In the traditional ways of dealing with team conflict and in particular teams in deep distress or languishing during difficult changes and constant uncertainty, we haul out external mediators or coaches, create performance plans or respectful workplace policies to contain the symptoms of suppressed voices, increased isolation and breaking down of communication and trust between individuals inside groups of people.
From my experience though, creating team agreements and purpose statements is difficult while there is still an atmosphere of denied and suppressed experiences. And most well intending leaders are unaware or do not address the negative health and emotional impact of continued stress and conflict in teams, therefore under-estimating the value of team happiness as an important aspect of employee engagement and wellbeing.
Again and again I walk into team development meetings where there is polite participation with enthusiastic coaches and facilitators, yet a few months later little seems to have changed despite hours of dedicated support from experts helping the group.
Often, in private and confidential meetings, leaders tell me: “well, the team agreement and team purpose creation was great, but in fact the team members resented having to go through these exercises because they see the problems stemming from one or two individuals, and felt it was unfair to expect everyone to sit through the agony of the team coaching knowing that no-one is going to talk about the elephant in the room – the issues causing the toxic environment.”
From most leader’s perspective it is simple. Change the individuals, they think, and the team dynamics will improve, with no more need for team development activities.
Another popular approach is to do team profiles and disclosure to each other. Within a “safe space” people learn about, for example, using MBTI language to communicate with each other, to appreciate diversity and to appreciate their strengths and address their weaknesses. Everyone discusses their preferences based on their profile, and this transparency is hoped to create better communication and harmony in teams.
I have not seen that approach being very successful at creating long-term positive changes unless the team is relatively new and keen to get to know each other. And the trap of stereotyping quickly increases the team toxicity as you pidgeon hole others.
Having reflected for many years about this – as a team member of good and bad teams, as a leader myself as well as a team leadership coach – my experience is that, although our first response is to jump to deal with the “toxins” as team coaching experts call it, for example, through team coaching and agreements, cultivating an intentioal positive climate first for a few months will make a considerable contribution to create positive relationships and communication, which ultimately will create the trust needed for effective team purpose and alignment, as well as team agreements.
I have never been able to create quality team agreements, goal alignment or even trust building using these traditional methods where teams were languishing. Each time I walked away from a team I knew they were not doing their best, even if they tried and I tried.
That is because we need to heal the wounds of constant conflict, of creating our own negative identities in the team system, of the hurt of unspoken voices, and to acknowledge how we have been changed through the distress. And the way to create such virtuous cycles is to forget about the jargon and the models and tools, and instead to focus on hosting friendliness with each other.
Imagine a team who agree to at least consider practicing, for themselves, not for their other team members, just for their own wellbeing at work, these 10 steps to Happiness.
And imagine they all post this little poster on their cubicle of office walls, or even cafeterias as a reminder to themselves to strive to be happy.
Further imagine you, the leader of that team, working with your team to figure out how to restore positive identity for individuals and the team, how to restore a positive narrative for yourself and the team. For learning to speak with authentic voices to each other instead of grooming communication with jargon and frameworks that hide what the system needs and instead constrain it within pre-mature designed rules and agreements, often created out of a state of distress and chaos, versus a more optimistic and resilient environment.
Over a period of a few months you will notice a softening in hardness towards each other. There will be more flexibility in accommodating diverse opinions. There will be a focus on the causes of happiness, which means wanting to belong to a strong team and having trusted relationships at work.
When the clouds have been hanging in the sky for a long time, it is difficult to remember that there is a sun shining too. Leading distressed teams using a positive leadership perspective, focusing on universal values such as happiness, will help to slowly dissolve the clouds. And once the team, even for a moment, can see a little space opening up, where they remember the sun, optimism and aliveness will return, knowing that it is possible to clear the clouds and see the blue, wide sky. And once that happens, we can see each other in all our potentiality, all of our strengths and gifts, and co-create a team that is resilient, successful and enjoying the experiences of working together.