Addressing Challenging Group Dynamics
We’ve all been there. Almost everyone can think of at least one (or maybe many!) experiences as a member of a dysfunctional team. Maybe the memory still makes us cringe. Working with groups can bring difficulty in making decisions and dealing with challenging group members. Group work can leave us feeling like it was a big waste of time and that we could have done the work better on our own.
In this article, I share my journey working with teams as a coach and guide you through ways to reexamine your group work culture. Hopefully, this will help you address some of these exasperating feelings about group work and provide you actionable ways to address challenging group work in the future!
From Individuals to Group Coaching
I’ve spent much of the past decade in talent acquisition and employee relations and more recently as an executive coach. Through my work, I have realized that working with individuals doesn’t always solve the root problem. Hearing statements like “I can’t work with that person because they disagree with everything I say” or “My boss doesn’t understand that they are giving me unrealistic timelines to get all this work done” emphasized that these were not individual but group issues related to the complexity of group dynamics.
The frustration I witnessed among people working together, even at higher levels of an organization, led me from individual to team coaching. In team-based coaching, I help groups improve their communication and efficiency, and teach them to reflect on how they work with each other.
My work is based on Dr. Edgar Schein’s philosophy of Process Consultation, which advocates working in tandem with the group to look for, understand and act on the behaviors and processes that derail them. Instead of positioning myself as the expert who can solve the problem for them, I partner with the groups to help them find a way to make changes they need for themselves.
Change Isn’t Easy: Anticipate Resistance
Even when groups or individuals are well versed in theories of coaching and organizational development, and are seemingly willing to change, there can still be strong resistance to this work.
Why is this?
Perhaps people may not be willing to put in the time it takes to make real change, especially when they feel it will take time away from getting their work done. Some may believe they don’t have the authority or influence to create change among their team. Or, they may not be rewarded for getting along with their teammates, but for making the team work harder and faster in order to prove their worth to the boss or organization.
In any case, recognizing that improving group dynamics could improve efficiency over the long term is critical to pushing ourselves and our teams to action.
How You Can Begin to Improve Your Teamwork
It’s important to have ways to enact change when the group is stagnant or not progressing in a positive direction. Whether you’re a team leader or member, you can use these strategies to change the way your group works. Some of these interventions come from an in-depth discussion with other team coaches at Professor Peter Hawkins’ Systemic Team Coaching* program.
1. Stop posing either/or questions and statements.
It is common to hear these types of questions when the group is making decisions: “Should we do X or Y?” But, this polarity creates a divisive situation for the group and does not allow for multiple parties to have their needs met.
Ask everyone to participate in finding a way to resolve the needs of everyone at the table. Remind yourself and your team of the needs of the stakeholders outside of the room: Who is this work in service of? What do they need your team to accomplish together?
2. Avoid making the person the problem.
It’s easy to place blame on individuals and be annoyed by their actions, but doing so gets us no closer to a solution.
Remind yourself that you are in a partnership with this person for the greater good of the organization. Consider renowned social psychologist Kurt Lewin’s formula about human behavior:
“Behavior is a function of the person and the environment.”
There may be a number of other things at play that have very little to do with your or the team’s work. If the problem persists, consider finding a third party who can help you and your colleague talk through the issues. Sometimes, just making the person aware that their behavior is disrupting is enough to spur change.
3. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.
In moments of excitement or frustration, we can forget how our work connects to the team or organization’s goals. Make sure to remember why we are doing this work and who it affects within and outside of the organization. When your goal is aligned with that of your clients and stakeholders, it’s easier to align on the rest of the work.
Compose a clear goal for the project or team and connect that goal to a larger “why” statement. Keep both the goal and why statement available to all team members. Add them to the top of every meeting agenda for reference and include a few minutes to review them as a team every few weeks.
You can also pose questions like, “How do our decisions impact other groups in the organization?” and “How do we communicate our decisions to others?” This is a good way to step back and intentionally bring in the perspectives not presented in the room.
Group Work in a New Light
Now think back to the feelings of frustration from group work at the start of this article. Imagine how great it would be to feel inspired and energized by group work instead of defeated by it. What if group work made you think, “This group helped me see new insights” or “I would not have been able to accomplish my work without the help of the team.”
With a change of mindset and small actions to enact change, you and your colleagues can be the team coaches that moves your work forward.
Do you think your team is ready for more? Share your stories and questions and I’m happy to share with you some additional questions I pose to groups when working with them as a team coach. You can also contact me directly.
*If you’re interested in the work of Professor Hawkins, check out this podcast and his book Leadership Team Coaching for more information.