Sometimes, in a leadership workshop, I’ll invite participants to tell a story which conveys the nature of the best job they’ve ever had. Nearly every time, they will describe a workplace or project where they and their colleagues achieved the impossible … where they overcame huge obstacles, or had to retrieve a ‘lost’ situation and turn things around, or deliver a result which they and their clients had thought was beyond anyone in that situation.
They will describe the setbacks, the doubts, and the unforeseen. And they will take us through how the team of which they were a part found strength and energy and creativity and determination together. They will give examples of how the team became more than the sum of the individual talents in it. And they will always describe how everyone (themselves included) contributed to the final success. Inevitably … they will tell us about the leadership in the team – sometimes emanating from the team leader or supervisor or manager, and sometimes from another colleague … someone who, in that moment, knew how to bring out the right information, the right focus, the mutual support.
I remember Alex, a middle manager in the IT branch of his company, describing how he and his workmates rose to the challenge of integrating two big and different management systems after a takeover … how 50 of them worked intensively for 14 hours a day for a month to meet the deadline. How, some nights, they ordered in pizzas, worked until a phase was complete, and even at times slept at the office in their sleeping bags. Their general manager was there too. Sometimes it was he who went out for the food, and paid for it himself.
And, in the telling of his story of this unforgettable time in his worklife, Alex realised, as he spoke, that both the general manager and his own immediate manager had in fact created the conditions – the dynamics – for this extraordinary achievement, for many months beforehand. Everyone already shared a sense of purpose. Everyone knew who they were working with, and that they could have a reasonable trust in each other to do their best … and they knew much of each others’ strengths already. They willingly put their ‘cards on the table’, with a level of honesty that Alex has not experienced anywhere else. They knew that they could find a way together through any difficulty, because the longer they worked together, the more they demonstrated this. They shared their feelings openly. They listened, both to ideas and feelings. And they had fun – the type of fun which sits in real relationships and in the work itself.
Mine would be about an action learning project I once facilitated. It ran for nearly 12 months, and centred on building different and superior practices for a group of professionals from several organisations. There were several residential workshops, run on small budgets, where participants shared in the cooking and cleaning jobs. Participants were contracted to plan and action their work in new ways. They met every 3 weeks for 2 to 3 hours to share their efforts, be challenged by each other, and often helped with new ideas by their colleagues too. Mostly, these meetings took place of an evening, at participants’ own homes. By the end, they could share their learnings and ideas in useful ways – particularly through story – with a wider circle of colleagues. Ultimately, their professional practice improved a lot, and they were able to seed innovations in their own organisations.
On reflection, I think that Alex was fortunate. He had a reference experience which has helped him in leading other teams in later jobs, in other companies. He had good models of what to do. Nevertheless, like most managers or team leaders, he has never had the opportunity to take a little time to learn how to lead a team well – how to create the enabling conditions for a strong, effective team, or how to sustain himself through times of uncertainty and conflict. Or where to best put his focus and energy so as to bring out the best that everyone in his team has to offer. Or how to build high quality connections with his colleagues, or between them. Or in how to arrange himself so he can be positive and helpful in a work environment where in truth everything is always changing, and just when he feels as though he has resolved hard issues, there are more appearing just days later.
Neuroscience suggests that in fact our brains operate like a ‘team of rivals’, with competing desires and patterns. I think our people systems – like teams, like our companies – are pretty much the same. Once we understand and accept this – even welcome this realisation – we can begin to learn how to arrange our thinking, our focus, and our skills, so we can work with these roiling and messy forces to create the dynamics we want. There are no guarantees, only better connections and engagements. This is how we can arm ourselves to deal together with a world of constant turmoil and uncertainty.
All this is learnable. Group dynamics are not actually controlable – not in the traditional sense anyway – but they are understandable. All of us can learn to maximise their effectiveness.
About David Green
David has been developing leaders for over 30 years and a good chunk of that time he has used narrative techniques. He specialises in running leadership programs that concentrate on team dynamics, building trust and learning how to say what you mean.
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