“This team sucks the life out of people…” - How paying attention to the way a team talks can increase honesty and openness
The following is based on a true story, although a lot has had to be disguised – because this is a truth that would be uncomfortable if it went public.
I was working with a group a while back when the statement in the title of this blog turned up. There were eight members of an executive Board in the room and we were trying to make sense of what had been going on for them during a merger process in the last year – and how the next year could be better.
As usual I wanted to bypass the normal rules of politeness and people’s considerable skill at saying what was expected of them, so I invited them to express their personal experience using images (after we’d had the normal round of polished PowerPoint presentations which highlighted all that had been achieved and the wonderfulness of their performance). I asked them “what has it been like, being you in the last year?” A different story always leaks out when I get people to do this, there’s more energy, more angst, more passion; a whole load more richness and colour.
As the group examined each other’s handiwork someone read out a phrase that had been written in bold black marker pen next to a black and white picture of a standard corporate meeting with bored and strained looking people round the table. “This team sucks the life out of people….”
There was a second or two of silence.
“Who wrote this?” demanded the CEO, in a voice that felt punitive and laced with threat to me – and almost certainly was to whoever had dared to express this unacceptable opinion.
“It was me”, said one of the guys, holding up his hand, every inch the naughty schoolboy.
The rest of the team began to pile in.
“No way! That’s rubbish”, said one.
“How can you say that? That’s not right at all”, insisted another.
“Time out!” I called.
These are the critical moments in the life of a team when the norms of what can and can’t be said become visible. In my book Dialogue in Organizations; Developing Relational Leadership, I explain how, in these sorts of moments, the ‘rules of the game’ are constructed. Often unconsciously in these moments we work out what can and can’t be done and what can and can’t be said. I knew that what happened next in this group was critical; the response of the team to this act of speaking up and expressing challenging views would communicate either acceptance or rejection. I’d worked with this group for long enough, and with a robust enough remit, to have the licence to call them to account and get them to notice what they were doing – and give them the opportunity to do something different. So it was that we were able to talk about what happens when someone says something that could be felt as by others to be act of disloyalty – that could put that individual’s future within the group in jeopardy.
Certainly the phrase: “This team sucks the life out of me” could have been better phrased, but so could the response from the rest of the group. Rather than responding with the spirit of a witch-hunt, the others could have instead become curious about this reality of one of their members. In this instance, with me in the room to notice and hold them to account, the conversation was able to step out of its normal pattern of burying unpopular opinion and rushing on to the identification of actions to take after the meeting. Instead the group had the insight that change happens in the moment, so for twenty minutes the team talked about the shadow as well as the light of being who they were. They discussed what lay behind this person’s disaffection and found that they were not alone in feeling this way – although, and this is not unusual – the people who were most surprised to find that not everyone was happy were the most senior within the team.
A new pattern of conversation, a new way of belonging to the team, had emerged – or so I thought. What counted as truth and how power mediated what could and couldn’t be said had shifted. There was a small chink of light, which indicated that “it might just be ok to disagree, to challenge, to disclose something about how I feel in this group”.
And then I overheard two members leave at the end of the meeting: “Of course nothing will change”, one said and the other nodded in agreement. They were gone before I could get hold of them and show them the irony that of course nothing would ever change, if they went around telling themselves and everyone else that nothing would change. Changing the way of working in this team was as simple, and as challenging, as deciding to do something slightly different in this next moment. Deciding to take responsibility for the nature and quality of conversations. Deciding to notice their own complaining and transform it into experimenting with different responses. But of course this takes mindfulness and practice. And I will try again in the next workshop….
By John Higgins, Research Director, The Right Conversation and Dr Megan Reitz, Ashridge Business School
Does this anecdote feel familiar? As a coach, team leader or facilitator you will know that it is notoriously difficult to get a grip on what happens behind closed doors when a team meets – yet one of the most critical indicators of team effectiveness is how well the team ‘talks’.
The Team Dialogue Indicator is a unique diagnostic tool that unearths conversational habits and patterns of behaviour within a team. The indicator has been developed in association with Ashridge Business School and t-three collaborator; The Right Conversation, to invite teams to come together to collectively reflect on the quality of their conversations as a first step to identifying improvements.
You can become accredited to use the diagnostic tool and to deliver the insight it provides – more info can be found here.
We are running a two-day accreditation course on 2 & 3 November. To find out more about the accreditation, as well as a taster of what you can expect to cover, please click here or contact us on 01954 710780 or at email@example.com – we’d love to hear from you!