‘This team sucks the life out of people…’

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How truth and power are constructed in the moment (and what you can do about it), by Megan Reitz with John Higgins.

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. In particular, they were keen on ‘developing more honest conversations and collaborating’.

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 power point 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; and 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. As one person chooses to do something differently rather than sticking to the norm, the organisation as a whole learns and the culture may change. Such moments therefore contain within them the potential seeds for improving wellbeing, creativity, productivity and all manner of other important organisational outcomes.

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.

I proceeded to point out how the rules of the game were being developed, right here right now. I invited them to consider the consequences of continuing to berate the individual and the alternative responses which could be more congruent with their espoused values of honesty and collaboration. So it was that we were able to talk about what happens when someone says something that was honest but that could be seen as disloyal by others, and how 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 aggressively, the others could have instead approached this new opinion more curiously. 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 safety of ‘next steps’ and ‘actions’.

Instead the group had the insight that change happens in the moment, and were able to discuss what lay behind this person’s disaffection, finding that he was not alone in feeling this way, although, and this is not unusual,the people who were most surprised at this discovery 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. The irony lost on them that of course nothing would ever change, if they went around telling themselves and others that it wouldn’t. Changing the way of working in this and any other team is 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 takes mindfulness and practice. I will be helping them to practice this again in the next workshop…

kim hollamby