Honing Team Dynamics at Home

Many of us are at home for the holiday break. Time with family and friends is the priority. But what if during this time of leisure you could also be enhancing or improving your skills in connecting with others, deepening mutual understanding, and dealing with conflict? There is no safer place to practice these skills, which are so fundamental to leadership and team dynamics, than at home, with friends, outside of the work setting.

Team Dynamics

First, let's clarify a few basic notions about the variables that affect how groups form and build effective team dynamics. Then, let's see how you might be able to hone relevant skills while at home and before the New Year begins. You may even find that this outside-of-work opportunity to practice proves to be a helpful strategy for honing work-relevant relational skills throughout 2016.

Different Models, Similar Themes

In his popular fable on teams, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni cautions us that an absence of trust constrains our ability to form the deeply anchored commitments as a group that help us work effectively as a team. In this respect, we easily and immediately think of trust as a vital pre-condition. However, it is also an outcome of certain kinds of behavior, i.e., taking the social risk of expressing our differences and asserting dissent. After all, revealing our genuine experience lets others know what we are thinking and feeling, making it easier for them to trust us.

Like Tuckman's classic stage model of team development (forming, storming, norming, performing), Lencioni posits an initial state of polite calm. At this point, we indulge what he calls artificial harmony, a harmony born of deference, avoidance, and inhibitions. It is only through storming—daring to assert our genuinely held beliefs, and freely sharing our ideas, feelings, and preferences for interaction—that we break through the veneer of polite exchange and forge the dynamics that produce true alignment of thought, feeling, and action as a team.

Reality check:  Research indicates that if we were to evaluate the developmental stage of existing leadership teams within most organizations, we would find that about 60% of them are in either the forming or the storming stages of the Tuckman model. Another 40% would be in the norming stage of the model, meaning they have been learning something from their storming that promotes authentic engagement. But none of the teams would be in the performing stage, a stage characterized by mature and adaptive capacities to cope with change and challenge, and to thrive over time. A signature feature of this robust, later stage is the capacity to regularly work through difficult differences.

Take-aways:  Creating effective team dynamics is not easy. Most of us find it especially difficult to address conflict in a timely and effective manner. Why? It's not second nature to most of us, perhaps even more so for the ambitious, hard-driving types drawn to careers in business leadership. They tend to have a cognitive bias and value ideas over emotions. Moreover, they have a strong bias for action and are less patient and practiced in relational skills. In reality, of course, they can only achieve their work through others, through relationships. And their drive, ambition, and competitive tendencies are fueled by emotions that operate outside their conscious awareness.  

Implications:  Most of us learn, sometimes the hard way, that rational-intellectual knowledge and skill, and task-oriented action are only part of the what it takes to succeed. A good share of what enables managers to lead and leaders to collaborate are the so-called softer, social-emotional skills that enable us to connect, communicate, and work through tough times together. And since stress, strain, tensions, and challenge arise in all spheres of life, including life outside of work, it seems likely that these relationally-oriented competencies can be cultivated at home as well as at work.


The Focus

Among the dispositional tendencies we bring as persons to our efforts to lead, contribute, and collaborate in a social-organizational context is the inclination to move toward or away from others, referred to as an approach-avoidance orientation. This orientation is shaped by what we learn in our early years about the potential for relationships with others to be helpful and reliably available as a resource. Knowing that such help is possible gives us hope and promotes an underlying sense of security that promotes risk-taking. Let me explain.

Attachment Style as an Underlying Factor

We all want and need some measure of felt security. In part, what I mean is a subjective feeling of emotional safety. It leads us to assert ourselves and express our experience without fears of harsh judgment, rejection, or attack. If we grew up feeling safe and respected when doing this, we probably came to believe that we and others deserve to speak and be heard, that we and they are worth hearing from. This gives us reason for hope and for believing that engaging issues directly and approaching others for help or encouragement may very well help us get "unstuck."

If, on the other hand, we grew up learning that it's best to say nothing or to play it safe, we may find ourselves holding back, avoiding the risk of addressing issues that may evoke emotionally charged reactions or interaction. When we do offer an opinion, we may do so with extreme caution. We may blunt the edge of our message or minimize our differences in thought. We may be more likely to view challenges to our ideas or reactions to concerns as acts of aggression. Such appraisals will arouse our defenses. We all instinctively avoid such threats of harm and/or look for assurances of safety.

The first example of life experience that engendered a sense of security, an inclination to explore issues and approach people shapes a "secure" attachment style. The second example illustrates an "insecure" attachment style. These styles have a long-term influence on our behavior into adulthood. In the case of insecure attachment, we are inhibited in our readiness to contribute to team dynamics, either by exaggerated worries about rejection, or by avoidance of taking such risks due to beliefs that nothing good will come of it. 

Advice for Practice at Home

The simple act of approaching issues and relationships that are strained, frustrating, or difficult in a different and constructive manner, with a fresh mindset, can begin lessening our tendencies to avoid them. Although it may feel like risk-taking in the beginning, these feelings will diminish as your practice grows. In the end, I believe what you'll see is that there is actually more risk in continuing a pattern of avoidance. As I am wont to say, problems, unlike fine wines, do not improve with age.

By practicing with the guidance provided below, you will increase your tolerance for productive risk taking in interpersonal communications, and you will build your skill and confidence using these practices. Here's what I recommend:

  1. Observe.  Notice which relationships seem to offer the best early opportunities for practice. Perhaps it is your teenage child with whom you can all too quickly feel frustrated. Or it may be when certain topics of conversation with your spouse or partner push your "buttons." It could also be a relationship with a friend or parent. Pick one or two that offer low to moderate levels of challenge (i.e., difficult, not overwhelming). Initially, just observe and reflect. Arresting the felt need to "fix" or "solve" will allow you to see the dynamics more clearly.
  2. Analyze.  What is the problematic cycle of interaction that plays out in this relationship? Who says/does what? What are your felt reactions to the unfolding events? How do you interpret the behavior of others, their thoughts, feelings, intentions, motivations, attitudes? What do you tell yourself about them and the situation? What would you like to do differently, better, and why? What gets in the way, i.e., your feelings, skills, fluency, time pressures, etc.?
  3. Read.  There are great books out there on difficult conversations. This basic guidance won’t replace them. A classic work in this area, Getting to Yes by Fisher, Ury & Patton, came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project. But a more recent classic, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, provides a more concrete framework and 3-step strategy for working through interpersonal tension and conflict. These are short books with practical advice.
  4. Try Something Different.  Sound too simple? Well, in order to disrupt the problematic cycle of interaction and make room for change, someone has to do something different. If you usually ask detailed questions or offer advice, try reflecting what you hear as the emotional theme instead: E.g., "Making this work is really important to you," or "Sometimes it can feel like others just are not able to understand what this is like for you, from your point of view." Let them know you “get it.”
  5. Notice What Happens.  As you interrupt the old normal, you create room for something else, something better. The effect of this changed behavior may not be obvious right away. But one thing it usually will do is to disconfirm the current working hypothesis that "she always does this or that." Others may begin to lower their defenses and be more open to constructive dialogue and problem solving rather than repeating the same dysfunctional back-and-forth. 
  6. Listen First.  If you have made a genuine effort to listen, empathize, and validate what you hear, the other person is much more likely to regard what you have to say as credible: "He's heard me out, seems to 'get it,' so maybe his intentions are positive." When you have halted the overt patterns of dysfunction, e.g., arguing and insisting, or telling and selling, it's like hitting the refresh button. Take your time. Don't feel like you have to solve everything all at once.
  7. Express Appreciation.  Share an observation about how this interaction felt different or more helpful. Let the other person know that you saw both him/her and you making an effort to do things differently. Pause long enough to let the other person offer any comments or observations as well, but don't put him/her on the spot. If the pattern of conflictive or dysfunctional interaction is longstanding, it will take some time before you and others have achieved enduring change. So don’t be too quick to declare victory.

Finally, I recommend keeping a notebook, at least for a little while, in order to capture your observations (items #1 and #5 above). Most importantly, keep it simple. I offer step-wise guidance as a stimulus and to "get your head in the game," not to impose a forced march. Remember, you are practicing with people you love; they'll usually give you the benefit of the doubt. Be kind to yourself, and learn about how this kind of change feels and how it best works for you.

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