Leaders Don’t Fix Teams. Teams Fix Teams
When I meet a new CEO or team leader, I usually hear one of two points of view that I call “The Overfunction” and “The Exemption”. Let me show you an example of each. Ask yourself: does this sound like me?
The Overfunction: “I feel bad. The team struggles so much, and I don’t know what to do anymore to help. They seem incapable of helping themselves. I’ve tried the small and easy things I thought would help, but they don’t. I even yelled at them once. Honestly, more than once. It was a setback. I’m tired. I’ve tried everything I know. Now what?”
The Exemption: “Those people frustrate me. They seem incapable of working outside their silos. They’re locked in conflict. I am NOT going to babysit them. They’re adults who get paid way too much to act like children. Shouldn’t they be able to do all this without me? Fix them, please.”
Leaders Don’t Fix Teams
These leaders are locked into mental models that contribute to the team being stuck. I chart different paths with each of them.
To the Overfunctioning Leader: “I appreciate that you feel bad about this. It sounds like you’ve tried quite a bit. But that’s a fool’s errand, you know. Believing you can fix them. You can’t, and I can’t. Each of these people has their individual thresholds for how much trust is enough, including their own story for what it feels like to sit at this table. The only way forward is to see yourself and all team members as an intact ecosystem. It will take all of you invested in this process to begin understanding what’s going on and experimenting with new ways of acting with each other.”
To the Self-Exempting Leader: “Ah, I hear your frustration. Who wouldn’t be? But they’ve shown you they have difficulty moving forward without you. It sounds like you’re exempting yourself from the problem and laying it all on them. But that’s unfair. You, too, are part of the problem and the potential solution. If you can’t see them with you as a whole, if you can’t see your leadership as something they consume, they will remain stuck. This is a full team effort, and that includes you.”
Teams Fix Teams
It boils down to this: The team - including the leader - is the only thing that can “fix” a team. The “system” must engage the system. Once that fact is established, all manner of other things can begin to happen.
In both cases, The Overfunction and the Exemption, the path forward is to engage in dialogue. You may ask, "Dialogue about what?". My answer: whatever is your most important conversation. Here are a few examples of what that may sound like..."
“We’re at risk of failing at important things because this team, including me, can’t find a way to resolve conflict. This makes me feel anxious.”
“It pains me that I hear side stories from this team that many of you can’t trust each other. Why aren’t we talking about this openly altogether?”
“I get that you’re confused about many recent changes. I’d like to help us all find clarity.”
“I’m embarrassed that I haven’t found just the right ways to lead you all yet. I have work to do. But we all have work to do on this together.”
“I’m starting to see that we are more interdependent in our work than I realized, but that our collaboration isn’t strong enough yet to get us where we need to be. Is that something you also think?”
Resist the temptation to either Overfunction or to Exempt yourself from the team’s struggles. It will take everyone on the team to engage in your most important conversations, even if those seem fraught or frightening. Whatever good things come next for your team will be hard-earned when everyone shows up to tackle the team dynamics together.
This team can fix this team.