January 24, 2013
There is something in the air. Call it my natural human tendency to find patterns in things, but two recent conversations with two different clients in two different cities have reminded me of two other completely different clients in two completely different countries. The parallels are striking. It could be my bias towards systems thinking, but it has reinforced my belief in unus mundus, the underlying unified reality that interconnects all things.
What is the common thread? All four of these businesses are sick and tired of being sick. And tired. Like, really tired. All four are nearing their “breaking point.” That is, they have tried just about everything they know to shift workplace behaviour and engagement. They are running out of options as to how to get people to take up personal responsibility. All four of these clients are right at the threshold of making significant shifts in how they do their business. The scales are falling from their eyes and they are seeing their businesses as whole entities and not viewing symptoms of ineffectiveness as separate from the whole or problems to be solved piecemeal. They are ready to get to grips with new ways of dealing with their problems. The clever onion behind the thinkpurpose blog writes, “When you change what you think about how the work works, then you will begin to change how you act, this will change the way work is set out and happens and how people act in the work place.” These four businesses are right at the place of changing how they think about what works.
Essential to seeing their business as whole entities is being able to see the webs that weave everyone together. Frustrated with old ways of trying to get people to do things, they are beginning to acknowledge that simply dealing with individual performance is futile. They understand that the system impacts too much on individual performance to waste their efforts solely on individuals. They know that the quality of their outcome will be directly correlated to the quality of relationships that they forge. As David Wilson writes in his blog, fitforrandomness ”Imagine assessing the robustness of the electricity grid with data on power stations but not on the power lines connecting them.” In order to assess the strength and fitness of an organisation, we need to examine both the individual elements that make up that systems as well as the relationships between them. To work with only the individuals within a business without also working on their connections is a nonsense. It’s both a delicate and a heroic undertaking.
What’s wrong with what they’ve got now? Not much, it turns out. They have a lot going for them. They have senior teams with an enormous amount of experience and technical ability. They are personable and friendly. They believe in the purpose of their businesses. They are robust and intelligent. Put the senior team in a room together, however, and they aren’t sure how to work truly collectively. Put oxygen and hydrogen in a bucket together and they don’t miraculously coalesce and become water. Some energy needs to go into the bucket to create H2O.
I’ve written before on the power of WE in business. Bringing in the theme of my last article about developing consciousness, there is something that can catalyse this WE-ness for business. Many aspire to it, but we often get stuck when it comes to actually doing it. How do we become a WE? It’s not enough to go away and make commitments to each other. Just like a marriage, it’s not just what happens on the wedding day when you promise some things to each other that makes it a good marriage. The good marriage comes about through a shift in consciousness from “you and me” to WE. A good partnership comes about because each party understands that what you want as an individual and what I want as an individual may not necessarily deepen nor be for the good of our relationship. A good, mutual partnership comes about because effort and energy have been invested in strengthening that web that weaves us together.
A shift in consciousness is required. That is, greater awareness of what we are currently doing in order to move towards the thing we want to be doing. Is how you relate, behave and engage with one another assisting you to create the WE? In working with one senior team, we coached them to become observant of themselves in order to create this new consciousness. This requires them to develop the role of Observant Team-Player. For many of us, we operate out of a “selfish” mindset. In other words, we look at what we do and how we do it with a view to doing our best. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that others are trying to do the same, and sometimes this means that we might be working at cross purposes. I’m doing my best, you’re doing your best, but in our “doing-my-best-ness”, we haven’t worked out how to synthesise this into a “WE are doing our best”. In common parlance, this is operating in silos.
Here’s what it might look like. In our regular team meeting, I contribute to conversations on the agenda, but I do this while wearing one of two hats: my personal hat or my operational hat. I am both trying to be a good person and trying to optimise the work, but from MY perspective. Wearing my personal hat, I am saying (unconsciously, of course):
- “How do I make myself look good?”
- “How can I get people to notice me?”
- “How can I garner praise?”
- “How can I get people to like me?”
- “How can I prove I’m valuable?”
All human things, these.
Wearing my operational hat, I contribute things which demonstrate my technical abilities and knowledge. If I’m a financial guy, I will speak on any of the agenda items from a financial perspective. If I’m a marketing guy, I will speak about things from a marketing perspective. All necessary and important. I may contribute little or nothing to conversations that I believe have “nothing to do with me”. Doing this, however, may not develop the sense of “team-ness” that we all need to synthesise together if we are to achieve our common purpose. If I keep speaking from my operational perspective, I may be reasonably successful in achieving the operational purpose of my silo. Remember, though, that optimising one part of the system will lead to sub-optimisation of the whole, so if I do MY very best and if everyone is doing THEIR very best in their silos, it doesn’t follow that the whole will be doing its very best.
There is something missing.
If I participate in the meeting wearing only my personal or operational hats, I miss the opportunity to develop the life of the whole team. I need to put on my team member hat. When I wear this, I become conscious of myself, I become conscious of when I have an impulse to speak and what I feel moved to say, I observe others’ contributions and I make an assessment as to whether what is going on is furthering the life of the group. Is what I say coming from a “Me” perspective, a “Me-doing-my-work-well” perspective or a “WE” perspective? When each member of a team has developed the ability to observe the dynamics of the team, they will learn how to interrupt someone who is “fighting their corner” if they are doing it to the detriment of the effectiveness of the whole. If they feel that someone is warming up to speak out of their silo, they will challenge people to stop and consider what they are about to contribute: “Is what you are about to say going to progress the life of this team as a whole?”
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
If I’m operating with my WE hat on, I will see that all of the agenda items pertain to me in some way, because they pertain to the effectiveness of the whole business. Furthermore, if I can’t work out how it pertains to me, there is an opportunity to find out how it does. Because it does. Trust me. If I’m wearing my WE hat, I will see that my technical expertise is best applied when in concert with everyone else’s and vice versa. Having said all this, I bring all my hats to meetings, I can’t simply focus my efforts on developing a good team feeling. The expanded consciousness that gets us to WE incorporates and transcends everything we already know and do.
For one of these businesses, who is more than ready and willing to do this “WE” thing, they have an idea of what they want to become, but don’t know how to do it consistently. This is not unusual, in my experience. They haven’t yet had enough moments of “felt experience” to be able to say they’ve got there, but what they have tasted so far makes the effort worthwhile. While a lot of businesses have talked about teamwork and the team effect for years, the investment required in order to really achieve it has been patchy. Investment in catalysing this team effect is like energy is to the hydrogen and oxygen in the bucket. Sometimes, it seems that we find ourselves in fantastic teams and it feels great, but I would suggest this is sometimes down to good luck. We spot each other, we have each other’s back. Relationships are genuinely mutual and go beyond “what can you do for me and what can I do for you.” Such teams go beyond collaboration. They cooperate. No quid pro quo. We have a consciousness of operating out of a mindset that furthers the life of the whole. Just as an architect may sacrifice the optimisation of one room of a house in order to achieve a more satisfying whole, we may quite easily sacrifice something that is of special interest to us for the benefit of the whole. When we are operating as a WE, we have stopped thinking about people as bodies to do transactions or deals with, we enjoy being with each other and we achieve more as individuals because of the chemistry that is created by the whole.
Getting to WE is not an event, it’s a process. It doesn’t happen in a moment, it happens over many moments. It’s not “step 1, step 2…” Like other mindfulness disciplines, it takes practice, attention and commitment. I find it heartening that it’s finally in the air and that some businesses are taking the steps to get there.
August 30, 2012
I overheard a conversation recently where someone said in all seriousness, “In the new way of doing business, cooperation beats competition.” I was amused by the irony of the statement. We are infused with a competitive mindset from our earliest days on this planet, so it makes sense that the language in that statement would reflect this. In transition from one world view to another, we can sometimes only describe what we mean by using linguistic devices that belong to the old. The sentiment, however, rings true for me. Cooperation is, indeed, the way forward. Competition is often the way to get stuck. We are so embedded in competitive capitalism that it is almost impossible to think outside of it.
With the Olympics and Paralympics fresh in mind, competition in its most obvious form looks like a 100m race. Competition in its least sophisticated form looks like the schoolyard bully. Competition in its nascent form of classroom indoctrination looks like rewards and punishments for behaviour, memorisation ability and conformity or lack thereof. Competition in the “educated”, capitalist form of the workplace looks and sounds like subtle putdowns and power games. It is, as Bob Marshall eloquently put it, “promotion commotion”, it is incentives and bonuses, it is passive-aggressiveness, it is anti-social bosses, it is one-upmanship. We also get it in our political systems. ”Big-willy politics” as Simon Jenkins puts it, is the most dangerous form because it appeals to paranoia and prejudice, not reason and humanity. Popular culture brims with competition as lazy TV producers churn out cheap entertainment, mistaking treasure hunts and cooking programmes overdubbed with suspenseful music for drama. The judges even use language which implies death (pay the ultimate price) if the meringue is not crunchy enough. In saying that, I’m not implying competition per se is bad; I would suggest, however, that we default to a mindset and way of behaving which in many cases is counter-productive.
Unsurprising that such behaviours are unseen, condoned or unchecked because the dominant mode of running business is still hierarchical, command-and-control. Inherent in this mindset is competition. Bigger, better, more. A system based on power accumulation will elicit competitive behaviours. Businesses do this with each other and people within organisations do it at a micro-level. Our capitalist, consumerist social structures lead us to operate as if work is a transaction and humans are resources. It is not and they are not. This mindset facilitates a switch in how we view people, from an I-Thou perspective to I-It. According to Professor Simon Baron Cohen, when we switch from an I-Thou perspective to an I-It perspective, we lose empathy for people. Their only value, then, is as a resource that will help me make more profit, advance my position, make me look good, give me some inside information, connect me with someone else I “need” and so on. My belief is that neither organisations nor the humans of whom they are composed (for the success of both are inextricably linked) will flourish unless we begin to practice greater cooperation.
I’ve seen too many vision statements that aspire only to “be the best blah blah in Australasia” or “the #1 provider of such-and-such in our sector” The all-hallowed “market” seems to operate quaintly like suitors in the 18th century vying for the hand of the lovely maiden. Who has the best prospects? Who has the biggest house? Who has the most well-connected family? Watching a costume drama, how our hearts sink when Lady Penelope chooses the dastardly capitalist or the arrogant fop over the one she truly loves. It draws comment in the 21st century when people choose partners for their “prospects” rather than for love, connection, companionship and trust. Why is the organisational world still playing this rather outdated little game?
From our earliest days at school, we were admonished for “copying” others’ work. The “right” way is to be quiet and “do your own work”. Humans are social animals and are at their best when cooperating with others. Competition is a virus which continues to breed unchecked, despite there not being much in the way of substantiated evidence or research that it is more effective than cooperation; quite the contrary. Research suggests that cooperation leads to higher achievement at school, provides health benefits (calmness and freedom from intense stress) and is correlated with increased creativity and success in the workplace.
Schools are ranked, ostensibly to provide a useful means with which to decide resource allocation, the result being, however, that principals, teachers and PTAs compete to maintain a nonsensical status that sometimes relegates the interests of children in classrooms. This system of ranking is multi-layered. From our earliest days at school, we are caught in this competitive treadmill, receiving rewards for being outstanding; for standing out. It’s an outward focus: how am I better (than them)? How am I different (from them)? The thing is, we are already different by the mere fact that we are who we are. In the business world, it becomes, “What’s my unique selling proposition?” I’ll tell you mine: that I’m me. That’s why I make such a big deal about growing self-awareness. Self-actualising is not a journey to work out what I’m not or to work out what makes me different from others; it’s a journey to work out who I am. Why focus outward and try to find a unique selling proposition? This seems “olde worlde” to me. The focus and locus of control is outside, not within. If our sense of self-worth is dependent on how unlike others we are, it is fragile. USPs, to me, imply a competitive mindset but nobody can really, truly compete with a person or a business that has a really clear idea of who they are, what they do and what they value. We increase satisfaction in life when we grow self-awareness, not when we get stuck in the hamster wheel that is “keeping up with the Joneses”. 21st century business finds success when competition as the prime modus operandi is supplanted with cooperation.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” Lao Tzu
Accentuating a cooperative way of being does not mean sinking into groupthink or losing critical abilities. Team or group conversations in which everyone agrees with everyone else is not cooperation. Business can be a hive of searing conversation if everyone participates with a view to contributing to the whole, building on others’ input. It’s like the “yes game” that actors and improvisors play. Someone makes an opening gambit (an offer) and others play along (accept their offer), bringing creativity and a sense of community. No one person’s contribution is better than another’s and people play, not with the idea of being the best, but of co-creating something purposeful and fresh. Consider the difference between these two scenes:
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Oh. It’s just that I saw you limping.”
- “My foot is fine. I wasn’t limping, this is how I normally walk.”
- “What’s wrong with your foot?”
- “Caught it in a bear trap.”
- “Really? Have they started laying bear traps in the staff room?”
- “Yea, it’s meant to keep out the bears, they’ve been raiding the staff fridge again.”
- “I wondered who kept eating my yoghurt.”
This is, of course, a light-hearted illustration, but the relationship dynamics are real. In scene one, the person who makes the offers (you have something wrong with your foot, you are limping) struggles to get any traction in the dialogue as both offers are rejected. In scene two, their offers are accepted and the other person builds on to them, with the result being the two create something that neither could have created without cooperation. Workplace conversations often sound like scene one, coming across like the Monty Python argument sketch, people in opposition to one another, getting stuck.
“That wouldn’t work.”
“Thanks for that idea, have a listen to mine now.”
“I think you’re coming at it the wrong way.”
“What you fail to see is….”
What we get with this non-cooperative, or competitive, modus operandi, is missed opportunities, and an overall decrease in human achievement. Cooperating with others stimulates our creativity. Cooperation opens doors to ideas and solutions that we might never have come across on our own, trying to be the star pupil.
As a practitioner of systems thinking, I take note of a highly relevant article which identifies different kinds of systems with reference to their levels of cooperation or competition: eco-, bio- and mechanical. Mechanical systems (machines being the most obvious example) require very high levels of cooperation, otherwise the machine just doesn’t work. Machines, however, are highly predictable, low in complexity and are designed to do exactly what they are designed to do. If a part breaks, you fix it and the machine will carry on functioning. Bio-systems are higher in complexity and rely on very high levels of cooperation. The human body is a perfect example. In order to flex your arm, your triceps and biceps must work in concert. While they are opposing each other in their movement, they are not in competition. Bio-systems might be said to be at just the right balance between order and chaos. They have evolved just enough “in-synch-ness” so that they work as unified systems and meet the challenges of life, however, there is enough plasticity to allow for growth and development in response to a changing environment. The components of a bio-system work in concert until age or disease cause certain components to (appear to) compete in order to preserve the integrity of the whole.
Eco-systems are highly complex and are composed of interactions between multiple bio-systems and mechanical systems. Two types of eco-systems abound on planet Earth: biological and social. Biological eco-systems (flora and fauna, for example) tend to be highly competitive, with species or members of the same species competing for limited resources to survive. Social (or human) eco-systems are just as natural as any coral reef. However, humans have the advantage of being able to overcome the constraints of scarcity that other eco-systems do not. We have no natural predators, save ourselves. The thing that binds our human systems are our evolved cognitive and emotional abilities, which we can deploy as we relate to each other. We have highly evolved relationship capabilities that other eco-systems do not, however we seem to dispense with these at the merest hint of a perceived threat to our existence. We do not have to sleepwalk through time as if we were a coral reef, mindless and thought-less and slave to the natural competitive instincts that go with being an eco-system. I repeat: we have no natural predators, save ourselves. We humans need to become more self-awake and curtail some of our less-evolved competitive ways. Competitive politics is a clumsy way to govern ourselves and and unregulated markets are human disasters.
The workplace is not a jungle. It is not a battlefield. We need to apply ourselves to behaving more like bio-systems: work in concert for the good of the whole. We’ve had competitive practices instilled in us for so long that we need to become conscious of how we work with others. In a complex and networked workplace of the 21st century, we need to learn and stretch our cooperative abilities and to inculcate cooperative practice on a daily basis until it just becomes the way things get done. The fact is that we are interdependent. Why not start acting like it? Why not start acting like this is a world of “we”, not “me”?
Act cooperatively. Let’s play the “yes game” with people at work. When discussing things, let’s become aware of opportunities to listen, to “add in” and to “build on”, rather than simply counter what others have to say.
Learn to transcend self-interest. No quid pro quo. Let’s practice “building on”, sharing and contributing for no other reason than to do it and build community with others.
Cultivate an attitude of conviviality. Con-vivere = live together. Let’s become aware of those moments when we could do something different and behave as if we are happy to share this planet, this town, this industry sector, this office-space with others. Our survival as a species depends on it. Our survival as co-workers depends on it. Business survival depends on it. (….or become a hermit.) In fact, beyond survival, I’d say that we thrive on it.
Build coalitions, not empires. Let’s stop pretending that this is a medieval battle for territory; it’s not. Market competition appeals to our primitive narcissistic paranoia; no-one is out to get us. (We have no natural predators, save ourselves, remember?) Let’s stop pretending that there is such a thing as intellectual property; it’s an illusion. Information and knowledge are for sharing, not hoarding. Status and accolade or synthesis and creativity: which will take us further?
We have no natural predators……
April 5, 2012
Some time ago, a client of ours excitedly commented that she thought what we did felt like team-building with intellect. Even eight years ago, there was something in the comment that betrayed a disdain and fatigue for team-building exercises that are fun and engaging, but lead to nothing of real substance back in the day-to-day life of the workplace. While the purpose of the work we did was not around team-building, the way that we weave sociometry and relationship building into everything we do means that one major spin-off from the work is closer working relationships. When considering taking a group of people at work through some kind of team-building process, it is important to keep the purpose of this process clear in our heads. What kind of relationships are required in order to do the job? What is the context in which the relationships will sit and how can we optimise the links around the common purpose? How much mutual accountability is actually necessary?
To expand a little on my previous article, I’d like to say a little more about teams in the workplace. In that article, I suggest that the dynamics of a group will impact on its ability to work effectively. I realise that I may have been a little relaxed about using the words “group” and “team” interchangeably, however there is an important distinction to be made between the two. I fear the word “team” has been so over-used in the workplace that this distinction has been lost and assumptions made about the necessity for team-building. In my last blogpost, I referred to the work of Wilfred Bion and set out his observations of what happens in groups of humans when unconscious process gets in the way of group effectiveness. As I wrote, humans gather together in groups for a purpose and when the dynamics of the group kick in, they can undermine this purpose and throw the group off course. My assertion was that it is important for anyone who manages a group of people, often called a “team” in our workplaces, to be aware of some of these hidden dynamics so that they can develop greater resilience to keep going with grace and humility. One point of clarification here is that every team is a group, and therefore subject to these hidden dynamics; not every group, however, is a team. Nor, necessarily, should they be.
When I hear someone talking about taking their crew on a team-building day, my heart sinks, as, I suspect, do the hearts of many of those folks in the team who will be subjected to a day of fun, laughs and throwing a cush-ball at each other. I’ve spoken to many people who’ve been on these events and there is a theme that runs through their comments: “What does that have to do with my work?” Certainly, creating an environment where people can get to know each other better while enjoying themselves will create some bonds, but there are some assumptions behind these away-days. The complaint that these events have little to do with the day-to-day requirements of work is valid. Often, there is little attention to the transfer of learning back to the workplace, but this is partly to do with the structure of team-building events; reflection and meaning-making should always be built in to any kind of activity where learning is the aim. It is not enough to assume that just because people have successfully built a raft together, they will transfer their efforts back to the office. I’m not saying that all such events lack this transfer, but many folks I know were left wondering what the point of it all was.
One of the biggest assumptions that needs to be addressed, however, is the one that people who work together should perforce invest themselves in developing a true, high-performing team. In most workplaces, what people call “team” is, in fact, a “working group” and this may be sufficient for the requirements of the people and the organisation. It requires a mighty investment of time, energy and commitment to develop the close-knit structure that Katzenbach and Smith would call a “high-performing team”. While organisations may aspire to be peopled by high-performing teams, the reality is that for many of these businesses, the cost involved in getting there may be prohibitive, both in terms of time and financial resources. It also requires an act of will on the part of the members of these high-performing teams.
I will illustrate with some personal experience. In my own lifetime, I have been fortunate enough to have worked in a high-performing team, as observed by Katzenbach and Smith, and I will describe in more detail below what you would have seen if you were a fly on the wall in my workplace. My second example took place some years ago. We were called in to work with a group of people in a large organisation whose manager said they needed some team-building and that he aspired after them to be in the high-performing category. But then, what manager wouldn’t say that?
The first example has left an imprint on me that will last my lifetime. Many years ago, I worked for a community therapy agency which engaged in some of the most difficult therapeutic work around. It required a high level of professional knowledge and skill, as we were working in the area of trauma and abuse, as well as a high level of personal development in order to deal with the effects of vicarious traumatisation. The work was systemic, and therefore multi-disciplinary, in nature, in other words, it involved the person’s wider system including family and extended family, school and/or workplace, recreational activities, government agencies and other health providers. This was not work done in silos. We were a diverse and cross-functional team and cases were handled collaboratively at weekly meetings. Because of what was required of us in order to do the work effectively, there was a strong need to attend to our own team development. Apart from the actual work we did, we also devoted a significant amount of time to building and nurturing our team. In a working month, I would guess that we would have spent at least eight hours together purely on maintaining team “hygiene”. We reflected on our relationships with each other and the impact of those on our abilities to work well.
Katzenbach and Smith came up with a simple and clear definition of team: “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” Many groups in the workplace might say that they fit these criteria, however I’m not so sure that they are in the high-performing category. Beyond this definition, I believe, there is a spirit or essence which identifies groups as high-performing (HP) teams. An HP team will be leader-full; various members will, at times, take up leadership. Each person will, in different moments, bring forward their specialist expertise around particular topics or issues or take the lead in facilitating some decision-making or drive the team to grapple with something they feel is significant. HP teams work have a deep commitment to the vision of their organisation and strive towards objectives they set themselves and that are in line with this bigger picture, rather than simply achieve work outputs mandated by the hierarchy. HP teams are characterised by open discussions and collaborative problem-solving; working groups attend efficient meetings. HP teams have robust, honest discussions and have highly developed interpersonal skills to manage through these sticky times. HP teams are genuinely mutually accountable whereas working groups take individual accountability; in an HP, everyone (and I mean everyone) takes an active interest in the achievement of the team’s objectives and behaves in a way which demonstrates their inextricable connectedness. All of these were true in the team I belonged to, however, the one thing that really identified my team as an HP team to me was this: everyone looked forward to coming to work so that we could be with each other and, together, meet the challenges of the work. In the many working groups I’ve belonged to, while there were some really enjoyable working relationships, they were based more on personal affinity and we all came to work because we had to.
The second example I described above would sit in the category of my professional blunders. I learnt so much from that work, one of the main things being that not all working groups need or want to invest what it takes to become a genuine team. It is a never-ending piece of work that the team unanimously needs to sign up to. In hindsight, what that manager who contracted us was looking to achieve was some closer working relationship, as it was a relatively new team, however their work did not actually require them to be more than an efficient working group. For a team to achieve high-performing status, they will likely go through a challenging process after which they have developed a deep caring for each other and a strong collaborative ethic such that the achievement of the whole far outstrips the achievement of the individuals working separately. It is sometimes a bumpy ride and not for the faint-hearted. Upon reflection, the nature of the work of this team was such that they did not need to (nor wish to) invest themselves in a process whereby they would have an HP team. Their work simply required that they be a friendly and efficient working group who understood what the organisation wanted from them.
Katzenbach and Smith set out a team performance curve and identified several types of team. The diagram below illustrates this.
For those who are interested, I will leave explanation of these team categories to the London Management Centre, who describe them very eloquently. In this post, I simply wish to make the point that when considering team-building, consider first the needs of the business, the readiness and willingness of the team members to engage in a journey of closer relationship and the time and money that are required to grow a truly high-performing team. One thing I know for sure, we cannot rely on an outdoor pursuits event to be the solution to building a solid HP team.
March 30, 2012
I have been inspired by Paul Slater’s excellent article this week, Getting Teams Working, to reflect on some work I’ve been doing recently with a team. A good chunk of my training and experience has been in group dynamics and there is direct relevance of this body of knowledge to organisational life. In the workplace, there is some growing awareness of group dynamics as a key influencer of organisational effectiveness. Many people are now familiar with Bruce Tuckman’s group development model: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning; and it is good that people who manage teams of people are opening their eyes to the processes that go on when humans gather together, for whatever purpose. Despite our best efforts, there is something mystifying that seems to get in the way of team effectiveness and it can be useful to look “underneath” at the dynamics and unexpressed assumptions out of which we operate.
Perhaps less well-known in this sphere is the work of Wilfred Bion. Bion trained in medicine and went on to develop an interest in psychoanalysis, eventually immersing himself in the study of groups and group process. He was commissioned into the British Army during World War II, working in military hospitals. Here he devoted himself to finding ways to treat post-traumatic stress and devised ways of working with these patients in a group context. Out of his work in group dynamics, he went on to write “Experiences in Groups” (1961) which became a seminal work in the field of group psychotherapy, providing a basis for the application of group theory in many other fields.
I think it’s important to remember that there are, indeed, many models of group development, Tuckman’s being perhaps the most well-known, and that these are more descriptive than prescriptive. What I mean by this is that these models are not stages we “take groups through” but they are phenomena that groups experience naturally. The various models are simply different lenses through which to observe these group phenomena and once observed, we can begin to make sense of the undercurrents that affect our teams and groups. From here, we can develop some capabilities within ourselves to respond more ably to what goes on in our teams.
All of those models have some validity in my eyes, but for me, the work of Bion seems to have been the one that has most unlocked some of the mystery of what goes on in groups. Anyone who manages teams, whether that be a project team or an ongoing team within a business, will have found that the work of that team sometimes seem to be sabotaged by things seemingly unrelated to its work. This is sometimes put down to “personality clashes”, politicking or competing professional interests. While this sometimes may be the case, there is another lens through which we can see underperformance or ineffectiveness in teams. I am currently working with a team who are embarking on a transformation process which may eventually entail some reorganising of their workloads, responsibilities and lines of authority and accountability. The manager has undertaken to initiate a process involving every member of this team contributing to shaping its form, so that they end up with a team structure that is fit for its purpose, rather than soldiering on with a structure that they have inherited from the past and which is proving to be ineffective and unwieldy. This process is, unsurprisingly, generating a little uncertainty in the team members.
Transition and change naturally provoke feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Once again, we are dealing with feelings, whether we like it or not. As Louise Altman writes frequently on her excellent blog The Intentional Workplace, emotions are there; it is nonsense to pretend otherwise. Even if we try to hide our heads in the sand and focus purely on work outputs, what goes on underneath will impact on a team or organisation’s ability to be effective. I recommend having a look at Louise’s article, 5 Reasons Business Can’t Afford to Ignore Psychology for Another 100 Years. In it, she suggests that business can no longer afford to dismiss the impact of emotions on our abilities to work well and to be well. To continue treating people as resources and automatons a la Henry Ford (“Why, when I only want to hire a pair of hands, do I get a whole person?”) is very simply, unsustainable.
So if you are willing to peer underneath the functioning of your team, you will be treated to a fascinating display of raw human-ness. Above the surface, what we can see, is what Bion calls the “work group”. This is the stated and overt reason teams form. Groups and organisations come together to pursue sensible and realistic goals and this “work group” is what keeps people on task. Below the surface is what he calls the “basic assumption” groups. They are the unspoken assumptions about how the group operates. Bion asserts that teams sometimes fall into what he calls madness; this is the skewed functioning that arises in response to anxiety and uncertainty.
Bion observed three kinds of “basic assumption” groups: fight-flight, dependency and pairing. The “madness” of which Bion spoke and which he describes with these three “basic assumption” groups, is the anxiety that arises from change, unpredictability and volatility. In response to a VUCA environment, team members will adopt one of these basic assumptions, and the ensuing behaviours will interfere with the team’s ability to achieve its work goals effectively.
If a group is operating from a fight-flight assumption, people behave as if the primary need is self-preservation. Threatened by change, people resort to either fighting something (or someone) or running away from something (or someone). A team leader will observe scapegoating, aggressiveness or unreasonable defensiveness amongst the group or alternatively, avoidance behaviours such as tangential conversations, overuse of humour as a distraction from serious issues, lateness to meetings or anything else that circumvents the work at hand.
If the group is operating out of dependency mode, the primary aim is to achieve certainty or safety. In other words, when things are unclear and changeable, the group strives to regain some sense of security. A dependency basic assumption says that protection will come in the form of one person and they become overly dependent on that one person to “fix” it or make it better. They abdicate responsibility and look to the identified leader, who is of course omniscient and omnipotent, to sort things out. A team leader who observes dependency behaviour will be greeted with acquiescent silence in response to a work-related question, a “just tell me what to do and how to do it” attitude or excessive flattery and “people-pleasing” behaviours. Conversely, the group may “rebel” against the leader; counter-dependency is the flip side of the same coin and the leader may feel like he or she is subject to mass mutiny, with their every decision, suggestion or initiative being rejected.
Pairing derives from the underlying assumption that the group will be saved by the pairing of two of its members, who together will metaphorically create a new messiah. Effective team functioning is frozen in the hope that two people will create the kind of leadership to take them to the promised land of “everything is OK”. This may take the form of a number of pairs emerging within a team or the whole team sitting back while one pair comes to their rescue. Team leaders will observe a pair of allies spending lots of time having private conversations which, unbeknownst to him or her, will be characterised by “S/he doesn’t know what s/he’s doing; if only s/he’d do it our way, things would be ticking along nicely.” During team meetings, the team leader will notice these two folks sharing knowing glances with each other, the unspoken message being, “See? S/he’s doing it again.” ”There you go, that’s what we were talking about earlier.” ”Told you s/he would say that.” It may be that these two do things at work that are outside the remit of the “work group” but they believe they are justified because they actually know best. Something in your gut tells you that these two are undermining you in some way, but it’s hard to put your finger on it.
When a group operates out of one of these basic assumption, it is important to remember that it is doing so unconsciously and is not aware of what is happening. The team becomes subject to the forces of its own dynamics and is immune to the logic and reason of external realities and work expectations.
When we first begin to observe these “basic assumption” behaviours, it can be tempting to resort to labels and become rigid or formulaic in our responses. There is nothing more frustrating than someone armed with a little psychological knowledge and adopting the mantle of Team Psychologist. Unfortunately there is no stock response to a team behaving out of one of these basic assumptions. There are no top tips or easy-to-apply strategies. Apply a lens so that you can make more sense of what is happening, but then go on to reflect. Each team has the right to its own character and its own story. When these underlying, unconscious processes take hold and begin to rope the leader in, and I believe they do inevitably, the trick is to learn how to respond with grace and humanity. Learning to keep going while “under fire” takes practice, resilience and lots of personal reflection on the part of whoever is in a position of leadership. Humans, when gathered together, are subject to deep psychological forces. If we are to keep our heads, we need to become aware of “what is ours” and what is a group phenomenon. Reflection is one of the best practices to help overcome the sense of frustration or overwhelm when we become affected by what goes on in our teams.
Becoming the kind of leader who courageously grapples with the dynamics of groups and teams requires ongoing interest and curiosity, magnanimity and humour. Attending to your team’s dynamics requires you to foster good relationships and open communication, tolerance for difference and collaboration. Therein lies the work of the 21st century leader.