The Dysfunctional Team I: Introduction & The Kick-off

This entry is part 1 of 7 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

This series of posts covers a fictional struggling software development team. The story is based on situations I have experienced, seen myself or heard about in the past two decades.

Each post covers several scenes that play out between the members of the team. In later posts we will also reflect on behaviors and what could be improved.

Let’s jump straight into the story.

The Kick-off

Sally enters the pantry as one of the last people to join. She has a brief flashback to when she first started working here five years ago. As a junior developer at the time, she was welcomed by the members of a prior team, right here in this pantry. The warm atmosphere and collaborative vibe were what attracted her to this place. All of the members of that first team since moved on to either other teams or other companies. For Sally, now grown into a senior back-end developer role, this day too marks the beginning of something new.

“I am happy that we finally have this kick-off meeting”, Max says raising his glass. “We could not have done it without our founding heroes Sally and Alice.” Sally blushes slightly, but feels conflicted about Max’s flattery. The truth is that she is deeply conflicted about Max. On the one hand: he is new, seems likeable, and is not a bad speaker. On the other hand she just feels upset: why wasn’t she offered his position? She is not sure what she can expect from him. Is this really going to work, did we really need to attract someone external to the company to lead this new team? Isn’t that something she could have done?

Sally fleetingly looks at Paul standing next to Max. Paul started here around the time she started too, some five years ago. Paul is a good guy. Sally remembers stepping into his office several months ago together with Alice to convince him that they should start a new team. He listened to the both of them and gave them ample space to make their case. All of that effort finally led to this kick-off moment.

Champagne

“Two years ago, no one could have dreamed that this app, made during a three day hackathon, would become so successful. Sadly, everyone who initially worked on it has moved onto different pastures. The fools”, Max winks. A few of the attendees release some nervous laughter.
“Apps were not our core business, so this project has shifted hands at least three times as I’ve picked up in my short time being here. No longer will this be the case as finally we have a dedicated team consisting of the five of us. Today we kick-off team Phoenix!” Like everyone else, Sally claps. She raises her glass and gulps down the bitter champagne.

Sally sees Paul step forward: “I just want to add that although apps are indeed not our core business, we do see the traffic that the app generates contributes a great deal to our baseline. I am really happy and proud to have been part of this effort to get this team off the ground, with indeed a special nod to Sally and Alice who brought this potential to my attention initially.”

That’s what she wanted to hear. Paul’s open endorsement combats the bitter taste in Sally’s mouth: his words actually mean something to her. Still, why did he hire Max for the lead position?

A Short Party

As Sally lets Paul’s words sink in, Tim walks up to her.
“Can I get you a refill?”
“Uhm, I am good … on second thought, can you swap it out for a coke?”
Tim nods and together they walk off to the nearby fridge.
“How’s your first week?”, Sally asks.
“Yeah, it’s nice here, I really like the project and some of the new technologies I will get to learn. I hope to really make a difference here.”
“If your technical interview was any indication, that should not be a problem. Happy to hear you like it so far!”
Unlike for Max, Sally had been involved in Tim’s interview process and was impressed by his solid technical skills. Even though he had a string of short-lived start-ups on his resume, his down to earth mentality jelled well with both her and Alice. Sally realized that a capable devops engineer is crucial for stabilizing an app like this. There are few of those. Hence, Tim was an easy hiring recommendation for her.

Sally is in the middle of her next question when Bob interrupts them. Without so much as acknowledging her presence, he flips open his laptop in front of Tim and starts pointing at a graph on the screen.
“Do you see this Tim?”
The awkwardness of the situation does not escape Tim as he briefly makes eye contact with Sally before walking off with Bob.
“Sorry, it looks like we are having a production problem”.

Sally let’s out a deep sigh as she twirls around the last bit of coke in her glass while she paces around the fridge. Alice approaches her.
“You look like you’re in deep thought”, Alice says. “Happy with the kick-off so far?”
“Yeah, I guess so”, Sally replies while she shrugs.

Next

In the next post we will fast forward into the future to two weeks after the kick-off meeting to see where Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim, a.k.a. Team Phoenix, stand.

References

  1. Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable.
  2. Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The Fearless Organization.

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The Dysfunctional Team II: Safety & Trust

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

This series of posts covers a fictional struggling software development team. Use the navigation on the right to jump between the various chapters of the story.

Two weeks have passed since the kick-off and team Phoenix has really started. Let’s take a look one of the first planning sessions of Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim.

Follow the Leader

Alice knows she is late. Briskly she walks up the stairs, her heart racing and her hands clasped. Praying that everybody else is late too, she cuts a corner into the hallway. When she finally reaches the meeting room, she glimpses her watch. Fuck, ten past ten. She opens the door and tries to silently sneak in at the back. Clearly the meeting is in full progress. She looks at Max in the front. Did she just see his eyes rolling or did she just imagine it? He does not seem to pay attention to her and continues speaking.

“I really think that you guys should do stand-ups in front of the scrum board and walk through all the tasks on the board.”
“Why?”, Sally replies. “We have been doing it by just telling what we did yesterday and what we are going to do today, and it’s been working fine. This is a team decision right?”
“I am also part of the team, and I am saying that we should walk through the tasks,” Max responds.
“Are you saying that as a product owner? I mean the process needs to work for all of us, not just for the product owner.”

Excluded

Alice, now firmly seated at the far end of the table, scratches her throat in preparation to speak up. Everyone’s eyes turn to her. Her hands tremble as she puts down the glass of water she just poured herself.
“Look guys, I am not comfortable with you discussing processes like this without me. This is the first meeting to reshape our processes, why didn’t you wait for me to start?”
“Maybe because you have been late for every meeting over the past week?” Tim snaps back, briefly looking away from his laptop screen.
“Yes well, I was talking to a designer, he is giving me a really hard time, and without him finishing his work we can’t start to structurally improve the front-end of the app, can we?”
Tim doesn’t look up from his screen, even though Alice is clearly speaking to him. Who does he think he is? Alice wonders. He’s always buried with his head in his laptop, nobody believes he’s actually mentally attending the meeting. Meanwhile, Alice works her ass of to get this team off the ground and incorporate some actual novel features in the app.

The meeting continues. Alice thinks she may as well have spent some additional time with the designer instead, as she is rarely, if ever, addressed during the discussion. As she mentally disengages, she sits back and starts biting her lip. Didn’t she prepare over half the ideas that Max just presented? Is she not the scrum master tasked with the role of guarding processes. Why is no one asking her anything? Does she need to elbow herself into the discussion? Where is the respect?

Stalemate

Alice takes another look at her watch. The meeting has run well over time. Max and Sally are fretting over details, Tim is typing code on his laptop, Bob spent the last five minutes just looking out of the window.
“Shall we just continue this discussion later?”, Alice proposes. “I will plan a new session.”
“We haven’t even reached an agreement on the most basic processes”, Max protests.
“I know, but I don’t think we will get there if we keep going either.”
“Yeah, you lost me a while ago”, Tim adds. Bob remains silent.
“Okay, let’s continue this Thursday afternoon”, Alice adds.
Tim and Max walk out of the room with white faces, their heads hanging, their feet slumping.

Alice feels tenseness in her neck and shoulders. She remains in the meeting room with Sally and Bob.
“This really doesn’t give me energy at all”, Bob says. “I’d much rather actually do stuff. You know, move things forward.”
“If we just all wrote decent code, documentation and log messages in the first place, maybe we wouldn’t need to have all these detailed discussions, and things would just … work”, Sally snaps back. Alice gives her an angry look. Who does Sally think she is, taking it out on poor Bob like that?
“Sorry, I mean this feels so frustrating”, Sally continues. “Well, at least Bob and me are rewriting the back-end code. Please don’t tell Max, I am afraid he’ll freak out. He just doesn’t realize how much this rewrite is badly needed.”
They are doing a rewrite without sharing it with the rest of the team openly? Alice suppresses the impulse to shout, and just gently nods, while squeezing the edges of her chair. The walls seem to be enclosing her, she needs to get out of this room.

Emerging Grudges

Alice walks out and darts down the hallway. She overhears a conversation between Max and Paul in the pantry and slows down.
“She’s constantly blocking my proposals. I hate it, she’s trying to take over, maybe we should get Sally off the team, Paul”, Max argues. “I have enough on my plate as it is and I am not sure where to take this, I think other team members should speak up, they can’t be all on her side …”

Alice feels her tenseness turn into an oncoming headache. She goes for a quick stroll to clear her mind.

Failure

When Alice reenters the work floor, she finds Sally and Bob hovering over Tim’s desk. They look at the performance graphs for the current version of the app again. Alice’s heart sinks. She glances at the nearby whiteboard. Bob marked every day without performance problems with an X. Over the last two weeks there were only two X’s.

Alice locks her jaws. She knew this going in: the app was unstable, it was intended as a proof-of-concept, yada yada. Alice estimated this would not really be a problem. She expected the team would get actual time and mental space to fix the underlying structural issues. However, Max so far continually pushed everyone to roll out new features and deliver ‘customer value’ as soon as possible. Like customers in their right mind would use a bloated app that crashes half the time …

It seems to Alice that now the team is not delivering, Max’s concern shifts to the team not structuring their processes in line with his expectations. Because over the past week he left no opportunity unused to point out the team’s lack of organization as the sole source of slow progress. If he’d only stop with that and actually acknowledge the technical problems they were facing. It seems like everyone is eager to speak, but nobody really listens.

Being the Hero

Alice breaks out of her reflective pondering by Sally and Bob who let out a small cheer.
“Yes, you saved the day again Tim!”, Sally exclaims. A reserved smile appears on Tim’s face. He notices Alice and gestures her to come closer.
“You see this dip here?” Tim points to his screen. “That shouldn’t happen, but it was easy to fix so I made some changes and pushed them to production immediately.”
“Did anyone check your code?”, Alice asks frowning.
“Why? You don’t trust me?”
Alice looks at Sally.
“Look, I don’t know anything about this part of the code”, Sally says. “Tim is the only one who can fix this type of issue.”
Alice sighs and slumps her shoulders. She makes a halfhearted attempt to convince Tim and Sally about the need to review and actually understand each other’s code and prevent team members from overspecializing on parts of the code, but it falls on deaf ears.

Covering Up Mistakes

After the discussion, Sally walks away to grab coffee and Alice approaches Bob sitting behind his desk.
“So, what have you been working on?”
“Just rewriting some code.”
Alice looks at his screen.
“Isn’t this the same code you were working on three days ago?”
“Yes, sort of, I am just going over it again to make sure its perfect.”
He is seemingly on the other side of the spectrum than Tim.
“Perfect is the enemy of good. If you feel it’s good enough, you should let someone review it.” Alice says.
“Yeah, no worries, Sally reviews every line of code I write, but I am just afraid …”,
Bob bites his lip.
“What are you afraid of?”
“Well, maybe Sally won’t like it, you know”, he says softly.

When Alice is back at her desk, she opens up the logs for the code Bob is working on. There she can see every change made since the start of the project with annotations. She notices that Bob is contributing very little code. Reviews of the larger blocks of code Bob does contribute are littered with comments from Sally, some of them not very subtle.

Tracing back further, Alice notices that Bob made small fixes to his own code which he seemingly published without review. Reading through the logs, she concludes he surely is not making an effort to explain both the mistake and the fix in there.

No wonder Bob does not share anything, with Sally constantly looking over his shoulder, criticizing every contribution he tries to make, Alice thinks. He would rather work quietly on his own, instead of being berated by his fellow team members. Alice can’t blame him for that.

Managing Behaviors

Alice lets out a sigh and sits back in her chair. It’s late, and most of her colleagues have gone home. She wonders what she should do or say to get the team to operate more effectively. Should she share what she overheard Max saying to Paul about Sally? Maybe address the lack of reviewing and knowledge sharing in the team by Tim? Or share her findings about Bob’s fear to contribute and hiding of his mistakes? What’s the best next move?

Just as Alice is processing her thoughts, Max walks up to her.
“Can I talk with you?”
“Sure, what’s on your mind?”
“What did you think about Sally today?” Max asks.
“You mean during the discussion about the stand-ups?”
“Yes.”
“I think she had a point, but I also think more than one approach can work.”
“Nice, I was thinking that perhaps next time you can share your point of view in the meeting, so that Sally is not the only one with an opinion, you know. It’s good if everyone sees there are people who think … differently.”
As in people that think differently, but just like you, Max? Alice is not brave enough to say that to Max’s face, so instead she lies.
“Uhm, I did not feel strongly about the stand-ups, but I’ll consider it for next time.”
“Okay great, don’t stay too late now,” Max replies.
He grabs his bag and walks towards the stairs.

Reflection

Let’s reflect from Alice’s perspective.

As Alice joins the meeting, Max and Sally disagree over how to do stand-ups. Neither can know what will work best. Nevertheless, the team members, Alice included, allow them to continue to lock horns. This pattern continues throughout the meeting making it a frustrating experience. Anyone in the room had the power to notice and mention this pattern, and thereby break it. This way, the underlying tension could surface and be discussed.

Alice openly shares her feeling of being excluded, but no one acknowledges this. Instead she is attacked for (repeatedly) being too late, a frustration Tim bottled up. His reaction makes Alice turn her attention inwards and feel even more excluded. Alice could have regained herself and share that she feels underappreciated. Additionally, other team members could have noticed her shift in behavior and helped her open up again.

Alice learns Max wants Paul to get Sally off the team. He also tries to convince Alice to speak up against her. She could be open to Max about her concerns, but instead withholds. This choice indirectly allows the rift between Sally and Max to widen.

Tim saves the day, because only he knows certain parts of the code. Alice unsuccessfully tries to convince Sally and Tim this introduces a single point of failure in the team. Instead, she could have discussed her underlying worry of the team not really operating as a team. This worry is confirmed by Sally being overly loose with Tim and overly strict with Bob concerning code reviews.

Finally, Alice wonders how she can manage the behaviors of others by sharing or withholding information. We slowly start to see a closed culture emerge where team members begin to think in terms of tactical manipulation, instead of openly sharing concerns.

Conclusion

We have seen three telltale signs of a lack of trust, these are:

  1. Lack of vulnerability (Max’s pushing for a particular process, Sally’s confrontational stalling, Bob’s hiding of mistakes)
  2. Hero complex (Tim’s fixing, bypassing reviews)
  3. Working in isolation (Both Tim’s fixing and Bob’s hiding of mistakes)

A lack of trust means that team members do not give each other the benefit of the doubt (like both Max and Sally), whereas a lack of safety means that a team member does not believe another team member will give him or her the benefit of the doubt (like both Bob, Tim to some extent and Alice later on in this chapter).

What could members of the team have done to build safety and trust? Three points: Team members should …

  1. get to know each other better, personally, but also in terms of their unique skills and needs. This can be done in settings where work is not the focal point, like during lunch or at informal outings.
  2. encourage and reward feedback, both things they appreciate and things they can improve. They should not chastise or punish each other for being open [Tim], or not meeting each other’s expectations [Sally].
  3. demonstrate vulnerability by admitting their mistakes, sharing their worries and being open when they don’t know how to approach a problem [Max, Sally, Bob, Alice].

Next

In the next post we will continue to follow Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim as we will look at how team Phoenix’s conflict management skills will or won’t take shape.

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The Dysfunctional Team III: Conflict

This entry is part 3 of 7 in the series The Dysfunctional Team

This series of posts covers a fictional struggling software development team. Use the navigation on the right to jump between the various chapters of the story.

Six weeks after the start, patterns start to solidify in team Phoenix. Let’s continue the story of Max, Sally, Alice, Bob and Tim.

Sunshine

The sun outside the office building shines brightly. Max exits the stairwell and enters the working floor. He passes the area where most of the team is seated. He smiles and whistles upbeat as he walks by. Team members not concentrating heavily smile back and wish him a good morning. Max takes place at his desk at the far end. He feels prepared for the pivotal meeting about to take place. It took him a full two days to prepare, so he has high expectations.

Going through his notes, Max reads some of the comments he received from team members over the past two weeks: “I am unsure of what the goals are”, “I don’t think we are moving in the right direction”, “I really think we need to completely refactor the back-end”. The list is long, Max realizes. However, he believes he found a balance that will really draw the team together. Max ponders over his plans briefly and then decides to grab a coffee.

Coffee

He walks over to the pantry. Before he turns the corner, he catches a few words of a conversation between Tim and Sally standing near the coffee machine.
“Max just doesn’t seem to get it, you know.” Sally says. “Last week Friday he more or less ambushed me, asking all kinds of questions about what I think we should be doing. I had no time to prepare or even think about it.”
“It seems like he is just pushing his own agenda.” Tim responds. “Oh well, we’ll see what the meeting brings. How was your weekend by the way?”
Max grinds his teeth. Breathe, just breathe. The chatter continues. He waits half a minute, then turns the corner. He almost runs into Tim, who is dashing towards the toilet. As Max approaches the coffee machine, Sally is about to pass him.
“How are you Sally?”
“I am fine.”
She gives him a brief glance while she walks past him. Max feels an uneasy tingle in his gut, takes a deep breath once more and gets his coffee.

Laptop and coffee in hand, Max enters the still empty meeting room to prepare his presentation. He brought some prints of his plans. He tries to affix them to the wall, but the tape does not hold. His prints flutter to the carpet. Frustrated he throws the tape on the ground. Breathe, Max. Slowly he puts up the prints using more tape this time around.

Staffing

Fifteen minutes later, everyone has trickled into the meeting room.
“Tim, can you close your laptop please?” Max asks as he starts the meeting.
“I am just taking notes”, Tim replies.
“It’s best if we have everyone’s full attention in the room.”
Tim closes his laptop with a loud thud, shrugs and starts to stir his coffee audibly for a few seconds. He puts the coffee down, and then sits back in his chair, arms folded.

Max opens the meeting. “Alright, I heard you guys on the app not being up to par. So, over the past week I collected as much input as I could from you and a few key stakeholders.”
“Firstly, I understand we are understaffed. So, I have hired an extra senior developer to join the team, a contractor. His name is Joseph and he will start next Monday.”
A mix of puzzled and relieved faces look back at Max.
“This is what you wanted right?” He asks.
“Yes, but … did he do a coding test?” Tim responds.
Alice gives Tim a sharp look, then adds: “Did anyone in the team actually talk with Joseph?”
“Uhm, good points,” Max responds. “I will arrange introductions. I am absolutely confident it will be a harmonious cooperation though.”
Sally looks at Tim, they both roll their eyes.

Plans

Max continues: “I understand we may need more time to work on the basics. Let me present my idea on how I think we should tackle this.”

Max spends some time outlining his plans pointing to the prints he put up. To appease the team he explains there will be time to refactor the front-end and deployment. Nobody reacts to this. Max pauses briefly. Maybe they just need some time to let it sink in. He continues, with a little less confidence, and elaborates on his plans to develop quite some new features. They’ll react to that, Max thinks. However, Sally is not even looking at the prints on the wall anymore, and, goddammit, Tim has opened his laptop again.

After rattling uninterrupted for another fifteen minutes, Max realizes that nobody is saying anything. Nobody. Max’s hands start to tremble, his voice becomes raspy. I need a break. He picks up his cup and gulps down the last sip of lukewarm coffee. Just breathe.

Some Questions Please

“What do you guys think?”
Total silence. Some team members make brief eye contact and then look away, others look at their laptop or out of the window. Starting to sweat, Max feels his heart racing and, to his own embarrassment, he blushes. Did I just talk to a damn wall?

He looks at Sally, who remains silent. Alice leans forward and decides to dip a toe in the ice cold water.
“Wouldn’t it be better perhaps to focus on fewer features?”
“Even fewer?” Tim interrupts. “I think most problems can be fixed by just moving to a different cloud setup, then we can actually move on and start to roll out some of this overdue stuff quickly and …”
“Look, wait, guys,” Max interrupts. “Let’s just get along here.”
Max’s left hand starts to twitch. He quickly hides both hands behind his back.

“Tim, we already discussed the cloud setup. This is the third time you raise it. I am surprised you’re holding onto the idea. I thought we agreed. It’s not a priority right now, or ever for that matter.”
“Whatever …” Tim replies, eyes rolling.
“Alice, I already had to scrap half of the suggestions I got, so what you’re seeing really is a compromise already.”
Alice leans backwards. Tim rocks back and forth in his chair.

All Together Now

Max recalls Sally explicitly asked for back-end refactoring time, which he chose not to accommodate for in his plans.
“What do you think Sally?”
Sally purses her lips then slumps in her chair.
“Yeah, I guess it’s fine like this.”
It’s not fine, it’s not fine at all.
“Okay, if no one has anything to add, then this is what we’ll commit to. I just want us to really work together on this, as a team.” Max concludes.

One by one each team member walks out of the room.
“Thanks guys, thanks so much.” Max mutters. Smile, just smile.
After the last team member exits the room the last bit of Max’s energy evaporates. When the door closes he crashes into a chair and buries his head in his hands. As he wonders what he could have done differently, he feels a wave of sadness flush over him. His hands slowly start to feel with tears as he starts to sob.

Stand-up

Two hours, several meetings and a lunch later, Max joins the early afternoon stand-up. The team is huddled in a circle around a screen showing all tasks. The team goes through the tasks one by one, discussing each item, as well as what they are going to do the rest of the day.

“So, with the new plans of this morning, should we reshuffle the tasks?” Alice asks.
Max intently stares at the screen, then unlocks his jaws and makes a jarring motion with his head.
“I will re-prioritize before Monday, so during the next planning session, we can put things in order.”
“Need any help with that?”
Max shakes his head, still keeping his eyes fixed on the screen. I don’t need any babysitting, certainly not from you.
“I can manage.”
Alice raises an eyebrow.
“So, next week we’ll have some time to refactor things, is that the idea?” Sally asks.
“Indeed, if you wish.” Max replies. But, definitely not for the refactor you had in mind.

Priorities

The stand-up continues. It’s Tim’s turn to speak.
“I am going to work on refactoring the deployment today.”
“Is that really what we need now, wouldn’t it be better to do so next week since we just heard next week there will be room for that?” Sally asks.
“Why wait?” Tim shoots back.
“Because it’s not in line with the plans?”
“The plans you agree with?”
“I am not saying that, that’s completely besides the point!”
For god’s sake, not this again. Max interrupts. He feels sweat break out.
“Okay, let’s take this out of the stand-up.” His left hand twitches.
Why can’t they just get along and keep things peaceful? I really need this team to be stable, predictable and reliable, so they can finally start to deliver. The stand-up continues without any other discussion between team members.

After the stand-up Max takes Tim and Sally apart.
“Look,” Max says. “I really prefer to work in harmony, we should all work together.”
Tim and Sally remain silent.
“Can I count on you to make that work?” Max asks.
Tim loudly exhales. Sally looks unfazed.
“Yeah, sure Max.” Tim answers.
Sally nods. God, I’ve never worked with someone more difficult.
They both walk back to their desks.

More Coffee

Max grinds his teeth. He walks to the coffee machine in the pantry, Bob follows him.
“Hey, how is it going for you?”, asks Max.
“Yeah, I am fine”, Bob says.
“It must be difficult for you working with someone like Sally.”
“It’s okay.”
“Maybe she won’t be around for long. If you have good ideas of your own: simply push back on her, okay?”
Bob bites his lip, and remains silent.

Reflection

Let’s take a brief look and reflect on Max.

Max does not comment on Tim and Sally’s conversation. What may have helped is to open the dialogue with Sally to find out what bothers her. This could clear the air. Max should prioritize improving their strained relationship, not ignore it.

The meeting that Max prepared turns out to be surprisingly bland. The team seems disengaged. There is little discussion or conflict to speak of. When Alice suggests to cut down the number of features, Tim steps in with his point of view regarding the cloud setup. This could be the start of an interesting debate. However, Max immediately squanders the opportunity. He even ridicules Tim. It would have been better if Max allowed the conflict to unwind naturally. He could also dig deeper to actually understand Tim’s idea. Due to his own actions and the state of the team, Max is left feeling terrible. He is unable to share this and thus has to deal with it alone.

Something similar happens during the stand-up. Max refuses to accept help with prioritizing, because he perceives the team members as a threat. While having an actual dialogue could help the team better understand the business priorities and Max better understand the technical impediments. Additionally, Max interrupts a disagreement during the stand-up. This is not bad, because it is okay to take longer discussions off-line: a stand-up is supposed to be short. However, instead of trying to understand the conflict between Tim and Sally and encourage them to resolve it, he simply tells them to be harmonious, because Max himself is uncomfortable with conflict.

Finally, while Tim and Sally are talking behind Max’s back at the start. Max does the same thing with Bob: trying to persuade him to speak up against Sally.

Conclusion

You may expect people to really butt heads during meetings. However, we see meetings and stand-ups are very tranquil … and boring. When a team has a low level of interpersonal trust and psychological safety, the surprising result is that there is much less visible conflict.

However, don’t be deceived, there is no open atmosphere where team members are candid, can openly disagree, and reach outcomes constructively. Hot button issues are avoided. Because of this back-channel politics, personal attacks and tribalism take hold.

We see the willingness to be open and vulnerable have dipped to an all-time low. This leads to a workplace where bland agreement leads to artificial harmony and people avoid each other instead of resolving their differences through productive conflict. A constant underlying tension can be felt in every interaction. This drains the energy of all the team members.

Key indicators of a dysfunctional team with respect to conflict are:

  1. Artificial harmony (Max stopping discussions, requesting everyone get along).
  2. Bland agreement (Sally agreeing without taking part in discussions, Tim giving up).
  3. Avoidance (Sally avoiding Max, team members avoiding discussions).

What could the team do to improve?

  1. Everyone should stop with mean-spirited back-channel personal attacks and instead move to discussing disagreements about ideas in the open. These debates can be frustrating and passionate, but are always about the ideas themselves, not about (groups of) people.
  2. Team members with a natural tendency to avoid conflict should instead bring to the fore hidden disagreements, and should encourage others to stick out the debate until the conflict is resolved.
  3. Leaders, like Max, should restrain their protective behavior and not prematurely interrupt disagreements, but let them unwind naturally.

Productive conflicts form the backbone of a team. The accompanying passion and frustration enables the team and its members to learn and grow.

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