On my last trip to the great northwest, I had the distinct displeasure and responsibility of working with a very angry, broken team. I will share a brief synopsis of my adventure’s lowlights and highlights, should they benefit you when faced with a similar constellation of dysfunctions.
The vast majority of teams (because they are, at their most elemental level, coalitions of individuals) face the pedestrian and routine issues of ‘poor communication, periodic conflict, unclear direction, and too few resources.’ These challenges almost go without mentioning because they are as natural and inevitable as hunger, ideological differences, and war. Though we may desire they not exist, to deny them is naïve, idealistic, and fantasy. Wherever resources and minds co-exist, so too will opinions and differences of opinion – and subsequently divisive priorities, power, control, hierarchy, and struggles. These are realities of the human condition and only Utopia, Shangri-La, and Heaven lack them.
Any leader’s challenge (and opportunity) is to reduce, manage, or redirect differences toward things which are – on balance – more constructive than destructive.
The leader of the team with which I worked was, however, plagued with an overabundance of challenges. In addition to the ‘typical four’ described above, he faced a range of others, from in-office harassment claims, grievances, and physical fisticuffs to an employee lawsuit, intra-office dating, theft, and a caustic grapevine that thrived on jealousies, half-truths and mean-spiritedness. In the particulate, none of these is all that unique or necessarily insurmountable, but in the aggregate, they formed a furious storm.
As he said to the team when we first convened, “Some people would rather judge others and throw rocks than follow; these people don’t make good employees – but they make great critics and derelicts. Regardless, I will not be deterred. We’re not leaving this room today until each of you decides to get on board, off, or run the risk of getting run over.”
And with that, I thought we were surely cooked turkeys. Such toothpaste rarely returns to the tube.
For nearly three hours, we heard each team member’s grievances and complaints. The leader had been clear from the start, “What is not aired here will not be aired elsewhere again. I have met with each and every one of you and [our HR person] offline on countless occasions, and now it’s time to address the issues affecting our team as a whole and this organization from the inside out.”
The emotions and feelings on that day of reckoning ran the gamut, from a sense of betrayal, belligerence, and frustration to indifference, haughty arrogance, and depression. It was true, each person thought he or she could run the team better; they all wanted to be chiefs.
Given the circumstances, the besieged leader did a remarkable job. I was impressed with his directness, astuteness, and willingness to be critiqued. “Get it all out,” he said repeatedly. And boy, did they. He was relentless, and they responded in kind.
Spitting in the cup, clawing the air, knocking peers, evil-eyes, rolling eyes, crossing arms, bouncing legs, pacing against the back wall, pounding fists, scribbling pens, pointing fingers, shouting, accusing, blaming, denying, hiding, conspiring, ganging-up… before the morning was done, I’m certain we’d seen all that could be seen without needing to summon the security guard.
I stepped in repeatedly – facilitating, guiding, berming, and doing my best to referee and bring things to a healthy head without allowing any faction to overrule or any individual to be overwhelmed. The meeting and its inherent conflicts were destined to occur, I reasoned, so my responsibility was to do everything in my power to keep the wheels on the rails.
As the team of apparent vipers bared their fangs and spit their venom, two quotes hooked through my mind like a one-track record:
"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned." (William Congreve)
“All those who have been wronged, or believe themselves to be wronged are terrible, for they ceaselessly seek revenge.” (Aristotle)
This was unquestionably a team which felt they had been wronged by one another, their boss, and their organization at various turns in the tracks. They had become vengeance-seeking individuals, no doubt. And yet, somehow – miraculously – a team destined to be redeemed. A team of people, remember, and people needing to be heard and healed.
Even the largest lion, when thwarted by the smallest splinter in its paw, welcomes a mouse.
Real-world redemption began late in the afternoon.
And it began with an admission.
And an admission was followed by an apology.
And one apology was followed by a second.
And apologies were followed by mea culpas.
And in time, the boil was lanced. And it flowed. And sooner than I have seen before when facing similarly intractable circumstances, it was drained and began the long and arduous process of healing.
Two team members resigned, not only from the team but the organization itself, confessing they could never forgive. Their slights, wounds, and nefariously competitive aspirations ran too deep.
One team member was terminated forthwith, having violated too many organizational policies and being exposed.
A half-dozen team members, having fully ‘dumped their buckets,’ arrived at the much needed place where rationality finally trumps emotionality.
And the rest, having admitted their ‘enabling’ of the scheming and undermining and lashing-out behind the leader’s back resolved to be accountable for their behavior. ‘Get-Well Plans’ were developed, ‘Action Items’ were documented, and for two final hours, the team’s remaining members did the most amazing thing… they spoke peacefully, respectfully, and with an energy that was constructive and positive rather than bitter and contemptuous.
They listened, they heard, and they responded.
Three weeks later, I joined a conference call with the team. “We just wanted to let you know how much things have improved. Those who could no longer support [our leader] and our team have moved on, where they are much happier and healthier. And we have come together. Our performance has improved dramatically, we are drama-free, and ‘outsiders’ are taking notice – so much so that we have a long list of candidates to fill the vacated spots. Our reputation, it seems, is improving.”
And perhaps most meaningfully to me (at least from a personal standpoint), one of the women on the team commented, “Blake, I haven’t been sick the past three Sundays.” She had told me (in the weeks preceding the ‘come-to-Jesus blowout meeting’) how violently ill she became on most Sunday afternoons – undoubtedly in anticipation of Monday mornings and rejoining the war. (Our bodies, by the way, are wonderful barometers of our stress. I encourage you to listen to yours.)
Eighty percent of my vocation, it seems, is spent at the tails of the bell curve. I am rarely called in by ‘average organizations, teams, and individuals wishing to accomplish average results.’ I am, most often, called in by ‘those in crisis’ and ‘those of excellence.’ The former need resolution and the latter seek perfection. (I equate this to fitness, as well. The very fit, world-class athletes are constantly exercising and working to improve while the sedentary or at-risk are motivated to seek help after the heart attack or other near-disaster. Either way, both groups are taking action. Meanwhile, the majority of us simply carry on, status quo, with the usual motivators of pleasure and pain remaining too minimal to incent.)
Spending time at these tails means, predictably, that for all my experiences of excellence and A-team performance, I correspondingly have had what amounts to a trove of challenging assignments. A small portion of these can barely be described without considering the words ‘wickedness’ or ‘evil.’
During those quiet flights home afterward, when I feel more like a priest having concluded an exorcism, I am careful to distinguish what I have experienced from ‘typical’ behavior. Teams ‘on the edge’ are, after all, people who have often lost their way like Darth Vader, succumbing to the darkness bit by bit, trial by trial, and temptation by temptation. Few people, save the sociopath, set sail for the dark side intentionally. Instead, they typically find it when they find nothing else.
Many philosophers have, in various ways, expressed the same notion. “Only by darkness do we know the light.”
I am comforted by the reality that I have witnessed many teams return, astonishingly, to the tube. We must be careful that the ‘L’ on the forehead and the ‘A’ on the sweater not become self-fulfilling prophecies of Our Gang’s “The Little Rascals” or Welcome Back Kotter’s “Sweathogs.”
With admissions, apologies, ownership of wrongdoings, mea culpas, forgiveness, liberations or excisions as necessary, hope, and plans, most teams can make it back to the light.
And it is after such returns that I get a bit of myself back and remember why I do what I do in the first place, despite its inherent risks and difficulties. With others’ reputations, fulfillment, health, and performance restored, I find that something equally important is reliably restored along the way: my own faith in people and their capacity to do right.