Two perspectives that make it difficult for teams to access their potential
By Bernard Desmidt
A journey to becoming a high performing, effective team begins with an awareness of how the team shows up: How do team members experience being part of the team today? What is happening for team members when they ‘team’ together and apart? To what extent do team members feel energised by being together? Or do they feel, more often, that teaming together is a waste of time and effort? It is important for team members to reflect upon, share and discuss their answers to these questions.
To deny reality is a sure way to obstruct the possibility of change—awareness of reality is the starting point for any change. For floundering teams to transition to flourishing teams, they first have to acknowledge how their current reality may be hindering their accessibility to better ways of being and ways of doing. Only then is it possible to adopt a different mindset and belief system that enables the team to adapt behaviours and achieve what is only possible by working more collaboratively.
I want to share two perspectives about our human existence that can make it difficult for teams to access their potentiality.
As humans (individuals, teams, groups or communities) we are continually dealing with breakdowns: the unanticipated interruptions and interferences to our habitual flow of living, working and being. Most of the time we default to reacting and unconsciously dealing with these breakdowns based on our accumulative experience and knowledge of what has worked for us in the past. For example, along my habitual home-to-work travelling route, I am confronted by a road closure caused by a burst water main. Having been marshalled to take an alternative route, I am concerned that I will be late for my meeting and be an inconvenience to my client. Breakdown! Once I collect my thoughts and consider my options, I take action. I notify the client of my circumstances and manage their expectations around a revised meeting start time. Problem solved.
Breakdowns are an inevitable aspect of human existence: we live and lead in uncertainty. We know for certain that Wednesday comes after Tuesday but we don’t know for certain what those days will bring. Breakdowns call upon teams to learn, adapt and adjust to how they deal with increasing levels of uncertainty and complexity synonymous with life as we know it today.
We live and work in increasingly complex, changing and uncertain times. Our existing knowledge, experience and skills may not be enough to deal with unprecedented breakdowns. Point in case is COVID-19. Pandemics are ‘collective breakdowns’ that affect people all over the world. Collective breakdowns— as we have experienced—can have catastrophic consequences on personal and professional lives and livelihoods.
Life’s breakdowns call on us individually and collectively to adapt and adjust to different ways of being and to new ways of doing. While breakdowns are more commonly experienced as negative, they can also be positive. For example, winning a significant tender to deliver the biggest piece of work ever undertaken causes a positive breakdown.
A team’s ability to shift to become a flourishing, high performing team is largely dependent upon the team’s ability to acknowledge and effectively deal with individual and collective breakdowns.
As humans, we are never not concerned. We are continually listening, thinking, speaking and acting from what is important to us about what isn’t going to plan. For example, I may be concerned about a deteriorating relationship with a colleague. Increasingly, I find it harder to trust them because they have let me down on a few occasions and I have heard, from others, various derogatory comments they have made about me. Each time I find myself in their presence, my listening, thinking, speaking and acting comes from a concern I hold about their untrustworthiness.
To unlock a team’s power and access its collective capacity and capability, each team member must acknowledge and legitimise their own and each other’s concerns—their ‘known spoken’ and their ‘known unspoken’ concerns. By ‘known spoken’ concerns, I mean matters of importance, which team members feel confident and comfortable to call out, discuss and address among themselves in a safe and supported environment. But more importantly, team members need to acknowledge their ‘known unspoken’ concerns. These concerns are often avoided or denied because of the perceived consequences of attempting to discuss the undiscussable.
A characteristic of competitive teams is they operate in an environment where more concerns are unspoken rather than spoken. Collaborative teams accept the normality of uncertainty and deal with what is important. A hallmark of a collaborative, high performing team is there are no unspoken concerns. A high performing team expresses rather than suppresses its concerns. It’s suppressing rather than expressing our concerns that gives rise to dysfunctional interpersonal relationships.
A team’s capacity to become high performing is dependent upon the team members’ ability to deal with their own and each other’s concerns. To hold one’s own and others’ concerns with respect, dignity and legitimacy is what distinguishes high performing, effective teams.
Edited extract from Team Better Together: 5 disciplines of high performing teams by Bernard Desmidt. Find out more at www.bernarddesmidt.com