The puzzle of team dynamics

The puzzle

Teamwork is a puzzle that is constantly changing. Pieces move, grow, shrink, behaviours and attitudes evolve. It is easy to think a functioning team will remain so.

In my experience of working with both healthy and the most dysfunctional teams, it is the leaders focus that is the defining factor. Most of my clients come to me because they understand the value of healthy, aligned and engaged teams. They want it and they know that they need help in achieving it.

These leaders are generally new in role and want to build a solid foundation of success. They see the jigsaw puzzle complete in their vision with all the pieces fitting together to on a solid table. They invest the time, money and energy making the puzzle pieces fit and then hope results will follow. The problem is, unlike real life jigsaws, teams are fluid and every changing.

The ground you stand on might not feel solid as the environment changes. Some of the pieces might change shape and not quite fit as perfectly as they once did. Some of the pieces may jump out and decide they want to join a different puzzle and the leader panics and grabs any piece to complete the puzzle. Some pieces stick to others so tightly that they seem to form a clique and don’t want to fit with the other pieces. All the while, the leader has been focusing on new horizons, opportunities and maybe a little firefighting. The minute they stop focusing on team health, the team puzzle disintegrates.

The Leaders Mistake

Teams are in a constant state of change and flow. Even the most established and healthy teams can find themselves out of sync without any prior warning and for the most simplistic reasons.

Sometimes, the most enormous changes can galvanise a team and pull everyone’s into deeper, more connected teamwork.

The mistake I see most leaders make is the lazy assumption that if the team is working now, it will always work and they stop focusing on team dynamics until something goes wrong.

The central question

The one question I hear from my clients is this, “Why can’t they just do what they are supposed to do and take some responsibility?” The leaders understand the theory of people, teams and culture, and theoretically know that healthy teams lead to solid foundations for future sustainability and growth.

Yet, they often put more energy into the business of doing business and short-term results that, after the initial team building focus, they shift their attention elsewhere. They focus targets, results, operational issues, systems, processes and all of the smart stuff. What they really need to focus on in equal measure is teamwork. They need to focus on relationships, conflicts, motivations, values and all of the human elements of healthy teams.

And here we are in 2022/23 and the landscape of most organisations looks completely different. The environment is unstable, the team dynamics are more fluid, team members are coming and going at a far greater pace and bringing their thoughts, feelings and emotions more fully. This is not going to change, but it can be a great opportunity for team health. It can be used to redesign the jigsaw and create a new, beautiful, 3D (or virtual reality), vibrant and productive version of the team. It can lead to the best team you have ever worked in. It can lead to results, and a feeling of hope, safety and certainty. It can create a sense of belonging where every member can achieve their potential. It can do all of that, if the leader makes teamwork their focus.

I am going to tell you a story about one clients 2021 jigsaw mess and how they led themselves to create something better than existed before.

A case study

It was Summer 2021. In the UK, companies were bringing people back together as Freedom Day appeared. There was an excitement in the air that would bring forth business as usual and some form of normality and familiarity to our lives. An established client kicked of the first session of a leadership development programme via zoom with the plan to do the rest face to face. I was excited. The CEO was excited.

We assumed everyone else would be. We were wrong. The first workshop was a disaster. The core team itself had been together for 3 years. Before the pandemic, they had started to get into a healthy rhythm and had invested time in building relationships and understanding each other. They invested in the human within the team as much as the business outputs. With the optimism of returning to face to face working albeit it in a hybrid way, it was time to get everyone back together and refocus the team on the future of the organisation.

Session one was virtual with the focus on the present. I organised discussions around where are they now, where do they want to be as a team and as a business and importantly, what would get in the way. I wanted them to do a deep dive into all of the brilliant things that had been achieved over the past couple of years, lock

that in, celebrate a little and look at the opportunities to build on them. I also asked them to be clear about what didn’t work well, what didn’t feel like ease and to be honest about what needed to change. And that was my first disaster. Although the team had been working together remotely, I soon discovered that they had never been so disconnected. All of that brilliant work done before had become undone.

None of the jigsaw pieces fit anymore. Every interaction they had had in the past year had been about work. Each conversation had been focused on problems, targets and the endless to do list. They had forgotten about the human behind the job title. Now they had achieved some amazing work but none of that meant anything if the people didn’t feel appreciated, valued or like they belonged. Where once there had been passion and motivation, now I saw resentment and endless to do list, unrealistic output expectations and the negative emotional states. This team had never been so fragile.

Members were guarded with one another; trust was low, and each challenge was received as a personal attack. When other members jumped to defend others, huge cliques were being formed and grudges were building. I then asked, when was the last time you people actually talked about anything other than work and no one could remember. Personal relationships were erased, and formal, business-like relationships were all that was left.

How could any team focus on rebuilding when they didn’t trust each other? Where was the compassion and kindness for one another? Before they could rebuild the business, they needed to reform as a team.

The lesson here is to never stop focusing on the human element of a team. As leaders, your attention needs to be on the people, the relationships and team health. Without that, results can’t be certain. As soon as you notice the team being out sync or something seems a bit off, act. This is where you need to lead with your heart, trust your intuition, notice nuances in behaviours, read the body language, notice small changes. Then act. Don’t assume that things will work themselves out because generally they will, but in a very unhealthy and toxic way. Don’t make that mistake.

No matter how painful the “My Present” discussions are, they are necessary. I am always honest about how uncomfortable this stage of team formation can be. Members assume that everything is working fine because they are settled into the norming stage. The discomfort arises when members realise that what is normal is neither healthy, efficient or productive and that everyone has a part to play in that dysfunction. The artificial harmony hides the low level, passive conflict which is just as stressful and painful as the less common open conflict. Coming back together again means taking the individual jigsaw pieces and forming a new, healthier picture of the team.

And so, to phase 2 of the team. I invited the team into a room, away from the office, on neutral territory. It wasn’t plain sailing since 2 critical members, including the CEO, were isolating and had to appear by video. This was hybrid in action. I set the scene in a kind, truthful and transparent way. I shared what I saw, what I felt and empathised sincerely with everyone in the team. I explained that before March 2020, this team was engaging, trusting and aligned. Now what I saw before me was a group of individuals who arrived at the previous session, tired, wary and with their guards up. I shared how unprepared I was for this change and how sad and frustrated I was for all of them. I told them how sad I was to read some of the feedback comments about feeling alone and isolated. Others had shared how they were working 10–15-hour days at home and it was impacting their personal relationships. The comment that I was most upset by was by was anonymous member who shared that in the past 12 months her mother had been seriously ill and not one person in this team knew. Why? Because no one asked her how she was. There was never any small talk, coffee chats or check in calls. There was only business.

I invited the CEO to share their thoughts, and most importantly, their vision for the team in the future. They humbly admitted where they had failed and promised to do more and be more in the future. The CEO created an inspiring goal that everyone could now focus on. By showing our vulnerability, we opened a trusting space where others could be too. Members saw us as humans, emotional, feeling creatures too. Now, together, we were ready to have some real conversations. What happened during the rest of the day was transformational. Where before the team had focused on endless tasks, updated and weekly targets, now they could dare to dream about a better future and could be part of its creation.

I shared this story because this is a scenario that I have witnessed repeating itself, team to team, company to company, sector to sector. Everyone has been operating at sprint pace and now it is time to recalibrate, consolidate and shift to marathon pace. Leaders need to raise their head out of the weeds and lead ahead once more. How they lead now, shows others how to be.

The keys lessons for leaders are:

  • Change your pace for the long game.
  • Be honest about what is here now.
  • Paint a compelling picture of what a healthy team looks like.
  • Give others the space to share their thoughts, feelings and opinions.
  • Be humble and appreciate the difficult times we have all experienced.
  • Lead with empathy and compassion.
  • Be honest, be kind and be open.
  • Remember that we are all humans first.
  • Include everyone in the solution
  • Recalibrate, reform and consolidate.

It took this team 2 days to really shift from the old to the new. Member emotionally invested themselves in the vision because doing nothing was more painful. 2 members decided to leave. They saw the vision and decided for themselves that this wasn’t the future for them. As leaders, this can feel like failure. It is not. You want only the people who are emotionally and ideologically invested in your vision to come with you. Those that self-select to leave are doing so because they are not aligned. It is your opportunity to attract new members to the team that want what you want, and the team will be stronger for it.

Now is the time to refocus your team, your organisation. It is an opportunity to enthuse and excite once more. It creates hope for people that has been lacking for so long now. And my advice is to make this an annual event. Draw a line though the past, take forward the strengths and lessons and focus on the next year, phase or era for your team. It’s time to create your legacy.