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  • Writer's pictureMichael Soderling

Teamwork – how everything is connected

In team development sessions, a short explanation of theory usually brings clarity to phenomena in the team that people don’t understand, let alone don’t know how to handle.

However, before we get to the theory, let me start with a real-life example where I was hired to provide team development training. Prior to the workshop, the team’s manager warned me about a ‘difficult employee’ who, for the purposes of this illustration, I will call John. John was apparently predisposed to question life, the universe and everything, and it only took a few minutes after initially meeting the team for John to start questioning me. The rest of the team reacted with sideways looks, silence and noticeably awkward body language. How should we interpret and deal with such a situation?

One way is to turn to The Theory of Living Human Systems, which recognises that every human system is part of a hierarchy of multiple systems that affect one another. Take a look at the following image which contains three system levels in the following hierarchical order: Team, role and person.

Which arrow do you think is more important when trying to understand what happens when John steps into his role? Is it the blue or the red arrow – the surrounding team level or the underlying level of John as a person? The book Teaming* discusses "the assumption that the way people behave has more to do with the human context they are part of rather than what characterises the individuals" (p. 39). Rather than rolling their eyes as John's colleagues did, it is better to identify what in the surrounding environment triggers John's less functional behaviour. The point is that we all (yes, even me and you) have troublesome characteristics that can emerge in unfavourable circumstances.

There are a number of threads to unravel when trying to figure out how a team works, and sometimes the complexity they cause can feel overwhelming. But on one level it really doesn't have to be more difficult than what I did next, which was to show appreciation for John's questioning and refrain from getting defensive or counterattack. By doing so a strange thing happened – John smiled, relaxed and was able to contribute to the training session for the rest of the day. This enabled working with the team system level and coach the team members to adopt a more curious and exploratory communication climate.

Let’s consider another real-life example. I was hired to work with a manager who by his boss had been diagnosed with a lack of motivation. After some initial probing, it became clear he actually didn’t lack motivation in the sense that he had lost commitment for his job and mission. He was, as it turned out, feeling drained because he was part of a dysfunctional management team. The surrounding management team system level influenced his role-taking and trumped the underlying system level of the manager as a person, who indeed wanted to contribute. I'm sure you understand this line of reasoning. But do you apply that understanding when dealing with your own reality?

So my challenge to you is this: think of an individual in your workplace who is not performing as he or she is expected. Instead of solely looking for problems with the individual, consider the surrounding system levels that may (better) explain why things are not going well. When you do that, it will become clear to you how everything is connected and then you are well equipped to focus on the real issue – developing the team and its group dynamics.


* Footnote: If you clicked on the link leading to the book Teaming, you noticed that it was in the Swedish langauge. The bad news is that when I write this, there is no translation of that superb book into English. The good news is that the English-language sources, that Teaming is based upon, are available, for example here.


The clients who reach out to me are managing directors, management teams, and executives who want to realise the potential in their organisations and accomplish extraordinary results. They reach out to me because of my ability to transform individuals, teams, and organisations.

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