Learning
Stephen Light

Working with dysfunctional teams

Learning Stephen Light

Stephen Light shares workshop exercises he uses when coaching dysfunctional teams, and discusses how to hold space and create safety to help teams find conscious, intentional ways to discuss and deal with their issues.

Stephen Light is a Leadership Expert and Executive Coach at stephenlight.com

As a trained relationship team coach I have worked with many dysfunctional teams at many different corporates. I have had some really brilliant successes and some marvelous failures.

For this piece, I don't want to limit what a 'dysfunction' is, because there are so many things that can go wrong with teams, in what they are experiencing. I want to share an approach in how to work with teams to help them be more effective in dealing with whatever dysfunction they are experiencing.

If you are a coach working with a team, you can get clear about what issues they are facing by speaking to the leader, and interviewing the delegates. That will give you a good understanding of what problems they are experiencing, and the impact it is having.

Remember, your role as a coach, is to help them understand what is going on and to create the environment for them to deal with it and talk about it. Help them discover ways of being more effective at working with it, so that they design and achieve the outcomes that they want to achieve.

You have to be this beautiful big mirror that reflects back to them what you see, without judgement.

Here are some of the pitfalls I have experienced. You recognise the issue. You know you can solve it. You have a solution. You go in with the mindset and heartset of, 'I will help you and I am going to fix this for you.'

What that tends to do is narrow your whole focus. It limits what that team is experiencing. You are introducing some factors that are maybe relevant to you, and partly relevant to them, but there is a whole part of the story that is not being explored.

So as a coach working with dysfunctional teams, you have to go in with huge curiosity. You have to be this beautiful big mirror that reflects back to them what you see, without judgement.

You have to create a space that feels safe for them to talk about these issues. A space that helps them have heated discussions and feel uncomfortable, but know that they can come out the other side, and find a way to be conscious and intentional about dealing with those issues.

Let's think about that whole process. You start mirroring back what is going on. You name what is going on. You are the person who is going to hold all of the energy in that room when it gets uncomfortable. And you will help people feel safe to navigate through that.

And at the end of it, you want to help people have those conversations they need to have - which they have been avoiding in the workplace. Help them name what they need to name. So that they can move to a place where they are far more effective at having those conversations, dealing with the issues, and working with the dysfunctions in ways that enables instead of disempowering.

Creating a safe environment for difficult conversations

I have spoken alot about creating safety and the environment for people to have difficult conversations. How would you do that as a coach?

When people come in the room, they know this could be a difficult day. They know there are some challenging conversations they need to have. They know it is going to be uncomfortable. Your role is to help them over that edge so that they feel comfortable to voice what they need to voice. But how do you do that?

I start my sessions with a connect session. You can design a connect session around any set of questions that helps them to share some stuff about each other.

If people can see the human behind the dysfunction, the chances of them having more difficult conversations are easier.

Here are two connect session exercises that I use.

The first one is getting them to share something personal about themselves — some acheivement that they have had, what that reveals about them, how they overcome it, and what they are really proud of.

What that tends to do is bring out the human side of who they are. If people can see the human behind the dysfunction, the chances of them having more difficult conversations are easier. You are trying to create connection the whole time.

In the second activity I run, they have to walk around and mingle with each other and answer these two questions:

"When working with me, what you need to know is..."

"When working with you, what I have noticed is..."

The second question is slightly more challenging but the exercise gives them an opportunity to voice with all the different members in their team a little bit about how they work, and about what they have noticed.

And if you are really brave as a coach you can add the third question:

"When working with you, what I need is..."

These exercises should start helping you along the path of creating safety, so that people start feeling like they can have those difficult conversations.

This interview has minor edits for clarity.

Stephen Light is a Leadership Expert and Executive Coach at stephenlight.com