Bottom line: I'm going to facilitate an exercise with my directs and the rest of a product team to get them to move beyond past transgressions and start building a team. (This is after discussing with my coach, my manager and a few others about some bad behaviors.) Any one done this and have any experiences to share?

Long Story:
I took on this team about 4 months ago from another position in the company. The team is split across 3 locations. I'm in the main office and the other two locations came from previous acquisitions. There are also 2 other locations that we interact with more loosely from other acquisitions.

As far as I can tell, they have never been a team in the years they've struggled together. I've given feedback to my directs about the "meetings after the meeting", pouncing on other people's mistakes, general comments about the people in other locations, bringing up things that happened years ago or vague comments about someone always doing X but they can never give me details, etc. Following the advice of not giving too much negative feedback at the start, I've tried not stress this. But I have given immediate repeated feedback to a few people on instances. (It took me a couple of months to realize the full extent of the issues.)

That seems to be working with my directs. At least a few times they have been more honest about their opinion at a meeting instead of choking it in. However, the Product Management side of this does not report to me and there are some serious issues there. For example, one of them had one of my directs do some work (explicitly without telling the rest of the team) that was outside of their area. Unfortunately, it wasn't great work and customers complained to our Technical Support who called me. I had no idea what they were talking about and we finally tracked down what happened. My direct who was involves swears never to do this again. (The problem is that he used to report to the people who told him to do it. So, we're working on him saying no to them!)

I have a coach who strongly suggested that this can only be effectively handled by getting everyone together. I did ask if it should be someone above us. My boss's boss and the PMs boss all report to the same manager. But my coach and manager said it should be me as challenging the team to start working as a team. It has to be remotely because of finances. I just had my reports here 6 weeks ago but not the others. What I am going to do is lead the team through a series of questions to each person in turn:
1) what can we celebrate from the last year;
2) Specific cases where that person felt they disappointed the team
3) Specific cases where that person felt the team disappointed them
Then we look at each of those lists and identify specific actions the team can take to either repeat the success or stop the disappointment.

The real keys to me is some of the things after this. First, they are never supposed to bring up these events again unless it is to say they've learned something new from it. Secondly, if someone tries to start a "meeting after the meeting", the people are supposed to stop it and get them to call another meeting to address the problem. Thirdly, I'll be looking out for those pregnant pauses or cases where someone is backing away from saying how they feel and challenging the group to look deeper for unresolved conflict.

I'm a little nervous to say the least :) but think I can to this. I've enlisted 2 people in the geographies where I won't be and am flying to be with the Product Management team and my directs there My coach and manager both thing I'm good at sensing conflict and have the respect if not yet trust of everyone.

I am concerned about a few things but have been re-reading my Crucial Conversations and Influencer books again. I am going to schedule this meeting after having a conversation with the head of the Product Management group about doing this. Everyone will know the agenda and can be prepared. I've also picked a few people to work with from each geography to be the ones to volunteer to go first. My Project Manager says she'll go first. She's nervous about the idea of having to say out loud the problems but can do it.

I trust my coach. She's been doing this for many years and has had a lot of interactions with our company. So, she knows a lot of this history.

Has anyone tried to do this? Did it work? I'm preparing how I'll handle people either getting defensive or being nasty. (Hopefully, I'll be able to pull it off when it's real versus practice!) Since I'm going to coach a few people into talking before the fact, I'll have a few things brought up. I'm concerned about everyone clamming up and my not being able to draw them out. (In the past, they seem to do that and then complain afterwards to the people in their geography.)

WillDuke's picture

M&M have a cast on teambuilding, and I like what they say. In a nutshell, you can't build a team, you can only build trust. With trust, a team happens.

I have had directs who are not trusted by their teammates. Frankly it's usually earned. Coworkers don't trust someone because that someone let them down. I have found the only thing that works is focusing on performance. A person has to finish his/her tasks on time and on budget. When people can count on that person to finish his/her tasks then they'll begin to trust him/her. The longer the non-performance has been an issue, the longer it takes to rebuild this trust.

Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, people do complete their tasks on-time and on-budget but don't communicate this to their coworkers. If nobody knows you've done it, then for all practical purposes it's not done. Not knowing where your coworker is on a task means that you cannot rely on the task being done. No trust

Until there is trust, there is no team. No amount of meetings and talking and hand-holding can fix this. If you can't trust someone, you can't be a team. Trust is earned, or lost, every single day of every single week of every single month...

As the manager you can help by:
* Set very clear goals (MT - measurable, time specific)
* Hold people accountable for their deliverables.
* Make it clear that you're the deliverable clearing house. :)
* Celebrate success

jhack's picture


I'm not a fan of airing grievances or of "getting everyone together" to hash things over. It's like picking at scabs: it doesn't aid the healing. Asking everyone to relive past disappointments seems destined to heighten resentments. I often don't say what I'm thinking or feeling - it simply won't move the project forward (~"He is such a dolt!"~ I might think that, but I'll never say it. Don't ask for people to fill in their pregnant pause.)

Will is on the right track: focus on the future. What will get done, by whom, when. If everyone knows the plan, the "meeting after the meeting" shouldn't matter. And they will bring it up again, until they have new things to talk about. New project successes. Shared insights. Collective goals.

Trust takes time to build, and is easily eroded. You want people thinking about the new tasks, not the past, and it is very dangerous to ask people to rehash.


MsSunshine's picture

I talked to my coach and have worked out a modification of this that I'm better with. I'm not sure if I didn't understand what she suggested at first.

The gist is that it's basically a retrospective with a start/stop/continue. I have done a few start/stop/continues and do find them useful. It's the retrospective part of this that is a little different with asking people for accomplishments and disappointments. Then you dig into both accomplishments and disappointments to see where the key things for the success or things that need to change.

The intent is to look collectively at a period and see what behaviors of the group worked well and what didn't. Then once you've done a "lessons learned", the incident is put away and cannot be rehashed unless there is a new lesson to learn.

I'm not afraid of looking at the past to learn mistakes. I believe the adage that those who don't look at history are condemned to repeat it. You look, make corrections & let it go.

The fact is that this group seems to have the style of being nice to each other's face and complaining behind their backs. We need to have these crucial conversations, determine how to address the issues and move on. Otherwise, they keep bringing up the same complaints about each other over and over and over....

P.S. I have listened to the team building podcasts and agree on it's principles of building trust. I am working on those fronts as well.