Tag Archives: team behavior


“Miriam, I want you to look at these two columns of words,” I pointed. “One column describes a group engaged in work, the other describes a group engaged in non-work. When you observe a team, these are things to look for.

Work ——————- Non-Work
Team cohesion———- Pairing behavior
Conscious ————- Unconscious
Cooperation ———– Collusion
Scientific ———— Un-scientific
Constructive ———- Complaining
Focused ————— Distracted

“These are sometimes not so subtle signs of a team going into disarray,” I explained. “And, it is mostly unconscious. The team doesn’t even know it is doing it. There is an exercise I conduct at the beginning of most meetings. It’s called Good News. ‘Tell the group something positive that happened to you in the past week.’ Invariably, one or two people will have difficulty. ‘I can’t think of anything,’ they will say. What if I had asked the opposite question, ‘Tell the group something negative that happened to you in the past week?’ No group has a problem coming up with the negative stuff. It is unconscious. Positive thought requires conscious effort.”

Miriam’s eyes grew wide. “So, what do I do. I see this group behavior often. As their manager, how do I get the team back to productive work?”
Some of you may recognize this model as BAMS, Basic Assumption Mental State, described by Wilfred Bion in his tortuous book, Experiences in Groups. -Tom

Classic Pairing Behavior

“But, what if I am being overly dramatic?” Miriam continued to question. “What if the team’s inability to work together is just my own projection of insecurity, and that when the going gets tough, they will put their differences aside and cooperate with each other? What if I am just afraid of a little water cooler talk?”

“What do you mean, water cooler talk?” I wanted to know.

“You know, two people at the water cooler, complaining about the third person,” Miriam replied.

“Always the same two people, ganging up on the other?” I asked.

“Heavens, no,” Miriam chuckled. “There is equal opportunity pairing at the water cooler. Depends on the issue to determine who is at the water cooler and who is thrown under the bus. Scapegoat of the week.”

“And, how do you know what is discussed at the water cooler?”

“Oh, I hear. The rumor mill is much more effective at communication than the company newsletter.”

“So, you have your own little birdies who pair off with you?”

“Yes,” Miriam nodded. “And, that’s what has me worried. These are the issues that could blow up the team in the middle of a high pressure project.”

“Miriam, the reason I wanted to hear the details of the water cooler talk, is that this is classic pairing behavior. A group, faced with an unspoken issue will splinter into pairs, often at the water cooler, to avoid confronting the issue in the group. It is a collusion, between two people to find allies in a struggle to avoid the issue.”

“Is that what they are doing?”

“Not just them, you have your own little birdies. You have engaged in pairing​ behavior yourself,” I described.

“My goodness, I didn’t​ even realize. I was doing it, too.”

“Not to worry,” I smiled. “Pairing is an unconscious behavior. You didn’t know it was happening, neither did your team.”

Outlast the Panic

“So, let’s say the team struggles. You, as the manager, are accountable for the output of the team. You control all the levers. What are you going to do?” I asked.

“Instead of jumping in to fix the problem, which is what I really want to do, I have to get the team to solve the problem,” Miriam replied.

“First, let’s talk about time. As the manager, when will you first know that the team is struggling with a problem?”

“That’s easy,” Miriam chuckled. “I know they are going to struggle before I even assign the project.”

“So, if you know the team will struggle, even before the project starts, when do you, as manager, intervene? How long will you let them twist in the wind? Remember, twisting in the wind costs money and you are accountable for output.”

“Are you suggesting I jump in before the project even starts? I thought I was supposed to let the team struggle with the problem?” Miriam countered.

“When the team encounters its first problem, and begins to struggle, how long does it take the team to start solving the problem?”

“Again, that’s easy. Forever. Faced with a problem, the team will avoid the problem, look to blame someone (else) for the problem, knock off early, work on easier stuff, dump the problem on my desk, complain about the problem, argue about the problem, go into panic mode, go into paralysis, you name it, they have tried it,” she explained.

“Fight, flight, freeze or appease. These are all classic behaviors of a team, faced with a problem, engaged in non-work.”

“So, I am the manager, what do I do?”

“Simple, outlast the panic. Put the struggle on the table and outlast the panic.” -Tom