Have you ever been on a team of very capable people that is struggling to be effective due to unresolved conflicts, judgements and misunderstandings between them? Have you seen issues that should be raised in team meetings are instead complained about outside of the meetings in virtual chats or by the water cooler and never resolved? As a result your experience of your team, especially in meetings is disconnected, stressful and largely unproductive. Yes? Then please read on.
Teams are made up of complicated dynamics. You are working with several people — each with their own versions or reality, issues, moods, personality and agendas. I share that to be effective, a team benefits from learning how the team's state of mind has got everything to do with their collective experience. State of mind is our moment-to-moment experience of life as generated by our thinking and feelings. When a team grasps this fundamental behind the team dynamics at play, they have greater understanding on how to work effectively as a team with clarity. Let me tell you about one of my toughest team coaching assignments to explain what I mean.
I was initially brought into this company — a sales and distribution operation selling household goods — to talk with its CEO, Peter (not his real name). Part of a large multinational, the New Zealand operation had about 50 employees, and Peter had been promoted to his role from within about three years previously. However, he felt there was a lack of enthusiasm in the company, and with absenteeism high he told me he wanted to re-energise the company’s culture. As part of the process, I not only talked with Peter, but with his direct reports. They told me they thought Peter was the problem — that he was difficult, moody, aggressive and inconsistent. And when I talked with other people in the organisation, they, told me the problem was the poorly functioning senior management team.
What immediately struck me was the team lacked energy and seemed defeated. Peter said he wanted to re-energise the company culture, yet there was no energy in him or in any of his team. So, as well as embarking on coaching for Peter, I began a coaching the seven-member leadership team. In talking to them one on one it was clear the team were struggling, upset and emotional. I knew before any progress could be made the team needed to have clearer minds, learn to be more connected, less judgmental and more open to each other. I decided to take them offsite and create a space where they could be open and connect beyond their upset thinking. After all, if they wanted to create a positive culture, they needed to start with how they were showing up as a team themselves.
It was on the first day of our offsite meeting that it became apparent just how poor the state of mind of the team was. One team member was angry and feeling put out after being treated unfairly by Peter. Another was distrustful because he hadn’t been properly communicated with about a change in his role following a company re organisation. There was one who spoke up, ostensibly on behalf of the team, but really just voicing her own opinions and frustrations. Then there was someone who had simply given up after sitting through meeting after meeting and observing nothing in the company had changed. There were a couple more members as well, each with their own ‘poor me’ story.
I started the day discussing the role of state of mind in great teams. Despite emphasisng the importance of a clear state of mind on understanding, listening, trust and connection, the message wasn’t getting through. Each member of the team was feeling sorry for themselves and thought their problems were someone else’s — mostly Peters, the CEO’s — fault. It’s true Peter needed to seriously develop his communication skills. But the team had become fixated on this issue, judgmental and ignoring other, more positive aspects of his character. By the end of that first day the team was in a bad way and had become caught up on a particular issue they thought Peter had handled badly. I could see they were stuck in their negative thinking and conflict was brewing. In that state of mind it was going to be unproductive for them to have it out.
It's important that teams can handle conflict to be effective. No two people on this earth can have thoughts that are exactly alike, any more than any two snowflakes have the same structure. As we are all experiencing life through our thoughts and feelings in the moment, then logically we must be having a different experience from every other person. This diversity of thought is the potential for collective wisdom and the source of innovation, creativity that can solve any problems we face. We want contested ideas to create new solutions to our business problems. But if we don't factor in our state of mind we can get into trouble.
The truth is it’s hard for any team to see eye to eye when we have lost our clarity of thought. We lose clarity when we get busy in our heads and hold onto thoughts or beliefs rigidly. Or when we take others opinions personally because they are not the same as our strongly held thoughts or beliefs. When we hold on tightly to these thoughts we make it impossible to see another persons point of view. We are too busy minded to make room for it. If we have judgmental thoughts we will defend, if we have angry thoughts, we will blame others, if we have insecure thoughts we will withdraw. When this happens the team experience a loss of connection and understanding, they are fighting their corner and not listening to each other. We know that this is unproductive use of team time.
When we wake up to this, we have the opportunity to regain our bearings and reconnect with our own inner wisdom and look for a clearer mind. It would occur to us to pause the discussion and turn our attention to the state of mind of the team. Asking ourselves: are we listening to each other, are we open to different points of view, are we asking the right questions, are we tapping into the wisdom and intelligence of the team? There is no doubt more minds in the room are almost always better – IF they are clear and connected.
So back to the offsite. I called an early end to the discussion. Firstly, I explained what I saw was happening in the team around their unclear state of mind. I suggested because we were about to go out to a lovely dinner, which would be spoiled if they were worked up and angry, that we best leave the discussion until the morning. I explained this was a great opportunity for them to see their team's state of mind at work. All day I’d been talking about how how this impacts the team, yet only now I saw the penny had dropped. They had been so focused and lost in their own negative thoughts they hadn’t considered the impact their state was having on the rest of the group and that as a result they were missing out on the collective wisdom of the team. They offered that if they wanted to have an enjoyable evening together they could choose to do just that. So, we called it a day and ended up having an incredible dinner. For the first time, the team focused on their connection, being together and enjoying each other's company.
When we reconvened the next morning, it was obvious things had shifted. Yesterday they had been focused on themselves, their upset thinking and apportioning blame. Not on what they were trying to achieve as a team — a re-energised culture — so, of course, that goal had eluded them. Now with the awareness of a clearer state of mind they could move forward with connection and openness. There was an ease and a lightness present in the room. ‘What do we need to work on to be an effective team?’ they began asking. It was fantastic to see them start to work together from that state of mind.