It can happen to the best leaders. Some catalyst like a new team player, a miscommunication, jealousy, or fear creates a dynamic that derails your team’s performance. Here’s how to identify it and get your team back on track.
The best leaders know how to turn a tough meeting or a challenging team into an opportunity to experience an exceptional team. Right when you’re in a team meeting – THAT meeting – where you or a teammate are misbehaving, you have a chance to do something spectacularly good.
I’ve talked before about how any situation at work can become a laboratory for your soul, and how you can cooperate with a predictable process for changing your life for the better. All of those theories apply to those times when you wonder if your team has your back.
The Going Off Track Script
When Rob starts doing that thing again, not-so-subtly pushing his agenda, you start talking to yourself.
“There he goes again. I’ve heard this story a thousand times. No matter what happens, Rob is always out for himself. I always knew he was a selfish jerk. And now I have to take care of myself because it’s clear he doesn’t have my back.”
Chances are, you’ve been telling yourself this story for a while without even knowing it. Because you’ve learned to slow down, at some point you’ll notice the chatter.
If you’re really good at noticing, you may be able to nail the internal reaction (aka *gasp* feelings) to this whole situation. You’re concerned or disappointed or discouraged. The Therapist says you can locate these feelings in your physical reactions, like your body is getting signal flares of emotional responses. If you’re like me, you feel vaguely incompetent at doing that. Don’t let that discourage you. Pay attention to your heart rate, your sweat glands, your temperature, and your stomach. They’re good places to look for those physical manifestations of internal reactions.
If you let your emotions take over unchecked, you know what will happen. As I’ve described before, you’ll end up thrashing around in pursuit of some reassurance from the team or retreating into the icebox of withdrawal, waiting for this episode to pass. These are habits of thinking and feeling and behaving, usually reinforced by people around you in subtle ways.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
How to Get Your Team Back On Track
Take the same situation and rewrite the script. Rob starts to do his thing. You feel your narrative kick into gear, complete with its accompanying habits of feeling and behavior. Your face feels hot and you’re about to implement your usual coping strategy of getting attention or pulling back. Then you do something brilliant.
You notice. You stop.
Don’t underestimate the power of those two actions. It’s amazing what you can achieve by doing nothing.
You go one step further. You know that your real concern is whether the team has your back. So you decide to address your concerns in a manner more useful than garden variety pursuit or withdrawal.
If you tend toward pursuit in your team, you take a few deep breaths to get your heart rate down. Then you address the situation head-on. “I need to ask a question. I’m concerned about where this conversation is going right now.”
Since you know that pursuit is usually a disguised version of anxiety or melancholy, you say – as clearly and factually as you can – what concerns you or how you’re disappointed. But you go one step further.
“I need to know that the team hears those concerns and that we’ll address them. I care about what we’re doing enough that I’m bringing this to everyone’s attention.”
Maybe your typical habit is withdrawal. You resist the temptation to check your phone under the conference room table for text messages. You hang in there for a few more minutes. You ask yourself whether what this team is working on is worth it for you to stick your neck out.
Assuming you think the team’s work is important enough, you say to the team, “I’m frustrated with this discussion right now. I’m tempted to check out but I’m speaking up because this issue is really important to me. I’d like us to change how we’re having this conversation so that we can all stay engaged.”
You might even suggest a break, but you tell the group – and yourself – that you’re coming back to this after you’ve all had the chance to collect yourselves.
These are Therapist-approved ways of pursuing and withdrawing strategically. In other words, they are slightly modified versions of normal habits that can actually enhance the chances that this could be a turning point for the team. They don’t require full-scale personality overhauls. They require slightly shifting the points on the Golden Triangle.
|The Tragic Triangle of Life-Sucking Teams||The Golden Triangle of Exceptional Teams|
|Narrative: “Rob is a selfish jerk and no one has my back.”||Narrative: “Rob probably needs something we’re not giving him on this team. What we’re doing matters enough that it’s worth figuring that out, even if it’s hard.”|
|Habits: Garden variety pursuit or withdrawal||Habits: Strategic pursuit or withdrawal|
|Relationships: I gripe about the team to colleagues or friends who will agree with me, usually over a beer||Relationships: I ask team members to help me help the team|
As you can see, you won’t get to work in an exceptional team by accident. It takes intention. It takes practice, starting with practices like:
- Noticing narratives and your habitual reactions to them
- Self-interruption when you notice habitual reactions to stressful team situations
- Asking for help from people who care as much as you do about the work of this team
Don’t let anyone – including yourself – tell you either that this is easy or that it’s impossible. It’s challenging because sticking your neck out like this tests whether you can trust your team or not. That level of courage is also possible. In any team that’s going to create a platform for something extraordinary, that kind of risk-taking is essential.
So next time your team is heading down a path that’s setting off your well-worn coping strategies, stop. Notice. Interrupt yourself. Ask for the help you need to get the team back on track. Then get back to doing something exceptional.