You have worked hard to build your team, getting the right people for the job. You know which people will pick things up at the drop of a hat, which people will take the strain, which people are slow and steady and which people are the doers, the thinkers, the mavericks and the rule followers.
The respect between team members is strong and the cohesive working environment means that people pull together and work hard for your community. Focusing on the people in your organisation is what it’s all about, whether customers or staff. Staying true to your values which embody the human element at the heart and soul of everything is what makes the company tick.
But sometimes being so close and part of such a well oiled machine means that it can be quite hard to be the one to put your hand up and say “hang on, this isn’t working”. Or at least it’s hard to do in a way that enables you to say what you really mean, in a way that is really heard. No one wants to be the moaner and pick holes, to disrupt the status quo, the apparently happy ship. This is particularly true when everyone else seems to be getting along well. Depending on your position in the company there can be a lot to lose from being the one to say what you really think. There are all sorts of relationships to consider, and the consequences of some conversations could damage relationships if approached in the wrong way. So often people stay quiet.
But is everyone else getting on really well?
It’s not always easy to tell when something is afoot. If your team is used to being positive about the way it’s working, championing the wins, keeping the creative vibe going, the enthusiasm and team spirit then underlying ripples may not be that obvious. But sometimes things don’t go according to plan. These are often the insidious things that aren’t causing great disturbances, but are causing slow discontent. There is a risk of collusion. Years ago when I trained as a Speech and Language Therapist we were warned about colluding with parents of our patients (I worked with small children). We weren’t plotting to take over the world, it was something more simple. As a therapist there is a danger that you side with parent or patient to support their belief in something. Often this starts out as not wanting to hurt their feelings, but then you’re judgement becomes clouded. You agree that their child has less (or more) of a problem then they actually do because you don’t want to disagree. It’s much harder to be strong and hold your ground, maintain your objectivity, perhaps break some bad news. Collusion doesn’t happen consciously, you do it before you realise.
As Brown and Levinson in their research into politeness suggested; “avoiding discord is more important than seeking concord” ie we will often go out of our way to not cause disagreement. Different rules of conversation apply to different situations, different cultures and different people. But generally speaking people don’t go into a conversation aiming to have an argument, quite the opposite. They describe complaints, disapproval and other kinds of friction as “Face Threatening Acts”. Saving face is something that is important to most of us (whether we realise it or not!) and shapes the way we communicate.
While you probably don’t overtly or consciously think about this when you’re having a conversation it is true that most people don’t want to be the cause consternation and discomfort. Us human beings generally like a bit of harmony! But in doing so, sometimes the elephants in the room (that don’t start out as being elephants at all) get missed. While the closer the family, the less people seem to worry about the fall out – do you find that it is far easier to argue with a family member and be totally honest, that a friend? That unconditional relationship means that people are more likely to be honest the longer, closer and deeper the relationships. But how close your perceived workplace “family” is, will be different for different people. Not everyone will be comfortable saying what they really think and hang the consequences. Workplace relationships can really shape the way things work, or not.
There may be different types of relationships at stake, for example; someone may be really inspired or perhaps even in awe of another person in the team. Even through they can see when this person is doing something that they don’t like, or is affecting the team it’s hard to get past the fact that they think that person is amazing. How can you challenge someone who you think is so brilliant? Or perhaps there are people who other team members don’t want to get on the wrong side of because they think everyone likes them and that they will be out of favour if they don’t. What is exuberant and playful behaviour in for one person, may not be that for someone else, but it’s often easier to join in than say what you really think. You don’t want to be excluded. Or a worse scenario, when someone in the team makes them feel scared then it’s hard to know where to start.
So what then can you do?
Establishing a culture of open and honest communication takes time to build, and to percolate through the organisation. Being approachable as a manager and inviting people to say what they think, feedback and grab you for a chat when you need could be a good place to start. Remembering to listen is pretty important – it takes two to have a good conversation but you both need to listen and that is often harder than you think to do. In the busy working week encouraging conversations between your team members in a way that everyone can say what they want to say is perhaps easier said than done. Much of this is about creating the right environment but also asking specific questions to ensure that any important issues are not danced around and that the right conversations are not avoided. Some of this can be done in an ongoing way. But some if it needs time out, and some real breathing space.
This is one situation where a group facilitator comes in.
Whether that time out and opportunity to do some deeper digging into what people really think is part of a team away day, or a strategy day or something much smaller, sometimes getting someone neutral and impartial in to manage these kind of slightly more awkward conversations is needed. You don’t have to be on the brink of world war III, there don’t have to be lots of grumpy people all feeling huge discontent. Inviting open discussions and creating a situation of trust and openness can come well before that. Sometimes it is just a general sense that there are some frustrations, some tensions, some things being unsaid that mean you need to draft in some help. Sometimes this presents itself in a lack of productivity, or people taking days off sick, or tiredness, or mistakes being made. Sometimes you might not spot it at all. Or sometimes it is a glaring issue that no one knows how to address.
Group facilitation creates an environment for people to share, for people to say what they really think, to hear from others and to ask questions. This is not just a meeting, but a session managed by an external facilitator. Which is half of what makes it work. The act of facilitating a process where a group of people all share their thoughts, wishes, ideas and maybe feelings has a number of benefits:
- By being the neutral party and not swaying the decisions that are made or the outcomes of any conversations. By staying neutral the facilitator maintains focus on the relationships, the group dynamics and the process rather than who’s right or wrong.
- As someone who is external the facilitator is able to probe a bit without worrying too much about the consequences. That’s not to say facilitators don’t care what happens to you and your team after the session! But it means they are not worried about asking the questions other people might not want to.
- Facilitators create an environment where everyone has the opportunity to be open. Crucially this environment needs to provide some safety and security for the people in your team who are less happy to speak up. This doesn’t need to involve everyone speaking up in front of the group. There are a hundred and one different ways to help people contribute without making them feel awkward.
- Facilitators can ask those challenging questions that you may step around. That doesn’t mean that there is an aim to antagonise people, but rather a focus on getting to the bottom of things. Knowing which questions to ask when, and how to manage the responses in a productive way is one of the core skills of a facilitator.
- A bit of conflict is fine, but managing the conflict it can be tricky. Facilitators use a range of tools and techniques to try to make any conflict constructive rather than disruptive and to stop things spiralling into unproductive arguments.
- Sometimes team members are so close to each other that they can’t see out, they can’t be as objective as needed. A facilitator offers a critical pair of ears and eyes and can help your team to think more broadly and see if all is what it really seems to be. They will often reflect on something said, maybe missed and pull it back into the room.
- Stopping the team from “disappearing down rabbit holes” as one of my recent clients put it, and dwelling too much on the things that aren’t working, or that aren’t really relevant to the topic in hand. Unpacking the issues in a constructive, positive way is crucial.
The impact of working in this way
It’s not just what comes out of a facilitated session that is important, but the impact. Being able to work through issues, get honest and open feedback and creating a supportive environment can help create the foundations for stronger relationships. Part of this is about allowing everyone to have their say and being given the opportunity to share frustrations in a productive way.
Conversations are not left hanging but will have some direction and next steps. One of the problems of heated exchanges if you have them is the uncomfortable hangover. Working out a plan of action, and a way to review this will help mitigate that.
Not saying things you mean, can mean the internal dialogue can start to weigh you down. Providing an opportunity to be allowed and encouraged to share this can mean a much lighter load.
Looking at things all together helps people work more cohesively and be a part of the bigger picture. You and your team can unpack a variety of different perspectives at once, getting a multidimensional view of what people are thinking. This means that although you will need to work to maintain the overall nurturing culture in the workplace, you probably don’t have to have the same conversation over and over again.
Agreeing to disagree. It’s not always possible to build consensus, but at least if some mid way, acceptable path can be defined that will often be enough. Not all problems can be “solved” but ways to make things better can usually be unearthed, and decided upon.
It is an opportunity to see things differently, from different perspectives and a chance to learn something new. When people hear different sides of situations they may alter their views and realise that they need to do something differently. Being open to the idea of change is an important part of moving forwards with workplace relationships.
Getting together and working as a group with a facilitator is not a cure all, it’s not a quick fix. But is a way to help create productive discussions when things aren’t quite working. There will always need to be some next steps and some accountability for what you talk about, and it is often part of a wider process. But just creating that space in the first place can go a long way to strengthening your workplace relationships and pulling you team together.
Have you ever used a group facilitator to help improve relationships in the workplace? If so, what was the outcome?