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Team dynamics

"Teams can be places of professional excellence and a source of fulfillment. It's a good idea to review your team dynamics from time to time to stay on a positive track."

Teams can be great places to work and a source of professional fulfilment and wellbeing. They can give us a valued role, provide inspiration and learning, and be a cause for celebration. Supportive and friendly colleagues can increase our enjoyment and our resilience.

But teams can get into habits that drain our energy and make us less effective. Some unhelpful team dynamics are obvious - you may find yourself resolving conflict between two people for example. But there are also more subtle processes at work that are worth watching out for, and reviewing through regular team discussion and addressing if they are starting to be unhelpful:

Team norms

Over time, every group settles into its own pattern of behaviour. Usually quite unconsciously. For example:

  • People regularly turn up late without having read the papers, so presentations have to start with a long introduction.
  • People get on so well there’s a tendency to smooth over differences between people’s views with a bit of humour.

This kind of behaviour can be a particular challenge for successful teams. Unconsciously, successful teams close ranks. They start to assume that everything they do is right. They stop listening to contrary views from inside or outside the team. There is evidence that groups are more confident about their decisions than individuals – even when the decisions are wrong.

Unspoken norms can be an obstacle to open discussion and good team decision-making. The solution is to step back from time to time and spend time reviewing the way the team is working.

Social loafing

There is plenty of evidence that we get lazy in teams:

  • Because someone else will step up and talk, we take it easy and sit back.
  • Because a team member is particularly enthusiastic about a way forward, we go along with it, although we’re not sure it’s right.

(In the jargon, this is known as the diffusion of responsibility in groups. If we see someone on the street who needs help, we are less likely to go to their assistance if we are in a group than if we would if we were on our own.)

The larger the group, the bigger the problem.

And if it becomes widespread, team effectiveness drops. To avoid it you need to keep meetings sharp and people involved. Make your meetings as short as possible (why not have them standing up – there’s evidence that works) and relevant.

Taboo subjects

Sometimes people are well aware of a particular dynamic in a group. They talk about it privately outside team meetings. But no-one is prepared to discuss it in the team, give direct feedback to the team member causing the problem, or raise it with the team leader.

It is undiscussable; a taboo subject. What’s worse, its undiscussability is undiscussable.

Sometimes the cause is well-intentioned and any feelings of anxiety mild:

  • Carol joined the team right at the start as IT lead but the project has changed, and she doesn’t have the level of specialist IT knowledge the team needs. She flies in especially from the other side of the world. Privately, people are muttering about the expense but no-one confronts it because they can get round the problem by hiring extra local IT expertise.

Sometimes the anxiety amounts to fear:

  • Fred says too much, too loudly and talks over everybody. No-one interrupts him even when he’s gone way off the point, because of his volatile temper. He may not realise the negative impact he’s having.

There is understandable apprehensiveness and fear of conflict behind these silences. We have a range of “tricks” to help us avoid the discussion – pretending the issue doesn’t matter, waiting to see if anyone else raises it and so on. But these defensive routines get in the way of effective team performance. They are also undermining the openness and trust in the team.

For the team leader, the most difficult kind of performance management is called for. You have to find the courage to discuss the issues with the individuals concerned, and rebuild a culture of openness and candid discussion in the team.

If it’s too much to handle on your own, think about involving an experienced external coach. They can conduct a more objective team review, and get issues discussed in a way that is just not feasible for a participating team member.

Quick Tip for teams

Why not review the way your team is working at the moment? Spending one of your regular meetings on this will help you take stock of all the topics covered on this website, tell you what you are doing well (and can celebrate!) and give you suggestions for how you can solve any problems that may be developing.