It’s not uncommon for businesses large and small to struggle to get the best out of a team. There are two main elements to team performance, the individuals themselves and the relationships between them.
The Team Breakthrough is a two-to-three-day event designed to take a team to the next level. Although we designed the team breakthrough for senior teams, we’ve been asked quite a few times to deal with teams from client workforces too.
In one particular case, the owners of the business could not breakthrough the tension, infighting and politics within the team. It was more out of desperation than inspiration that we were asked to see what we could do. It didn’t take long before we were able to uncover the root causes of their challenges. In fact, it was the gentleman who had been identified as a “troublemaker“ who first had the flash of inspiration to understand what was at the heart of things going wrong in the company. In the middle of one of the workshops, he pointed to himself and said to the group it’s us, it’s us; and proceeded to explain exactly what it was that was going wrong. From that moment of understanding the whole game changed for that team and they never looked back.
On the whole employee teams tend to be much more straightforward to deal with then senior teams. With an employee team, all they want to do is a good job with no stress. If their management can provide the right environment and the team can work out how to do the job, then everything works really well and surprisingly easily.
Senior teams on the other hand have many more dimensions to them. Some individuals have ambitions, some have scores to settle, some have their own agendas, others have key relationships in different parts of the business; and all of this nonsense needs to be brought out into the open. We expose for the first time what’s really been going on. Of course, none of the participants in these games ever want to put their hands up and admit this is what they’ve been doing. This is just one factor that makes dealing with senior teams more difficult than dealing with employees.
What we do in a Team Breakthrough, to deal with those challenges within the senior team, is ignore them! What we do instead is focus on each individual in the same way as our 1-2-1 Breakthrough process. In going through that experience, each of the individuals has their own realisations about their own lives and about their own behaviour. Once that’s sunken in they start to think in a different way about what other people have been doing. Suddenly, we start to build some commonality. They’re all going through the same process at the same time and many of the lessons
are at least similar if not exactly the same.
One of the most memorable transformations, some years ago, concerned a woman who, whilst competent at her job, was known for being snappy and bad-tempered with her colleagues. When it was her turn to speak, at one of the circle sessions, she stated how upset she was that none of her colleagues had bothered to go to the funeral of her best friend, who had also been a colleague. This event had happened some five years previously. She had been carrying this emotional challenge all that time and no one had figured it out.
It was as if a dam wall had been breached. All the pain, sadness and guilt that had been carried within the group for so long, came pouring out. It turned out that the colleague responsible for communicating the date of the funeral had got it wrong. By the time they realised, it was too late.
Given this person’s natural threat response was ‘evade’, they didn’t do anything. They didn’t know what to do, so they just hoped the problem would go away. Etc!
Even writing about it now, some ten years later, I can still feel some of that emotion! The angry woman was wrapped up in the most emotional ‘group hug’ I’ve ever seen. The next day, all was calm and happy. It was as if nothing had ever been wrong. The CEO was completely non-plussed! He had been trying everything he could to engage with his direct reports, but nothing had worked. Now they were collaborating as if they were all best friends.
Team Breakthroughs don’t just help relationships between colleagues. The wife of a senior manager we’d been working with came up to me and said, “thank you so much for giving me my husband back!” The transformation she was talking about was that her husband, like many senior managers had felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was coming home tired and stressed every night with no time or energy for her or the children. Of course, she was anxious about what this state of mind was doing to her husband and to their family as a whole. She hadn’t seen a way out. To have him suddenly come home, back to how she knew him, was for her the most amazing experience and I’m sure wasn’t too bad for him either!
The stressed, perhaps depressed, poorly performing, desperate group of individuals that could hardly be called a team emerges after two to three days as a determined, grounded band of brothers (and sisters!) ready to take on the world. What the CEO or the chairman has to do is to make sure that senior office politics don’t get in the way of this determination. That’s why I always say that the ultimate job of a leader is simply to hold the space. Imagine we are talking about football. The job of the leader is to clear the pitch so that the team can play within the white painted boundary lines. He or she must stop people running onto the pitch or stop someone’s dog running on to steal the ball! The leader who is able to do that will see their team thrive with their newfound autonomy. They’ll also see results that they haven’t had before and that’s what’s so exciting about this approach – It’s fun and the results are better. No more working harder with more exhortation, even longer hours and misery just because no one’s got the imagination to figure out what’s really going on and how to change it. Please don’t let that company be you!
In multidivisional organisations, you find a natural hierarchy of performance. As a CEO you will already know which division has the best team and which division doesn’t. It will be patently obvious which team needs to do breakthrough first. You’ll then be able to use the changing results from the not so good team to inspire the others to want to do the process too. In that way, you’ll bring about cultural change across your whole organisation without having to impose it. It goes without saying the imposition never works, but inspiration and desire always do.
One there is one warning about running team breakthroughs. Let’s imagine that you’ve got a poorly performing division and you decide to offer the team this opportunity ahead of your own team or anybody else within the business. Suddenly, after only three days, the people that everyone regards as the second-rate losers and no-hopers start to see how the world really works. They will have learned in just three days how to sort themselves out and of course, when they get back to work, they’ll start to see what’s wrong with all of their bosses! The risk is that this undermines the chain of command. It doesn’t matter how democratic things are in your business. Ultimately managers need to be accountable. There is a chain of command even if you want to avoid using it.
One of the best ways to preserve the authority of leaders is to make sure that they have the training first and therefore the people who report to them naturally gravitate to them for learning, to find out what’s new. In this way, the leader as teacher is able to reinforce their natural authority without actually using power of position. This strategy works well for both the leader and the team. The leader’s job is not to do the work of the team, it’s to create the environment for the team to achieve success. It’s what we call relaxing into results. Sounds a bit counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? So often our leaders are technicians first. That means they are experts at what they do in the business. They find delegation difficult and fear that if they themselves are not personally involved in everything, other people will wonder what they are doing. I’ll write about this in another blog.