Mysterious forces at play in management teams
Updated: Jul 18, 2021
At some point in your working life you have probably attended a team-meeting where you gritted your teeth and wondered what on earth was going on.
It’s more than likely you then have experienced defence mechanisms manifesting themselves at group level. We apply these defences in order to avoid something unpleasant. It works in the short run, but the long-term effect is that the team moves away from reality and the task at hand.
Explanations. Every time I work with a management team, sooner or later we come to the point where I ask, “have you noticed that…?” It could be, for example, that members constantly talk over each other. When I raise that observation, there is always someone who perceives my observation as criticism. To avoid the unpleasant feeling of being criticised, they then offer up an explanation, such as "It is because we are all extraverts." This explanation may, in fact, be true, but it does little to help the team. Rather, it consolidates status quo. The countermeasure is to refrain from offering explanations and concentrate instead on exploring how the team can ensure that everyone is properly heard.
Vagueness. This is evident in statements such as "people ought to take responsibility for the tasks they have been given." The person saying this probably really wants to say something along the lines of "John, you should take responsibility for producing data for the budget process on time." When you detect such vagueness, I suggest you ask: "Sorry, but to me it is not clear who ‘they’ are. And the tasks you talk about, what do you mean?"
Speculation occurs in many forms and sometimes it can be difficult to spot. "Jane will not like this", is an example. “This is not going to work," is another. These types of statements can become truths (especially if they emanate from a high-status person) and can lead to a discussion that moves away from reality and into the world of imagination. The countermeasure is, of course, to refer back to reality and ask the person what data they have to support their statement.
Yes, but-communication: Yes, but… tends to create endless loops, a struggle about who is right and eventually frustration. "Yes, we should have more frequent meetings, but people have such busy calendars." One countermeasure is to stop and explore the ‘yes’ and the ‘but’ separately. Talk first separately about the need for more frequent meetings, then talk separately about peoples’ calendars and what you might possibly do to free up time.
Role locks. This possibly odd term originates from clinical psychology. Consider the fact that all of us carry around old roles from our past. And that our respective old roles can interfere with one another ina negative way. I myself have an old role as the ‘All-Knowing Big Brother’ (who in his middle-aged version writes blog posts, what are the odds…). Another person may carry around the role of ‘Assertive Little Sister’. Put us two normally sensible and grown-up individuals together and add a pinch of emotional charge. Then sit back with a bag of popcorn and watch what happens. It might be entertaining, but it is more likely things will spiral out of control.
You can probably identify certain people around you who trigger feelings that you do not understand. Try and figure out what old role they evoke in you. Coaching tip of the week is for you to start your search among the relationships in your family of origin.
What can you and your colleagues do about these phenomena? Well, you can agree on that it is not only OK but important to talk about them when they occur. You can deal with them with a sense of humour and self-irony and be a little forgiving of yourself. Besides the post you're reading right now, get your colleagues to also read this one. If the message sparks their curiosity: Why not have one of you monitoring the team at the next meeting and give that person permission to call attention to these patterns when they emerge?
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