I’ve worked with a number of teams over the years. Built-from-scratch teams, in-place teams I’ve inherited and teams that have grown organically with me over a long period. In all cases, people have interesting dynamics when they operate in a team, but despite their ability to amaze me with their individualism, teams always seem to go through 4 stages as they react to a new leader.
Apathy - “I don’t need anyone but me”
The first stage of team behaviour is that of apathy. Apathy for the users’ desires, the team’s needs and the leader’s instructions. Apathy is most prominent in teams where my predecessor has been absent. That absentia can be physical (no leader at all), mental (leader with the skills or ability) or, the most damaging, emotional (the leader doesn’t respect or value the team or their opinions). An apathetic team is group of individuals working in parallel. Often there are violent personality clashed between ‘team’ members and as a whole the group has stopped working to any common purpose.
So what do you do with an apathetic team: you listen, you listen some more and then you set and reinforce some expectations. Listening to all the concerns and the history that has come before allows you to establish the ground rules. You will learn about what is being done that’s a sore spot with some. You will learn about people’s history and how they think things should be done. You will learn about perceptions, true or false, about team members’ abilities. In short, when there is no team, people are very quick to complain about everyone else. Through this process I always hear about behaviours, habits or processes that I don’t like and that I want to change. I pick 3 or 4 that I think are particularly detrimental behaviours and I’m always careful to pick at least one that the ‘team’ does to others, one that other do to the team and one that the team does amongst itself. For each of these, I set some expectations about what must happen going forward in terms of communication lines and behaviours. And then I start to reinforce those expectations ensuring that they’re met politely, but firmly.
Aggression - “I don’t need anyone to micro-manage me”
For team building, its very important to pick the “one that others do to the team” well. That’s the one that allows you to defend the team. Its not usually a good idea to setup “us vs. them” rivalries but odds are good that those rivalries already exist and so to play on them to develop the sense of team is useful. But the issue you choose to use has to be one that you strongly believe is an unacceptable behaviour, typically one showing disrespect. Its important to pick one you strongly believe in, that’s a reasonable expectation and one you can defend because this will be your line in the sand…you can’t be seen to back down or you will never develop the respect of your team. If you can frame it in a win-win scenario with the ‘others’ (as likely as not, they’re behaviour is in response to some perceived slight by your team), you will garner respect on both sides. Defending your team, as an entity will begin the process of having them see themselves as a team with you as someone they can follow.
But soon enough, you will need to apply the same level of firm correction with the members of your own team either as they work with the others or work amongst the team. For some members, this will be a welcome guidance to making the work world a better place. For others, this will seem as a dismissing of their abilities, a questioning of their integrity or intelligence or abilities or all three. This perception will have the person respond to you aggressively. Often times active management is misinterpreted as _micro-_management. This aggressive response, I’ve learned, is largely borne of an emotional fear: how can I trust you if you don’t trust me. Communication that the enforcement of the expectations isn’t a criticism (or at least a constructive criticism) is vital. Your team needs to know that you will consistently advocate for them and that your expectations are reasonable and consistent and then the aggression will taper off. This is often the longest phase in leading team, but if done right, will cement a team forever.
Acknowledgement - “Here are the options, what should we do?”
Once you’re through the aggression phase, or at least as you move through the aggression phase, the team will begin asking you to make the decisions. This isn’t an expectations that you understand the details. This isn’t an expectation that you can come up with the options. This is purely a need for someone else to make the decision. While initially that request could come from a sense of “let him take the fall if it’s a bad decision,” fundamentally the request comes from the fact that the decision needs to coordinate the efforts of more than one team member, and the team is unable to work to a decision collaboratively.
But a decision can’t be autocratic, even when asked for. This is another feedback loop in the “prove to me I can trust you” phase. Again, you listen, then listen some more. Sometimes, based on other factors, you listen and decide on what you see as the ‘right’ decision. The effect of that decision will come later, not because it was right or wrong, but how accountable you are later if the decision is wrong or how supportive you are if decision is right. Sometimes, too, there is no ‘right’ decision so then what? Well, in most cases, there is a solution that the team _wants_to do, but need permission to do so. That’s not hard to figure out, so ask enough questions (like “what’s the easiest solutions”) to figure that out, then go with that. Allowing the team to come up with the solution that they feel is right but exonerating them of the accountability of making the decision is an excellent training tool for collaborative team decision making, and is an excellent stepping stone to the final stage.
Assurance - “Here are the options, we’re going to do this, ok?”
The final stage of team development is that of a self-assured, largely autonomous, collaborative entity. The decisions are largely made before they get to you, you’re just there for assurance. The initial forms of this stage sound like “we’re planning on A, and just want to make sure”, “because of X,Y & Z, we’ve decided to B. See any issues with that?”, or “do you know of any reason why we shouldn’t C?” You’ll know your team is metamorphosing into this phase when the bulk of the language around designs, plans and decisions is phrase with “We”s rather than “I”s. To some, the transition into this phase begins with “I know if we ask, his decision will likely be this.” The team collectively allows you to be the token of their collective decision. In others, a spokesperson responsible for guiding the team collaboration appears and the team self-organizes into some form of decision structure. However it happens, consistency up to this point is essential, or they won’t trust you to reinforce their decision. Consistency going forward is also important: you must be able to stand by the decisions they make and defend the decision to any number of nay-sayers.
I’m working with a team right now that is somewhere between Aggression and Acknowledgement. I’m seeing the team begin to work together to come to decisions. They begin to work together to solutions, too, rather than blame the others and go it on their own. The aggression is still there, now and then, and they don’t always trust me, especially when that trust is in turn reliant on some who have a track-record of falling down, but we’re building. I was thrilled to see the speed with which this team came from Apathy to Acknowledgement and I eagerly await the next stage.