Start with yourself: Are you distracted by any elephants? Look at the questions below, and note down if any serious elephants come to mind:
Can you think of incidents in the past where you suffered a humiliation, a failure or another form of loss or setback that keeps resurfacing in your mind?
If this question brings any highly annoying elephants to mind, it might be worth spending some effort getting them out of the way.
Go through the following steps for each annoying elephant:
#1: Try to figure out why it is so annoying (look for emotional as well as rational reasons)
#2: If the why is based in the past, and if it is not preventing progress, try if you can simply let it go! (it’s easier said than done – but many elephants can simply be left behind by stopping feeding them)
#3: If #2 is impossible or if the elephant prevents progress: Re-visit the why in #1 and figure out:
Who’s help do you need in order to move forward?
What exactly do you need them to do or say?
#4: Build a convincing argument that you can take to the person(s) identified in #3. - If this argument is strong, try it out. If the argument is admittedly weak, go back and try #2 again…
First rule of dealing with elephants in teams: It’s important to find a way to get them out in the open – to get the “elephant on the table” – so they lose their distractive power.
But, if trust in your team is really low, this can lead to negative reactions and destructive discussions. If you find this to be the case, maybe review “General tips on re-building team trust”
More resourceful teams should focus on figuring out a way to get a good discussion – starting with the most disturbing elephant.
Your aim should always be to create a foundation for a rational discussion about the elephant – and to use the discussion to agree on adjusting behaviors in the team.
Therefore, it is never useful to get into any form of argument about blame or go into details about “who did this” or “who said what”.
Prepare your presentation of the elephant as any other important proposition that you want your fellow team members to take seriously:
Why is this important?
What are we looking for? (e.g. change of behavior)
Prepare a few open questions that will invite others to contribute to the discussion
Prepare a few ideas on possible changes of behavior, but be open to new ideas and adjust as you go through the process
Consider involving 1 or 2 alliance partners from your team, to review your approach and maybe help you in the meeting.
If you are not the leader of the team, consider if you can make the leader an alliance partner.
Clashing individuals distract the team by removing focus from the more important issues, and it poisons team collaboration. Therefore, it’s worth the effort to stop, or minimize, the problem.
If you are part of these clashes start by analyzing. Consider your own role in the clashes and try to be as objective as possible:
Do you sometimes turn small disagreement into conflicts?
Do you spend enough time to fully understand opposing views before sharing your own?
Do your clashes most often happen with the same individuals?
Do specific individuals in the team often provoke you?
Do you hold grudges against any individuals in the team?
When looking for solutions, remember that disagreements are fundamentally healthy as they often spark new ideas and improve decisions.
So, your aim is not to suppress disagreements – rather to find a healthier format of disagreement.
As you can see from the list of questions above, conflicts can stem from different causes, and therefore good solutions will vary. Consider your analysis of your role in the clashes – and then pick the best advice below:
If you hear an argument that makes no sense as you see it, try to inquire into it, assuming that there might be a point to be made
Try to find areas of common ground where you and your “opponent” agree on what you both want to achieve
Ask a third person in the room to help bridge the disagreement (e.g. ask: “What are you hearing when listening to us?”)
Avoid getting emotionally agitated in disagreements (count to 10, meditate every morning - or whatever works for you)
Consider if the challenge can be tracked down to one, or a few, individuals who repeatedly cause distractions and waste the time and energy of the team.
If this is the case, you can approach the problem in two ways: “In-meeting” or “person-to-person”.
In-meeting: Often clashes can be managed if people who are not engaged in the conflict interferes as the clash occurs. Consider questions or comments such as:
What exactly are you disagreeing on?
Is it important to reach an agreement to this question right now?
Which data are we missing to make an informed decision on this?
Let’s take a quick tour around the table: Where does each of us stand on this?
Dear both: You have now spent X-minutes disagreeing on topic-Y – we need to move on now
Person-to-person: If the challenge is tied to a specific individual, or the same two people, it might be an idea to arrange a meeting outside of the team setting to freshen the air.
If you are not the leader of the team, or don’t have the direct authority on the topics of clashes, consider teaming up with a peer or with your leader.
Start by asking open questions into a recent conflict. If needed, mention how you experienced the clash, and why you found it disturbing. Refrain from blaming or being emotional – a rational approach is more impactful.
If possible, try to agree on some ground rules to avoid clashes, and get explicit permission to interfere if it happens again.
If you feel incapable of bringing value to the work of your team, you will most likely benefit from asking your leader or your colleagues for feedback and inspiration.
Involve at least one person that you trust, preferably starting with your direct leader.
First, focus on getting feedback to supplement your own perception.
Do not start by sharing your own negative conclusions. Instead, frame the discussion along the lines of “you wanting to be as valuable as possible for the team” and seeking feedback on “where you should focus your efforts”
Listen at least 80% of the time and try to get as much specific advice as possible. Supporting questions could be:
How could I increase my value to the team?
If I were to focus my effort on one area to improve, what would it be?
What’s your best advice to me?
Take notes and try to structure the feedback into a prioritized set of actions and behaviors and write them down. Do not try to improve on too many fronts at once – focus on 1-2 areas.
Evaluate your own progress as objectively as possible, e.g. taking a status once per week.
Consider rating the areas that you noted down after status as “huge improvement”, “some improvement”, “no improvement” or “worse than last week”.
Incapable team members cause team challenges in two different ways:
They distract the team by removing focus from the important tasks
They do not carry as much weight as they should, forcing other team members to compensate for the gaps that this creates
If incapable team members are unaware of how they are perceived, this is the challenge that must be addressed first.
As this is a very sensitive subject it should happen face to face. It is important to establish a safe atmosphere without accusations and judgmental statements. Therefore, open by expressing some qualities, or efforts, that you value from the person and make it clear that your intention is to improve collaboration and achieve important goals together.
After this opening try to express what you would like to achieve with the person. Talk about what you want to achieve together – not on how you want the person to behave or what you want him/her to do.
Focus on asking questions that stimulates the person to express ideas and intentions. It is much more likely to succeed if it comes from the person who needs to change than from you.
Preparing for such a difficult conversation it’s relevant to bring a few recent examples of problematic behaviors from the person. Still, focus on asking questions that allow the person in question to state the problem him-/her-self.
Don’t be surprised if the process needs to be repeated a few times as such behaviors are habitual and can take quite a bit of time and effort to change.
It is generally a good idea if any problematic behaviors are called out shortly after they occur unless other team members are present. Instead, find an opportunity to discuss 1:1. And, as always, focus on asking questions and avoid judgmental statements.
In extreme cases, it can be relevant to remove the incapable individuals to restore effective collaboration and trust.
If you have fundamental doubt about your role and responsibilities this is bound to hold you back personally and professionally. Also, it can cause disappointments and mis-understandings in your team with loss of trust as a probable outcome.
The essential element in a clear role in a team, is what you are trying to achieve and why – in short called intent. The intent should be crystal clear to you, and to those working with you. So, these are the questions to ask yourself:
What are you trying to achieve?
Why is this important?
If it is not possible to answer these two questions clearly, or if you expect your response to be different from how your manager or your key stakeholders would define it, conversation and alignment is needed.
Take a tour of 1:1 talks with your manager and, if relevant, your key stakeholders. Frame the intent of your discussion on your desire to align your work with their expectations and interests. Ask these two questions openly to your key stakeholders:
From your perspective, what should I focus on achieving?
Why is this important?
Listen carefully and openly to the answers, and do not necessarily try to push your own answers. Especially if you have several different stakeholders, it will be worthwhile to consolidate the input from everyone, before trying to conclude on the intent of your role.
If it’s hard for you to make a clear satisfactory synthesis of all the input, or if the synthesis is not in harmony with what you want it to be, further conversations will be needed. Most likely with your direct manager in a key role.
In some cases, it will be helpful to translate the intent into a number of well defined tasks with specific success criteria. But never start with defining the tasks until the intent (the what and the why) is crystal clear.
The remedy for unclear roles is, not surprisingly, to define and clarify the split of roles and responsibilities in the team.
Especially in highly agile teams it is not unusual that such clarifications must be updated quite often, simply because the character of the tasks evolves fast. A strict and detailed distribution of roles and responsibilities is not always desirable, as it can tie team members to predefined thinking and behaviors, making it harder to improvise and innovate.
What needs to be very clear is the collective ambition of the team:
The ideal is to discuss the division of roles and responsibilities openly in the team as part of recurrent updating of tasks, goals and prioritizations.
Also, the question of roles and responsibilities is closely tied to the question of empowerment:
What is delegated to team members – “An intent to achieve a goal (as they see fit)” or a “set of detailed instructions on what to do”?
Do team members take on the full responsibility?
Do team members have the autonomy to plan and do their work the way they find most effective?
Empowerment is generally a good thing as it adds to engagement and ownership of the tasks. But it is a process that takes time to build, time to get everyone comfortable with and time and effort to make fully effective.
Poor leader skills?
If your feel that the leader of your team has poor leader skills and if you are that leader, we congratulate you! You have already taken the most important step: Defining this as a challenge!
There are many ways to address this challenge. If you have access to a coach or mentor that could be a great way to get help. Such a personal advisor can help you analyze the challenge and prioritize the different steps you can take.
But you can also use this program as a basis for analyzing your challenge and prioritizing your effort. You can take advantage of the fact that you already have specific feedback from your team about where you are doing great, and where your team's challenges lie.
Start with the TeamDrivers -- ("Trust", "Healthy Conflict", "Commitment", "Accountability", "Shared results", "Adaptiveness").
Take one at a time - start in the bottom of the pyramid ("Trust"):
View the Challenges & Actions Video
Review your team feedback on this driver ("Feedback on the TeamDrivers")
Review your own assessment on the TeamDrivers ("My TeamDriver assessment")
If this is an area you want to improve: Review "Challenges and Actions" ideas (browse the different challenges to get ideas)
Pick out specific action candidates, and write them on a list
For each TeamDriver: Prioritize the list of action candidates after the highest ratio of "Expected impact"/"Needed effort".
After reviewing all TeamDrivers, consolidate a list of action candidates across all TeamDrivers. And start implementing from the top, focusing on 1 or 2 actions at the time…
If your assessment of the leader of your team points at poor leader skills, and if you are not the leader yourself, you have a difficult situation at hand.
But, as always, there are several actions you can take to manage the challenge.
First of all, you can help your leader by asking open and positive questions that opens up a conversation on the role of the leader:
"What's your dream for our team in a longer perspective?"
"What's your best advice to me to grow in my job?"
"What do you think could make us a stronger team?"
Another route to address lacking skills is suggesting specific solutions that compensate for specific leader gaps. As an example, by taking initiative to give more peer-based feedback in the team.
The one thing not to do is participating in speaking negatively about the leader amongst your peers. Nothing good ever comes of that.
If the problem is really deep you can consider approaching your team leader's direct leader and involve him/her in the challenges. In some organizations and cultures this is not possible or socially acceptable. But, under the right circumstances, and if done in a constructive format, it is an option to consider.
If nothing of this helps and the problem really runs deep, maybe you need to consider looking for ways to move to another team.
General tips on re-building team trust
The middle and center of building trust is deep, interpersonal relations.
When team members know each other well on a personal level, when they deeply respect and like each other as decent human beings as well as capable people, then magic happens.
When everyone experiences a basic “psychological safety” the inevitable disagreements and conflicts suddenly seem small and inconsequential. Team members no longer live in fear of making mistakes or being wrong – and this opens for a much more open and natural collaboration – founded on a high level of trust.
But it all starts on a person to person level: By people opening up to one another – getting to know each other as human beings – not only as colleagues.
If trust needs to be build, or re-built, it can be an idea to take the relationships out of a work context and do fun things together. If you google “team building” you will get thousands of options to choose from. So, browse some and get ideas for building, or re-building, some of the basic “tribal feeling” that ties a team together more effectively than just work itself.