Tag Archives: team dynamics

Stony Silence

Alicia tried not to show her anxiety. She was about to conduct this meeting in a way that was unfamiliar, against the best advice she was ever taught in a leadership class. Eleven people sat around the table. Alicia, furthest from the door. Next to her, the two Project Leaders. It was a big project.

“I want to thank you for showing up today,” she began. “And, for your participation. The Phoenix Project is important to this company and you are all well aware of its delays.” Stony silence, the team waited for Alicia, after all, she was the Division Manager.

“The purpose of the meeting today is to resolve the delays caused by this project’s leadership.” She stopped to gauge the response. There was predictable shifting in the chairs. Everyone was very uncomfortable. Not a single person made eye contact with anyone else in the room.

Finally, they were dealing with the real issue on the project.

Different Priorities

“I want to start the meeting by creating some context,” Alicia continued. “My role on the Phoenix project is to put the team together, assign the leadership, make sure there is consensus about its purpose and mission. Then, check to make sure the project stays on track.” Alicia stopped, hoping that was enough. Her focus turned to the two project leaders.

“Russ, you are the project leader from the engineering department, how do you understand your role on this project?”

Russ was quick, prepared and in less than a minute outlined his role to make sure the customer’s technical requirements were followed. There were close to 150 design specifications that would be evaluated at the end.

“And Corey, you represent the production department. How do you understand your role?”

Corey gave a brief overview of the strict time deadlines, including an example of how production decisions sometimes required substitution of materials or a change in sequence.

“And sometimes, there is a conflict in Russ’s quality agenda and Corey’s production agenda,” Alicia stated flatly. “And that is what we are here to resolve, today, the conflict between Russ and Corey.”

And that is when the silence began.

Make the Team Comfortable?

“But I was always taught, praise in public, criticize in private?” came the question from Alicia.

“Of, course, that is what the team would like you to do,” I replied. “And when you take the two project leaders out of the room, you cripple the team from dealing with the problem. The next time it happens, they will look to you to rescue them.”

“But, isn’t that my job?” Alicia pushed back.

“Is your job to make the team comfortable, or is your job to grow the team where they can solve increasingly more difficult problems? They cannot do that, when you solve their problems for them. They can only do that, when you help them solve their own problems.”

The Real Issue in the Way

“Are you kidding?” Alicia protested. “You can’t talk about personality conflicts in a team meeting like that.”

“Why not?” I replied.

“Talk about turning stomachs upside down. My stomach would be the worst.”

“Alicia, consider this. In your team meeting, if every person’s stomach is churning queasy, is it possible that, at that moment, the group is dealing with a real issue?”

Alicia turned wide eyed. “Well, duh!”

“And do you think it’s possible that, until that real issue gets solved, that no other productive work can be accomplished by the team?”

Conflict Management

“I am sorry, but I have to disagree.” Silence engulfed the room, eyes got wide. Someone cleared their throat. This team was at a cross roads. The next few minutes would determine whether it engaged in productive work or disengaged to avoid the conflict currently on the table.

This is not a question of being able to manage the conflict, more a matter of managing agreement. The more the group tries to manage the conflict, the more likely the agreement will be coerced and compromised with the real issues suppressed, perhaps even undiscussable.

Conversely, if the group engaged in a process to manage agreement, the conflict might be heard, even encouraged, thoroughly discussed. Opposing viewpoints might be charted and debated. Expectations might be described at both maximum success and dismal failure. Indicators could be created with contingency plans for positive and negative scenarios.

Does your team manage conflict to make sure discussions are comfortable and efficient?


Does your team manage agreement, to encourage spirited discussion of both sides of an issue? When things get uncomfortable, can your team live through the stress of conflict to arrive at a well argued decision?

When I look around a room and see that each person is comfortably sitting, I can bet the issue on the table is of little importance. But, if I see stomachs tied in knots, the issue on the table is likely to be important.

Slow Walking and Sandbagging

“What do you think is slowing down the team?” I asked.

Darla did not immediately respond. “I don’t think they like me. I have been their manager now, for three weeks. I know it is a short time to make an assessment, but I would think, by now, they might drop the pretense and be a little more cordial.”

“How long does it take to make a first impression?”

“You mean, from three weeks ago, the first day?” she replied.

“Yes, I assume the assessment of you, by the team, was made within the first three minutes of your landing in your office. By the way, you are the third manager in the past 18 months, so don’t think it is all about you.”

“I know, I know. That was made very clear in my interview, but I thought I was up for the challenge. It’s just that, even in a meeting, I say something, and I sense an imperceptible roll of the eyes in response. We have some new projects I am supposed to roll out, yet, I have never seen a group of people move so slowly.”

“Do you think they are sandbagging you?” I wanted to know.

Darla nodded. “I get the feeling, they think if they stiff-arm me long enough, I will quit, just like the last two managers.”

“If you had to describe the mental state of the team, what words would you use?”

“Defensive, collusive, irrational. I mean I am not a bad person. The projects I am supposed to roll out are good projects, interesting work.”

“So, if the projects are not the problem, and you are not the problem, what is the problem?”

“The words you used, the mental state of the team.”

The Culprit is the Contract

As a manager, when we protect our team from the truth, we create dependency. Our behavior becomes an unspoken contract that, when there is bad news, the team doesn’t have to worry, because the manager will bear the impact. When there is a hard problem to solve, the team can stand and watch while the manager solves it. When there is a tough decision to make, the team can deny all responsibility and point to the manager, after all, that is why the manager gets paid the big bucks. When there is a conflict in the team, the team can whine and complain behind everyone’s back and depend on the manager to step up and confront the issue.

This circumstance feels good in the beginning. The team is off the hook. The manager gets to play God. The offer of omnipotence from the team to the manager is difficult to turn down, irresistible. It is a co-dependent relationship that cannot be sustained.

It is a contract based on a falsehood. While the manager promises to shield the team from pain, there will (always) come a time when that is no longer true. The truth (pain) spills on to the team. The team feels betrayed. The unspoken contract is broken and the team will turn on the leader.

Documented in military literature, the squad leader makes a promise to the platoon. “Do what I say. Follow my lead. And, I will bring everyone home safely.” It is a promise the platoon desperately wants to believe and the seduction of the leader begins.

Reality always wins. A fire fight ensues and one hapless recruit does not return alive. The contract is broken, the team feels betrayed. In the quiet of the camp at night, one lone team member lifts the flap of the leader’s tent and rolls in a grenade. The military term is fragging.

It was not that someone died. It was a relationship based on a lie. Inevitable betrayal of a unspoken contract. The culprit is the contract.