Steve* was a reluctant participant in a team session I was facilitating. He had been a manager for more than 35 years and had a wealth of business and leadership experience.
The team Steve led consisted of 12 dedicated and hardworking individuals who always achieved their targets and, not unreasonably, Steve questioned why they needed “to bother with a fluffy waste of time team session”. Therefore, when Steve was pushed towards this session (the first in a nine-month engagement) by his manager, he came along reluctantly, making his feelings clear both verbally and non-verbally that he thought this would be a waste of time and he didn’t want to be there.
Steve had been through many team sessions, didn’t see the value of them and felt they were all a waste of time. His first question was “when do we get to sing Kumbaya and have our first group hug”.
Steve’s manager, who also attended the session, was concerned Steve’s resistance would sabotage the process and outcomes by setting a “tone for the day that would be hard to push through”. I assured him Steve’s resistance was perfect and would give the session the advantage of starting off from a position of honesty, which would be incredibly valuable.
We started with a warm up exercise that helped to provide some evidence for Steve that he was right. Lots of eye rolling!
I asked everyone to stand up, move around the room and ask people the following question: “What have you always wanted?” I asked them to listen to the answer and make no comment other than “I wish that for you” or “I’d love you to have that/achieve that/do that” etc. They were then asked to share what they have always wanted and move quickly on to the next person.
There were 2 key issues to work on in this team:
- While the productivity of this team was high, their morale & engagement (positivity) was extremely low; and
- Steve’s leadership style was fostering a culture that was hindering the team’s results and ability to retain team members.
Let’s start with the first issue.
The team was already productive, and teams exist for one reason and one reason only – to achieve results. They were achieving results.
Despite this the following problems existed:
High levels of exhaustion on the team;
High turnover of team members. The average time a team member stayed in this team was 11 months;
An Individualistic focus that affected service levels to their clients both internally and externally, crushing collaboration, stifling new ideas, and creating ineffective ways of operating that resulted in a lack of innovation;
Information was being withheld, which contributed to extra workload and silos;
There were challenges recruiting internally and externally. No one wanted to work in this team, which was known in the company as “the swamp”. Adding to this was the high cost of the constant recruitment process, including the cost of having team members involved in the recruitment process, agency fees and on-boarding;
A high level of workplace complaints due to poor behaviours in the team, including bullying and aggressiveness; and
Limits on the potential of the team and the results they could achieve.
Steve’s leadership style
Steve had fallen into a leadership style that promoted unhealthy competition. Poor behaviour was allowed to flourish with the justification that they were getting the job done. It had become a normal accepted way of operating, which clouded the ability to see the problems this caused.
Steve didn’t engage in the session, his contribution both derailed conversations and added richness in learning for both Steve (that would come later) and team members present.
Earlier I mentioned the warm up exercise we did. Needless to say Steve didn’t enjoy it and didn’t engage.
I suggested to the team members that when they go to the next meeting with their broader team members, they try the same exercise at the beginning of the meeting.
Steve jumped in with “that’s a ridiculous suggestion”. My response was: “It’s OK Steve, I can see this isn’t for you”.
I moved on to a brief conversation with other team members who were interested in giving it a go as they had found it both insightful and interesting. As Steve huffed, I kept ignoring him, occasionally repeating, “it’s okay Steve I know this isn’t for you”. After a few of these comments I then told Steve it was “okay to be scared to try it”. It can be a risk to try something new. Steve declared he wasn’t scared and to his own dismay committed to doing so at a meeting that afternoon.
A watershed moment
I got a call from Steve three weeks later and he was upset. He had kept his word and tried the exercise out. When I asked him what was upsetting him he said:
“When I did this exercise, George (a colleague) told me he liked fly fishing. He was so excited about it and I learnt more about him, what he cared about and his values in that 10 minute conversation than I had learnt over the 30-plus years we have worked together”.
This was a watershed moment for Steve as he linked the themes in his career and personal relationships and began a personal journey of transformation that resulted in him being a better leader and, the best bit, a more loving father and husband.
Steve and the team continued to grow. They moved away from “making their numbers” towards a team that not only produced results but also engaged, collaborated and learned how to have productive and healthy agreements and disagreements. They moved from being considered “the swamp” to being a team others wanted to be a part of.
Thank you Steve for the honour of working with you and for sharing your story. Steve has been retired for many years now and enjoys a fulfilled life with the occasional fly fishing trips with George.
*To protect and respect Steve’s identity I have changed his name.
Pollyanna Lenkic is an author, coach, and speaker who works with leading organisations. Her structured approach delivers an uplift of 25% in team performance. To work with Pollyanna go to her website.