For John, it happened when he asked his colleagues on the executive team for ideas on how to overcome a big challenge. As the CMO, the issue technically sat in his functional area but it affected the whole company’s performance.
John was deeply concerned that the company’s current plans were not going to cut it. Saying so felt like a risk since it was formally his marketing team’s job to execute the plan. He could easily lose any blame game. Since he didn’t want to let the company down, John took the leap and admitted he was looking for better solutions.
He got a lot of blank stares and a few half-hearted attempts at brainstorming. In the brief conversation that followed, John noticed the pronouns his fellow executives used.
“Here’s what you could do…”
“Why don’t you…?”
You, you, you. There was very little we. John got the message that he was on his own. In his mind, the team demanded his performance but didn’t really have his back.
If you’ve been on a team for any length of time, you’ve had one of those moments. Maybe your situation looked different from John’s, but the question in your mind was probably the same: Do they have my back or am I on my own?
What you do next is very important. It will shape whether this incident is a turning point in the history of an exceptional team or whether you’re on your way to becoming just another boring executive team filled with rivalries, intrigue, and many wasted hours of leadership team theater.
Let’s start by exploring what you shouldn’t do.
The Root of Bad Behavior In Meetings
I’ve used Attachment Theory to argue that we shouldn’t be surprised that one of the great strengths of humans (and other bonding mammals) is their instinct to look to others for support in overcoming big challenges. Pulling together to tackle something important is a big reason to have a team in the first place. Attachment Theory also says that the normal, boring reactions to feeling like your team may not have your back are pursuit and withdrawal.
I’m married to a marriage therapist who happens to be an expert in Attachment Theory (cue the “I’m married to a therapist” jokes). I’ll channel The Therapist to explain Pursuit and Withdrawal.
First, Pursuit. Pursuit can look dramatic. It often involves making bids to get people’s attention. These bids can include yelling, making a snarky comment, lobbing a threat, or riding your personal hobby horse issue for the 836th time. It looks like you’re engaging, but the engagement tends to be aggressive. If you find yourself saying, “At least if I can get them fighting with me, I’m getting some reaction,” you’re probably in Pursuit.
Concern often underlies Pursuit. I think of the Pursuer as a drowning person. Someone who feels like they’re about to drown will often thrash, grab you, and unintentionally pull you under with them. They look aggressive. They’re really freaked out beyond belief. They’re saying, “Hey! I’m drowning here. Where the $@#%&^# are you???”
Team members in full Pursuit are not exactly rational. They may look angry – and if you ask them, they’ll probably say they’re mad as a hornet – but underneath is often anxiety and maybe melancholy. That they’re alone. That no one has their back. That maybe they don’t matter to the others on the team after all. So they thrash and grab.
Get in a room with a bunch of Pursuers and it will get pretty hot.
Ironically, Pursuit can make others stay away when you most want them to stick with you. Because the first rule of life-saving is to avoid turning one potential victim into two by getting pulled under.
Next, Withdrawal. Withdrawal looks quiet. People stare at their shoes. They may not flat-out lie, but they hold back. They use code words. They’re walking very, very carefully. They seem polite and controlled. If you find yourself saying, “Here we go again, more drama and conflict…” while you roll your eyes and go quiet, you might tend toward Withdrawal.
Just like with Pursuit, beneath Withdrawal is often disappointment and concern. I see Withdrawers as people tiptoeing around a live electrical wire. They’re cautious of getting it wrong, of triggering the reaction that will make this team an even bigger time-sucking mess. And they’re discouraged because they feel like no matter how hard they’ve tried, they can’t get it right in this team.
Don’t let their silence fool you into thinking that a Withdrawer is hyper-rational or doesn’t care. Their brains are just as hijacked as a pursuer’s. They just swallow their concern until it turns into ice-cold frustration. Then, it might look angry.
Get in a room with a bunch of Withdrawers and it usually gets pretty cool.
Withdrawing can make others stay away even though Withdrawers really want the team to have their backs. Withdrawers want peace and productivity. They hope that their sense of being on their own in a crazy team will blow over if they just keep quiet long enough. Then they can get back to work.
The problem is that by pulling back, they’re making it more likely that others will do the same. Then they may really be on their own, just when they had hoped someone would have their back.
By now, you’ve probably pegged how you and most of your colleagues act when someone on the team starts to feel on the outside looking in.
What you can do differently to avoid behaving badly and becoming an average leadership team.
While a lot more can be said, start here:
- Slow down. Take a deep breath. Literally. Get your pulse down a few beats.
- Notice what’s happening inside you. Beneath your Pursuit or Withdrawal, behind your superficial layer of irritation, what internal reaction is most prevalent? Name it.
- Be curious about what’s happening inside others. This is super hard to do when you’re all jacked up on stressful fear or sadness or embarrassment. So if you can’t get there, repeat steps 1 and 2.
- Take one tiny step toward the others in your team. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine what must be happening for them that would make them respond this way. Acknowledge – at least to yourself, and better yet to them – how challenging that would be.
When you’ve done this, you’ve made it possible for this to become a turning point for your team. You’ve opened the door to the chance of being exceptional together. That alone is something big.