How you interact as a team impacts how you think about your business. If your team’s interactions are becoming predictable or languishing in a flat line, it might be time to stir things up. These four strategies can break stale habits in your team and raise the temperature in your meetings: First, be grounded in purpose. Before jumping in to change team dynamics, explain why. Reminding yourself and others about purpose keeps the focus on what the group is trying to achieve and reduces hurt feelings and drama. Second, describe behavioral data. Observe what behaviors are flying under the radar in your meetings and mention them to the team, so they’re aware. Third, invite multiple interpretations of why these behaviors are happening. Finally, disrupt defaults. use that new knowledge of the dynamics at play and why they’re happening to break familiar patterns.
We often consider ourselves lucky if we’re on a team with little conflict and minimal office politics. When a team works together for a long time, they find a rhythm of collaborating and fall into regular patterns of behavior, minimizing disagreements. But over time, this habitual way of working can limit the team’s performance. We don’t often step back to assess if the team dynamics that we consider “good” are getting in the way of generating breakthrough ideas and results.
For instance, think about your last team meeting. Did everyone get along? Could you predict who was going to speak up and what they were going to say? Was there any disagreement? Do you feel you heard from everyone, or just a select few?
How you interact as a team impacts how you think about your business. If your team’s interactions are becoming predictable or languishing in a flat line, it might be time to stir things up. Just as boiling water changes state from liquid to gas, innovating at work requires us to raise the temperature — to boil water at work.
Raising the temperature in your team meetings means creating enough productive tension through diversity and dissension to stimulate different ideas. Most of us want to (too) quickly drive to consensus and quash divergent points of view before they even surface. Holding out on converging in itself is uncomfortable. Bringing up ideas against the organization’s conventional thinking, is difficult. But inserting a pause to think differently provides necessary provocation to up our game.
To break stale habits in your team and raise the temperature in your meetings, use these four key strategies:
Be grounded in purpose.
Creating productive tension is dangerous and messy work. The only reason to risk being on the edge and inviting others to join you there is for the right purpose.
Be explicit about the reason you are raising the heat, so others don’t accuse you of taking potshots at the team or questioning their work. You could say, “If our purpose is to double our numbers this year, the thinking that leads us to our current figures is unlikely to transform our results. Let’s change the way we’re interacting and brainstorming ideas.” Reminding yourself and others about purpose keeps the focus on what the group is trying to achieve and reduces hurt feelings and drama.
Describe behavioral data.
Observe what behaviors are flying under the radar in your meetings. For example, I have mentioned during several executive retreats, “In all four breakout groups women took notes and men presented.” Or I might say, “After two hours in this session, 17 of 43 people have not yet spoken.” These are small interventions that increase awareness of the dynamics in the room.
The data often reveal patterns: who opens the conversation, reactions to specific individuals, who interrupts whom and when. Call out patterns with specific data points, such as, “In the last 30 minutes, whenever someone from the production group has spoken, they have been interrupted by an engineer,” or “I’ve noticed that each time someone brings up the schedule delay, someone else immediately offers an explanation, but no one offers a solution.” By illuminating the data and the patterns at play, you help the group check assumptions, break out of their ruts, and increase creativity.
Invite multiple interpretations.
The more surprising your data, the more important it is that you invite others to interpret its multiple possible meanings. Ask team members to share their own thoughts about why certain team dynamics are at play. Often our first interpretation — and the action we take based upon it — comes from the narrow angle of the view afforded to us by where we sit in the organization or our particular agenda. For instance, if the production team members are repeatedly interrupted by engineers, the group could interpret it in different ways, such as:
- The engineers are feeling defensive since they were slower to provide a working product.
- The engineers are higher up in the organization and feel they can interrupt others.
- The engineering team is trying to share a recent breakthrough with the production team.
- The last time there was a delay, the engineering group was blamed, even though fault belonged in multiple places.
- The engineers are trying to support the production team by jumping in to provide supporting data.
Often groups are mired in misunderstandings and conflict lurking in a single interpretation. Such stories often involve an us-vs.-them narrative in which we are the wronged party. Listening to our colleagues’ interpretations may reveal a very different set of assumptions instead of ill intent — assumptions that might be just as valid as our own. Exposing different perceptions broadens everyone’s understanding of the underlying problem. With a more comprehensive diagnosis, we can design a more robust solution.
Once the team notices their default behaviors and shares various possible reasons for them, everyone will have a clearer view of how they are being perceived. Use that new knowledge to break familiar patterns.
For example, I was running a C-suite offsite where Raul, the head of product, was always the first to speak. Over time, this resulted in the CTO becoming quieter, and the CFO often engaging Raul in a debate detracting from the main topic. After I pointed out this pattern, Raul vowed to be silent on a subject until at least two others had spoken. Initially others started to participate more — until we had a controversial question. There was silence. The group defaulted to their familiar behavior, deferring to Raul. But given his resolution to hold off speaking first, he held back. Eventually, the COO offered a novel idea that excited the team. Using our interpretations of data and patterns, we can reset our defaults to reduce dysfunction and enhance contributions.
Whether you need to transform your team dynamics or disrupt conventional thinking to change business results, breaking out of your team’s patterns of behavior can be just what you need to create breakthrough ideas and new opportunities.