I was stunned recently when a long-time client called to say, “Our team is not functioning well. We need help…soon.”
While it’s not uncommon to hear a team is struggling to be effective, it was a huge surprise with this particular group. I’d been working with them for many years and had always known them to be nothing short of high performing. It was hard for me to imagine them in a “dysfunctional” place.
When I arrived a few days later, my plan was more about discovering the issues than “fixing” the people. I truly wanted to understand what was causing a mature, productive team to unravel at their virtual seams. We began the process by exploring the flow or “current,” with a deeper dive to confront the undertows. What exactly was dragging this team under?
When I asked team members to describe their “current reality,” the answers were fascinating. They used words like ragged, stressed and overwhelmed. Tensions were running high and hot. People were feeling defensive and reactive.
Rapid even relentless change was a major theme in our discussion. For months the company had been reaching for ways to become more efficient and competitive. Resources were limited and goals were aggressive. Everyone was being stretched…too the limit.
My first impression was “change fatigue.” The group obviously needed a moment to stabilize before tackling the next initiative, but there was more to uncover. The symptoms and causes were morphing into a new (and very dysfunctional) brand.
Conflict had become a real threat. Where they had once enjoyed productive and constructive dialogue, they were now sniping at and about each other. Pseudo teams had formed and clichés had emerged. Clearly the established ground rules and communication agreements had been thrown overboard. (As we worked to diagnose the problem a hospital metaphor popped into my head. If trust were a “patient” in this place she’d be in on life support.)
This team had slipped a gear, and these new patterns of behavior were chipping away at the culture. The rapid decline was astonishing! And there was definite fallout: a top producer had just resigned and another was actively seeking a new opportunity. Good people were leaving for all the wrong reasons.
What may have been most telling happened when I asked the group to share recent accomplishments and breakthroughs. The room fell silent. These fabulous people were struggling to recall a success!
They had become so focused on the deadlines and next steps they completely lost sight of how far they had come or how they’d grown. That’s like climbing a mountain without ever stopping to admire the view.
Then it struck me. This team had not forgotten how to be a team; they had forgotten to value the process and recognize the progress. The constant emphasis was on “”what’s next.”
That’s an exhausting way to work (or live)! We absolutely must sense our progress. It is to be noted and celebrated and…studied. This is so important because our past achievements light the path for the next success.
A meeting that can help your team make that shift is called “Appreciative Inquiry” and it works like this:
1. Ask your team to think about a time when it overcame an obstacle, seized an opportunity, achieved a goal, or solved a problem.
2. As your team reflects on this achievement, ask questions to draw out the specifics attitudes, skills and behaviors they used to navigate the challenge. For example:
3. Capture the answers and insights so they are visible to the group. You are writing a success story here; the authors of that story need to see it clearly!
4. Once you have explored the success thoroughly, ask your team how it can apply these skills, beliefs and behaviors to create a new break through. How can you intentionally use these attributes to navigate the current reality?
This exercise looks for the best in people and processes. It encourages teams (at work and at home) to diagnose success and focus on what works. In a season of frustration or weariness, Appreciative Inquiry turns the focus from “what is wrong” to “who we are” and “what we can do.”
I used Appreciate Inquiry to draw success out of this struggling team. It was amazing to watch the transformation as they reflected on the history of their own success. It was a David and Goliath moment!
They re-engaged with the mission and each other. They laughed (and cried) as they told the stories. They filled eleven flipchart pages with the attributes and attitudes of success!
It turns out they weren’t dysfunctional after all. They just needed to remember who they are, what they are capable of, and what it feels like to win…again. It was an honor and pleasure to remind them.
If you’ve been following this 3-part series, Meetings that Can Change Everything, you’ve learned that:
We would love to hear how you apply these meeting tactics with your teams at work and at home. You are invited to share your experiences and successes with us here and with our Facebook community at Dondi Scumaci’s author page.