gathered together.

First, let me offer a clear definition of what I mean here. “Purpose can be anything that benefits people and society in some way…Whatever form it takes, purpose is the glue that integrates the work of one into the work of many. It lifts people’s efforts above the level of everyday, self-centered activity.” (Linda Hill etal, Collective Genius) Think of it as the higher calling of the team. I’m certain that most teams have not given this a moment of thought. And I’m even more certain that senior leaders have given it even less consideration.

Second, let me tell you why this is so important to developing a highly functional team. We human beings feel more passionate and connected to a meaningful purpose than we do to keeping score. Of course we like our teams to win and hit the financial targets but at the end of the day…meh. It’s not enough to keep the battery charged. And it most definitely isn’t enough to pull a team together. Without a compelling purpose our teams are merely a collection of individuals trying to cross the finish line. No glue, as Linda Hill calls it.

How does a team think about and decide what it’s purpose is?

  • Defining a team’s purpose may/may not be driven by the formal leader. If you are an inspiring visionary you can help a team connect to something grand and compelling that appeals to all. If the members share excitement about that purpose, great. But even more powerful than following a leader is when the members bounce their thoughts off of each other and come to a common vision. We tend to commit more energy to things we have a hand in creating.
  • This is a collective activity. Each member needs to put forward his/her own thoughts about purpose and then the group needs to hash out all the ideas. No rush to judgment. No disregard for any individual. Think of this (iterative) discussion as a mosaic with everyone contributing colorful tiles. Move the pieces around until a clear and exciting picture emerges.
  • Think boldly. Move past the metrics, jargon and platitudes. Purpose is more akin to BHAG, big hairy audacious goal. Except that it is more essential, more fundamental. “If we are gone tomorrow, we will have left behind…” “We are uniquely capable of…” “We get up every morning just chomping at the bit to be together to…”
  • Consider what helps on the bad days. No matter how lofty the team’s purpose is, there will be lots of crappy days and wrong turns. What is the team mantra that can help members feel centered enough to refocus their attention? “This week sucked! Thankfully we have big aims so the details of this moment aren’t life threatening.” You may even consider establishing some rituals around pulling yourselves out of the hole and reminding each other of the bigger picture.
  • Keep team purpose discreet and simple. It should be stated in one sentence. Don’t confuse purpose with team norms or decision making or terms for collaboration or rules of the road or any of those other important tasks that teams need to agree on. Be sure that purpose comes first and then let all those other decisions fall in line to support the team’s purpose.

Is purpose the same thing as mission? No. The mission is usually at the enterprise level and it describes what the company does. The team’s purpose will have a sight line to the larger mission but will be closer to home. Is purpose the same as vision? Kind of. It is more aspirational, bold, future oriented. But it may not provide the glue a team needs. Personally, I hate quibbling over these too often used and too often misunderstood and too often meaningless terms. We have all spent too much time at off sites agonizing over just the right words. That’s why I like “purpose” instead. It’s plain english and more user friendly.

If your team feels like it is stumbling around in the dark or a collection of individuals going off in ten different directions, it may be time to take a few steps back and define the team’s purpose. It’s not as simple as it sounds but creating a space for this discussion will pay off in big and small ways. And best of all, anyone can get the ball rolling. Be the one!

Teams and Psychological Safety

In case you missed the NYT Magazine article on teams a couple weeks back, here is the link for the article:

 (I hope you can view it without a subscription.)

It does a great job of distilling loads of current team data and decades of research to answer the basic question: What is the essential criteria for the most effective teams. Every day this blog gets loads of hits on this very question. To add to what I’ve written in the past, let me expand on a key idea from this NYT article.

When team members feel comfortable speaking their minds, taking risks and deeply listening to each other that is called psychological safety. To develop and encourage those habits, the starting point is getting to know each other. It is harder to dismiss, disrespect or criticize others when you know just enough to call forth your empathy. The more we are in relationship to someone, the more we care. That caring causes us to listen, ask questions to learn more and to take our own turn at revealing ourselves. In other words, some basic human connection is needed.

Somewhere along the way the workplace got defined as rational, task and goal oriented, devoid of most emotions and dog-eat-dog. Anything to the contrary was deemed too touchy-feely. Beyond those forced offsite team building exercises that consultants like me forced you to do, there is precious little opportunity to get to know our colleagues. Yet that is exactly the most important ingredient to successful teams. We need to know and care about each other…just enough.

I was working with the CFO of a major international corporation. Raj had done a great job growing into his role on the leadership team and building his relationship with the CEO. But he wasn’t satisfied with how his team was functioning. They were all dedicated and smart individuals who always went the extra mile but something was missing. Since they were located in six offices in four countries it was hard to feel any esprit de corps. Raj felt strongly that the stress of their jobs would be greatly reduced if they collaborated better; if they felt less isolated. I had to agree so we worked out a plan for a two day leadership meeting at the corporate headquarters. I decided not to show Raj all my cards and instead asked him just to trust me to facilitate the first morning. He agreed.

Once everyone settled into their seats and Raj welcomed everyone, I took over. “I’m aware that most of you have known each other for at least three years. Many of you have known each other for much longer than that. This morning I am going to ask each of you to answer three questions out loud. You can reveal whatever you are comfortable with and are under no obligation to bear your soul. Raj is going to go first and then you each decide when to chime in. Okay?” Finance folks, you gotta love ’em! They looked at me with skepticism, there was some eye rolling and then the silent consent.

I can’t claim originality for the three questions. As a consultant I am obliged to rip off the good ideas of others! The questions were: Where did you grow up? Where are you in the birth order? Describe one experience in your childhood that had a lasting impact.

Raj began, “I grew up in New Jersey and I am the oldest of…” His voice caught and he burst into tears. Everyone in the room was aware that Raj’s sister had died three months earlier and they waited with respectful silence. When he was able, Raj continued, “It is still so strange. There were five of us until so recently. I was very close to my sister and the loss is so big. I cry a lot these days.” He took several swigs of coffee, dried his eyes, thanked everyone for their patience and then dove into the last question. “I guess the childhood experience that comes to mind is playing the piano. My mother was classically trained and taught at a small conservatory. She insisted that all of us had to learn. There is nothing worse than having a parent as your teacher! Her expectations were crazy high. For the first five years I absolutely hated practicing and learning how to play. And then something clicked into place and I would shove my siblings away from the piano so I could play to my heart’s content. In fact, there was this time that I bribed my sister to give up her practice hour. In exchange, I had to do her math homework. That backfired so badly for both of us! My mother was furious at us but, much worse, my sister’s math teacher embarrassed her in front of the whole class. The teacher wanted to know if she had an overnight math awakening or if she had cheated. For years we laughed our heads off every time we remembered that moment.” After a slight pause he added, “It feels good to share that story with all of you. Unexpected, but good.”

Several team members asked simultaneously, “Raj, do you still play the piano?” “Oh yes. Every day. It is my passion and my solace,” he replied.

What happened next was quite magical and nothing I could have planned or foreseen. Each team member revealed something vulnerable that wasn’t quite resolved or tidy. Raj had (unexpectedly) set the tone that it was safe to expose something honest and even emotional. I could feel the shift in the team. It went from a collection of respected peers to people who were interested in and cared about each other. With each person’s story, the team’s connection grew.

This was fabulous enough but something else emerged. Oddly enough, 9 out of 14 people were serious musicians! Multiple instruments, different genres, shared devotion. Before this moment the team had only a passing knowledge that two people played instruments. By lunch time they had asked Raj if they could find time in the couple days to enjoy some music together. It was then that Raj let them know that he had arranged to have the team at his home that very evening rather than at some formal restaurant. Their reaction was large. “How thoughtful of you to welcome us into your home.” And then loads of commotion to find out what other instruments there might be in his home so they could jam.

That happened three years ago. This team was transformed by those two days together. They reach out to each other for help, they vent their frustrations more openly, they experience an easier rapport with Raj and cut him some slack on his bad days and they report higher job satisfaction. When members have taken new jobs the team celebrates their time together and wishes them well. Raj takes great efforts in welcoming new members to the team so they can feel connected as quickly as possible. The team’s productivity was always high but now there is less stress and more collaboration.

It is so simple to create an environment and opportunities for team members to connect and feel psychologically safe. We need to stop thinking that doing so is too kumbaya.




Want Great Teams? Get Great Leaders

Jacinta is the CIO of a mid-sized advertising company.  She has insisted that her staff operate as a great team to meet the many project requests of the company. She has reinforced this with team building off sites, collaboration rewards, dynamic pairing of members, project leadership assignments for all and shared goal setting. She meets individually with each person once a quarter to check in and further their development needs. In short, Jacinta goes the extra mile to create the atmosphere and support for effective team behaviors.

You would assume that this team is doing great. That’s certainly what Jacinta thinks. But if you asked Jacob or Mari or Ramon you would hear a different story. They are three of her direct reports on a team of eight. They adore Jacinta, have great respect for her technical and management skills and generally like working for her. But they are not so happy with the team. Their complaints: various pairs of folks simply don’t like each other, Jacinta is blind to some of the kissing up members do with her, two members are perceived as incompetent, the best players are left to do the lion’s share of the work. They all claim they have raised some of their concerns but not too loudly.

Recently two incidents occurred that got Jacinta’s attention. Mari fired off an email to Ramon and cc’d Jacinta. “It has become intolerable to work with you. For the sake of the team I suggest you get your act together.” Ramon was stunned to find out that was Mari’s sentiment (which he did not share) and then he was pissed that she had cc’d Jacinta. The following week Jacob met privately with Mari and then Ramon to bitch and moan about the two incompetents and to gain their support to oust them. Once he got their consent he went to Human Resources to file his complaints. HR contacted Jacinta immediately.

Sound familiar? In the real world this is the norm. A good and well intentioned leader mixed with a good enough staff with a dash of serious team building efforts will still yield stupid human tricks. We just can’t help ourselves. Put nine of us together and screwy things will occur. We want to be the favorite child, we try to create a pecking order (forget this egalitarian team shit!), we want to bond with the good guys and toss the bad guys aside, we want to be heroes that save the day, we want to shine. None of these very human desires work so well when you are trying to achieve goals through teams.

So what to do? I have spent years planning and facilitating those team off sites and I am here to tell you that they have a purpose but that is not the forum to address the kind of dynamics I am describing here. The best use of those meetings is to have some fun and get to know each other more deeply. To think (as I once did) that leaders and members can publicly hash out why Mari sent that email or why Jacob gathered a posse to dump two people is naive. If you try to do that there will be even more damage to the team. I stopped intervening like that ages ago. (And FYI, I am a trained and experienced group therapist and even I see the error of my ways.)

Here’s what it comes down to: the best teams have the best leaders. People are going to be ridiculously human and it is up to the leader to rein in the dysfunction and point everyone in the right direction.

Jacinta is on the right path from a structural point of view. But she hasn’t rolled up her sleeves to confront the tough stuff. Although not an exhaustive list, great team leaders will…

  • Take people to task for misbehavior. At the first sign of inappropriate interactions s/he will make it very clear that these behaviors are unacceptable. This is done privately at first…usually in the proverbial woodshed. That only has to happen a couple times before a person decides this is too painful. To avoid more “talks” most of us realize it is easier to behave.
  • Reinforce good team habits publicly and by name. If people are trying to get the leader’s attention, great leaders make it perfectly clear that good stuff will get praise while bad stuff will get a “private meeting” (see above). The good team member will be verbally (and sometimes financially) rewarded in multiple public forums. Members learn that to be the favorite child good behavior is required.
  • Mediate conversations between team members. Rather than responding to flaming emails, the leader facilitates a discussion between the two people. You might think this is to teach better ways of airing and resolving conflicts…which it is. But the greater gain is that members learn they can’t just sit around sniping at each other because they will be forced to sit across from each other and talk it out. Oh no! Anything but that! We humans prefer to just bitch endlessly and feel very self righteous. (see internet trolls) But if we are called upon to have a reasonable discussion about real concerns we would rather not.
  • Be attuned to the more nuanced dynamics. Is Laila’s silence anger or thinking? What did that look between Felix and Keri mean? Mel and Stacy are passing notes! Mikal is completely disengaged. A good leader will observe all these subtleties and intervene. Laila, what do you think about this issue? Keri, do you think we are missing anything? Mel and Stacy, please don’t conduct a side conversation now. And after the meeting, Mikal, let’s talk for a few minutes. Is something going on? The leader doesn’t need to interpret anything. S/he just needs to address it in productive and proactive ways. The more these normal behaviors get ignored, the more disruptive they become.
  • Strike a balance between challenging goals, cheerleading and reality. It is a leader’s job to set aggressive goals, monitor progress and hold people accountable. But just driving for ever tougher targets depletes the team on every level. Being too rah-rah-we-can-do-this loses its luster very quickly. Good team leaders find a way to be very grounded in reality while still providing encouragement. Big and arduous projects require more free lunches and shooing everyone out of the office at 7pm because there will be some all-nighters along the way.
  • Break up cliques and show no favoritism. Some of the most destructive team behaviors look like an episode of Survivor. Previous allies now back stab and jealous peers become BFFs and individuals throw sharp elbows to become The Favorite. Again, stupid human tricks. Good leaders see this for what it is…normal human behavior. But they also intervene to minimize the negative impact on the team. They have ongoing conversations with ringleaders, influencers, bullies, bystanders and those in the shadows. S/he works consistently to bring folks into the fold (sic. overall team objectives) by refocusing attention away from the nasty and overly personal attacks. Assignments are made to split up unhealthy alliances, shy members are brought to the foreground or powerful people are marginalized. The goal is to rearrange the chairs to keep the dynamics more fluid and productive.

And the big ace in the hole that great team leaders use is removing the bad player. If every effort has been made to straighten out someone and s/he still persists in acting up, a good leader will get rid of the person. This is a wonderful moment for the team and the leader. The sigh of relief is very loud. The leader gains new respect. The team refocuses energy on the work rather than distracting interactions.

Best of all, team members are on notice. The message is loud and clear. “Do the right thing and life will be good. Mess up and I will take you out.”

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