A Room Divided

How to respond when you realize your team has splintered.

How often do we find ourselves in a room divided?  Awkward silences, opinions held back, others spoken openly, passive aggressive comments, raised voices, crossed arms, and multi-tasking.   Scenes like this are not uncommon in competitive, results-driven environments. Today, it’s happening much more often in neighborhoods, churches, schools and nonprofit organizations as well.  In these groups, a mindset of serving others is part of the hiring criteria. And yet, we still can’t get along.

If we can’t reach consensus, how can we lead others?  We start wondering how we allowed things to get to this point.  Or, when was the turning point things started to break down? It’s unsettling to look around the room and notice we’re now two halves of what used to be a united whole.  And, it happened on our watch.

Good News:  It may be easier to resolve than you realize!

As a coach and consultant, I have the good fortune to see things from other perspectives.  At the start of an engagement, I enter typically as the objective outsider. I don’t know all the history so I’m unbiased and I have only my carry-on luggage, not years of baggage.  People know I’m only visiting so for the most part, their defenses don’t go up right away. I tend to get honest, unguarded responses in the very early days.

One of my favorite interventions (due to its simplicity) is to conduct team effectiveness interviews.  One-to-One interviews with every employee, summarize the themes and facilitate an action planning session.  As the work of capturing employee answers starts to take shape, themes begin to emerge. In a session last week, I was hearing the clues of what would come to be that divided room before the first coffee break.

Fast forward to the day when we’re all together to review the interview themes.  I’m always a little anxious for this day (sometimes in a good way, other times trepidatious).  When the team sees their interview responses in summary format, some words in large bold font to highlight how loudly they said it, will they own it?  Will they step into the proverbial ring and fight to improve?  Or will they sit rigidly? Or look aimlessly around the room non-verbally saying “Who little ole me?  I couldn’t have been so bold as to engage in truth telling.”

When the right foundation has been set, the magic happens.

To set the stage for a productive discussion with this team, I needed to warm things up.  Most adults dislike ice breakers but over the years, I’ve learned a few activities that both introverts and extroverts can enjoy.  I quickly had everyone out of their chairs, moving and gaining insight to what makes them tick individually while still coming together as a group.

After the warmup, I started to recap the ground we covered in the individual interviews the prior week.  I restated the purpose of the work we had ahead of us and gently reminded everyone what success would look like.  It was inspiring to see eight brave souls step into that ring. After simply illustrating their conflicted responses and highlighting the different experiences people are having at work, I paused for reaction.

It started slowly.  One brave person spoke a cautious word.  Seeing them survive, another voice raised an issue.  In a matter of minutes the opposite sides came to life.  The volume and tenor of voices began to rise with passion and energy.   “We need to stay focused on our work.” said an animated participant at the front of the room.   “The work isn’t our problem,” boomed a voice from the back.   Sound the alarms!!  Full blown honest conversation is happening here.

What happens when the moment of truth arrives?

This is the pivotal moment.  What will the Team Leader do?  Will she join in and support the honest conversation?  Will she own the leadership responsibility and recognize the team looks to her for the example of what is expected and respected?  Or will she sit silently, watch from the sidelines and let me do the heavy lifting for the team?

On this day, the Team Leader shined brightly for her team.  She role modeled actionable steps to take when you realize your team has splintered.

  1. She encouraged each employee to speak their peace.
  2. She asked thoughtful, probing questions to get to the heart of the issues.
  3. She found creative ways to draw out team members who were holding back.
  4. She leaned on me at times to offer an expert opinion and help resolve conflicts.
  5. She demonstrated extreme ownership of the team dynamics and created an environment for improvement.

Ah, Success!  This is what great leaders do.  

Paige Boyd
About the author: 

Paige is a trusted coach, consultant, and speaker.  Known for her authenticity and business acumen, she has collaborated and advised executives, leadership teams and professional organizations across multiple industries.  Her corporate & non-profit life includes a 10-year sales and consulting career before moving to Senior HR roles at the invitation of clients who valued her insight and capability. After 13 years in Senior Leadership of Corporate HR at Asurion and Nissan North America, she founded SpeakingChange.  Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.