Why we need more team spats!

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7 June 2015

I've spent loads of time with various leadership teams these past few weeks, and as always I’ve just loved it.

The reason is, of course, that people are so fascinating, and the longer I spend working with different individuals in different teams, the more fascinating my work becomes.

I’m sometimes amused to think that whilst I have the label “team coach”, I’m the one who’s learning more than anyone else!

Some of the Executive teams that I work with lead organisations with turnovers in the tens of millions of pounds and some others have turnovers in the hundreds of millions. So they’re generally on seriously good money and have been on all sorts of leadership and self-development courses over the years.

And what is one of the biggest concerns that agitates and preoccupies them as teams?

Avoiding a spat when they’re together as a whole team.

If they find themselves slipping into one, they nearly fall over each other in their keenness to close it down:

“Yes, that’s very interesting, and let’s take this off-line now …”

Bad news

Let’s be clear about one thing: from the point of view of business performance, this is bad news.

Teams that don’t allow themselves to have spats with each other aren’t doing themselves any favours. On the contrary, they’re storing up problems for the future.

Unresolved issues that are emotionally charged in one way or another build their charge over time. And the longer it is before they are brought out into the open, the greater their potential to disrupt the team at all sorts of different levels.

Less real

They also result in teams becoming less real with each, once they’re together as a full team.

When the team keep off talking about the “real stuff” during their time together, this doesn’t mean that it goes undiscussed. It is just discussed in various sub-groups outside of team meetings, because they know that once they’re together as a whole team they will all go into a rather elaborate “dance” to avoid anything really difficult being said.

Hardly a winning formula for a top-performing team!

This is why there have been more than a few times when I’ve been with a team and found myself thinking, “There’s only one way they’re going to clear the air – and that’s by getting on with it and having the spat!”

Drawing out an issue that’s trapped

Part of my role as a coach and facilitator is to draw an issue out when I feel that it’s become trapped beneath the surface and members of the team are unlikely to raise it naturally. So sometimes I’ll make a point of saying to the CEO and one or two others before a team meeting, “I think you need to make a point of mentioning such-and-such”.

Sometimes they will look aghast. “No, Pete, that’s one of the things we just can’t mention. We would never dream of talking about it, because so-and-so wouldn’t put up with it”.

If this is coming from one of the Executive Directors, and the person they’re referring to is the CEO (as is often the case), they will usually finish off with some sort of warning along the lines of, “Be careful - if you try to raise it, it might scupper you doing any more work with the team”.

I picture a rather sinister-looking bouncer walking into the room where the Execs hold their meetings, to escort me off the premises. “’Oy, you, sling your hook. You can’t come in here and say things like that!”

Sometimes this does make me wonder whether I shouldn’t just take the advice that I’m given, and back off. Believe me, I have an inner coward that can be very active in these moments!

With a degree of trepidation, I make myself think hard about how I’m going to say what I want to say if no one else beats me to it. I think about my tone, and being warm and positive, and as relaxed as I possibly can be when I first mention the taboo topic.

Then, when the big moment comes, so long as I get my tone right, it’s always … a damp squib!

Instead of the much feared mega drama, with the sound of various toys being thrown out of different prams, there’s one pretty big anti-climax.

Often it’s the CEO who says something like,

“Pete’s right to mention that, we’ve all known about it for months and it’s about time we did something about it.”

After all that … it’s out there, declared, the can’t-ever-be-mentioned shock horror taboo issue is being discussed and no-one is on the verge of having heart failure or throwing their chair at the facilitator.

Hooray! I know from the energy in the room that we have pierced a bubble that needed to be pierced, and in the process lots of the negativity and drama associated with that issue is no longer.

Why such a big deal?

The question I’m always left with in my mind is “WHY was this all such a big deal?”

Why did such a talented team that is so committed to all that it wants to achieve for the business spend so long postponing any open discussion around a key issue that they all knew was getting in the way, big time??

Part of the answer lies in our tendency nowadays to over-invest in the importance of teams having the right “dynamics”. As one CEO said to me the other week, after we had exposed an issue that had been bubbling away for a fair few months, endlessly discussed by all of them in all sorts of different sub-groups but never discussed openly among the team when they were all together:

“I thought that if it came out into the open it could set us back by a few months. As it turned out, I quickly saw that what really set us back was our decision to stop it coming out into the open.”

Exactly! Give an issue the label of “too tricky to be discussed”, and boy, do we invest more power in it as a real menace standing in the way of the team achieving what it wants.

What do you expect from your team?

Having thought about all of this rather a lot, I’ve come to the conclusion that the core challenge is not about our ability to “say the unsayable”.

Rather, it’s about what you – and in particular Chief Executives – expect from each other in Executive teams.

Once we ask the question “What’s the team here for?”, it’s easier to reframe our thinking about spats and develop a new approach towards turning conflict to your business advantage.

Leaving behind the idea of winners and losers

If this argument makes you hesitant, lest you feel that I’m suggesting some sort of manipulation, please give me the benefit of the doubt just for a minute.

Let’s ask the question: what is it that gives us a shared dread of spats?

Isn’t it to do with the assumptions that we make about spats – and especially the assumption that a spat will end up with some people “winning” and at least one other person “losing”?

And we fear that even if we end up on the winning side, we could well lose out in terms of having a worse relationship with the person who lost the spat.

So, if we’re to overcome this dread of spats, what we need to do is to move away from the whole notion that there are winners and losers.

We need somehow to make “spats” part of a process in which we all have some shared stake.

In this way, the spat becomes part of our shared learning.

And we go into it on the basis that we will all benefit from the learning that the spat can make possible.

Getting over our hang-up about team decisions

I now think that the best way of achieving this is to get over our hang up about key decisions having to be team decisions.

Instead, we need to focus more on each of us drawing on our peers, when we’re together as a team, to help us develop our thinking in relation to those areas where we’re not sure of the best way ahead.

I can imagine you thinking, “That’s fine, but WHY will that solve the problem of spats?”

It won’t stop you having spats.

I don’t think our mission should be to stop having spats. It should be to take the negative and mutually destructive energies out of spats.

Discussing topics you agree to be difficult

I now think that the best way of doing this is to see the spat as part of a discussion that you all knew would be difficult.

The more difficult the challenge, the more likely - and healthy - it is that as a team you should have more than one approach towards tackling it.

So you kick around the different options. You encourage each other to come up with something different, as an alternative to the idea that you’ve just discussed.

You value difference, and you thank people who come up with a “new idea” and make an existing idea that bit better.

Then, at the end of that discussion, you don’t say, as too many CEOs tend to do, “We must now decide” (in a tone that assumes all your staff are assembled outside with their eyes peeled on your corporate chimney, looking for the first signs of white smoke and certain knowledge that a verdict has been reached).

None of that.

If you’re the CEO, you ask where people have got to at the end of the discussion. And you ask if anyone has shifted in their thinking, too, being careful to say how valuable and important and influential it is for the team when people let themselves shift in their thinking.

Then you want people to sleep on the discussion and either come back to this item at your next team meeting or, if it’s really important, come back to it at a special meeting in the next few days, just for 15 to 30 minutes, to agree what your team approach should be.

Instead of speeding up, slowing down

You all value diversity and disagreement and “conflict” as part of the process of working through difficult ideas. You know that once you encounter conflict you shouldn’t try to reach a decision as quickly as possible, as so many do, on the basis that a clear decision is the best means of freeing yourselves from any conflict.

You see conflict as part of the process of looking more deeply at the choices open to you, and understanding that people can approach this particular issue from very different angles with very different assumptions.

Whenever you come together you will often find that this whole emphasis on creativity and problem-solving has made it much easier for any Directors who were in a minority position to move towards the position that the majority hold.

They feel that they have been respected and listened to, and the others have consciously held back from riding roughshod over their minority view.

Instead, they’ve been challenged on what they think is best by people who are challenging themselves with the same question. Wow!

What if they don’t shift in their position?

If one or two Directors remain firmly in a minority position, and the majority remains firm, and you’re now at the stage where you need a clear decision you address those in an apparent minority very directly:

“I know you’re in a different place from the rest of us on this, and I’m not asking you to pretend to agree with us when you don’t. Given the discussion we’ve had and the process we’ve been through, are you happy for us to move ahead on the basis of the majority view, recognizing that this isn’t where you’re at, and asking you now to line up behind this as our agreed approach, so that once we leave this room we all have one commonly held position?”

Conflict is fine – within a creative process

Every single time I have seen a team go through this sort of process together, the minority have agreed to go with the majority position. And the whole team have emerged stronger for the fact that there was some sort of conflict among them and they managed to treat it as an expression of their shared creativity.

The more we talk about creativity in these sorts of moments, the better.

It enables us to view conflict as part of a process in which we’re trying to shape some new thinking and maybe even grow some new ideas together.

We’re building each other up, too, because we know that the best ideas come out of teams where there is a culture of mutual support and the team are working together in connecting the different parts of a puzzle to create one overall approach in which they each have a distinctive part to play.

Building up others in the team

So, my proposition to you goes in three steps:

1. Spats are most destructive, and sometimes pretty lethal, in teams that are not good at building each other up

2. If you work at growing a team culture where you’re all committed to building each other up, you can transform spats into something very different indeed

3. By looking to other members of the team to support you in becoming as good as you can possibly be, and in doing all you can to reciprocate, you can ensure that occasional spats on tough issues not only improve your performance as a team, but also become a natural part of the ongoing growth and development of the whole team.

I’d love to know what you think. Please join the debate on our Facebook page.

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