On a Terrible Team? Maybe You’re Making It Worse

I was working away at my desk when the phone rang. It was the CEO of a small financial organization. He was looking for help with what he referred to as his “toxic” executive team.  I told him about our Team Inoculation program, which we affectionately call “the flu shot for teams.”

“Do you have a rabies shot?” he replied.

Wow, I thought, could it really be that bad? I imagined a room full of executives frothing at the mouth.

It wasn’t quite that bad, but it was pretty horrible.  Members of the team had stopped trusting each other and essentially stopped communicating. The organization used to be listed as one of the nation’s best employers but now engagement had plummeted. Business wasn’t going well, either. Thanks to internal squabbles, the team couldn’t deliver the tools the sales force needed to keep up with the increasingly tough competition. Sales had been falling for three years. There was no time to waste in getting this team back to health.

When we started, everyone was focused on their grievances. They felt wronged, and they wanted to see public trials for the offending teammates. The alleged crimes varied. Some had publicly accused their teammates of not knowing how to do their jobs. One Vice President had instructed her direct reports to ignore instructions from her executive peer. Another refused to share an important document with a colleague because she didn’t trust her with the sensitive material. Even the CEO was in the action, asking the Board to let him terminate the CFO without addressing the issues directly with him.

It was our third session with them before things started to improve. One member of the team, the CFO, realized that he was contributing to the problem.  He raised his hand and said, “I have to take ownership of my part in this.  I realize I’m grabbing the reins and not leaving you room to prove to me you’re capable. For my part, I promise to give you more room to do your jobs.”  It was a big moment.  They had entered the room expecting that they would have a rockem-sockem no-holds-barred battle and here was the bully CFO short-circuiting it all with a heartfelt admission that he was a part of the problem.

And instead of piling on the CFO — “You’re right, you were a jerk!” — the next person to speak quickly took on her share of the responsibility for what had gone wrong. It was the VP HR; one of the people who had been most affected by the CFO’s lack of confidence.  She replied. “I was hurt when you didn’t trust me to do that work, but I shouldn’t have responded by shutting you out.  I’m sorry.”  By this point, the tide was unstoppable.  One team member after another stepped up and took ownership for what they needed to change.

When things on teams go wrong, most people spend their time blaming everyone else for their predicament.  They have plenty of ideas for how their (vilified) bosses and teammates can shape up. Seldom do I talk to a person who includes their own actions – or inactions — in the story of their team’s dysfunction. Instead, they wait for someone else to change their team.  If you’re waiting for someone else to change your team, you’re waiting in vain.

You have to take accountability for the effectiveness of your team.

Start admitting that you are part of the problem. Few people are aware and honest enough to see the role they play in the dynamic of the team.  Instead, they focus on the aggressive behavior of a teammate or the disorganized antics of a lackluster leader.  Like any relationship, a bad team dynamic is never the result of only one person’s behavior. Think about how the things you have said and done have affected your team. Even if you have just sat silently as one teammate has berated another, you have contributed to the current state of your team.

But you can also be part of the solution. Everyone has an opportunity to change the dynamic of an unhealthy team.  Figure out what role you’ve been playing and change accordingly:

The wicked: Some team members actively destroy the team dynamic.  Their tactics can be overt; such as yelling, belittling, or interrupting.  They can also be covert; such as gossiping, negotiating through back channels, or just ignoring someone.  If you’re honest with yourself, have you been damaging your team?  There is hope. With greater self-awareness and some coaching, you can change.  In my experience, the wicked team member is actually the easiest to convert. Usually this is because the wicked ones are smart and want to have an impact.  If you give them a way to make a more significant and positive contribution, they are willing and able to make the shift.

The wronged: When one finds a wicked team member, the wounded are always close at hand.  You can identify the wronged by their woe-is-me attitude and their inability or unwillingness to stand up for themselves.  At some point, the frustration tends to boil over and the victim goes on the attack. Are you wallowing? Have you let someone on the team marginalize you?  Do you veer between being a doormat and aggressively asserting yourself? It’s time to change how you show up.  You might be surprised to learn that, in my experience, it’s more likely to be the wronged who is voted off the island than the wicked.  That is because the wronged often lack the energy and resilience to make another earnest attempt at making the team better.  They are exhausted by the experience and often past the point of no return.

The witnesses: Not everyone on a dysfunctional team will be participating actively.  While cutting and insensitive remarks are lobbed across the table, some watch, just waiting for things to simmer down.  The witnesses are the first to throw up their hands and say that life on the dysfunctional team is unbearable.  Unfortunately, commiserating does nothing to change the course of things, and their disengagement costs the team, too. Are you just watching as your team goes down the tubes?  Get in the game.

Imagine a team where any one of these characters decided to change for the better, as the CFO in the small financial organization did.  The wicked one repents; the wronged gets it right; the witnesses raise their hands and their voices. That team will immediately be different. Any one person can change a team. What will you do today to change your team for the better?

Read Original Post from the Harvard Business Review


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