How To Rally A Dysfunctional Team
I was privileged to attend the New York City premiere of a poignant documentary about the Cherokee Nation’s first elected female Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller. At the time, Wilma inherited a network of tribes with a shared heritage, but divisive viewpoints.
She was an organizer, feminist, and leader that was able to collectively represent her people. During one election, she received 83% of votes across party lines. Her wins are a testament that a majority can agree on the common good against all odds.
The modern workplace is a microcosm of this same struggle and opportunity. Inspired by Wilma’s speech “Rebuilding the Cherokee Nation” at Sweet Briar College in 1993, consider what it takes to bring disparate personalities together:
Know The History
I was brought into a group of high-level executives with two weeks left before their presentation to the COO. The team was in complete disarray. One executive counted pages and asked why they had less than so-and-so. Another had secret meetings to devise a second set of fictitious financial numbers. It was a mess.
You have to find out what happened.
In my case, as the pinch hitter, I asked people individually what occurred at every other meeting they had in the prior six weeks. This gave me a sense of why people were acting the way they were. More importantly, they saw me as someone they could trust to listen.
Wilma refers a lot to her time on porches and in kitchens as an elected official. At work, this means sidestepping formally scheduled meetings for casual coffee outings or lunches.
Now, it’s also worth noting here that people will lie. You have no control over that. But what you can do is triangulate what you hear with other people by saying “a little bird told me…” without revealing your sources. After all, history is not perfect.
Have A Desire
This is a goal on acid. A desire is a powerful force that should override people’s fears of contributing. You don’t need to formalize it or even tell anybody, but let it guide how you motivate the team.
- Goal: A presentation to the COO
- Desire: To show the COO that we know what we’re doing
As people show their true colors, it’s imperative to have them articulate how their actions relate to the overall goal. Or simply punt to discuss it offline with them one-on-one.
Worry more about people who sit back and sabotage group efforts behind the scenes. These folks also need to be reminded of the overarching goal and be put on notice that you know what they’re doing. This is very difficult.
Emphasize your wish to work together, but give them the space to make their own decisions. The key to remember here is that no man is an island. If you can’t get through to this team member, try to build a connection with someone he listens to. And do your best to see the good in them…
Exercise The Positive
What I love about the Enneagram is that it teaches us that every personality’s virtue has a related shadow. A lot of times at work, we can’t help but see people’s shadows – how they raise obstacles, talk behind our back, or take credit for things they didn’t do.
In particular, when you’ve been at the same company a long time, it’s easy to lose hope in what could be because you already know what is. It’s at these times that we need to take inventory on our collective strengths.
In Wilma’s case, the Cherokees are known for their tenacity and interdependence. She recognized these qualities in her people and exercised them until they were stronger than their problems including poverty, illness, and unemployment. Practically, I imagine this meant instead of hiring engineers to install a community water system, she challenged the unemployed to learn how and paid for their education.
Sidestep The Small Stuff
Wilma refers to many hurtful instances where people focused on her gender instead of the issues. In her speech, she recalls a time when councilmen did not leave her a chair at the table for a meeting that she was leading. While I am generally not a proponent of ignoring bad behavior, I do believe there is a special time for taking the high road amidst dysfunctional teams.
Especially when joining existing teams, know there is an inherent mob mentality in testing the outsider. Not leaving her a chair was their way to undermine Wilma, the elected Principal Chief. It was a way of saying, “You may have won, but you won’t have a seat at our table.” She found a chair, took her rightful place, and started the meeting.
Her actions said, “So what?”
Do not bother trying to manage people who disparage you. Facilitate their needs. On her listening tours, Wilma committed to securing the resources required for what people wanted: from indoor plumbing to hospitals.
Similarly, this executive taskforce just wanted a warm body to put together a presentation for them. That’s the truth. But what they really wanted was to look good in front of the COO. To look like they didn’t waste eight weeks infighting. So understanding as much, I put together a template based on my experience and encouraged them to fill in the blanks.
Then I gave them feedback as an outsider, always caveated as semi-ignorant so they would not feel threatened. And I promised to put a final polish on the presentation before having it professionally printed. The COO praised it as the most insightful outlook he had seen.
In the end, they all still hated each other. Some got fired. Others quietly returned to their day jobs. But we came together despite it all. And perhaps that is the beautiful mystery of all teams, dysfunctional or otherwise: that together, it is possible to do a great thing that we could never do alone.
“We must trust our own thinking. Trust where we’re going. And get the job done.”
Read Wilma Mankiller’s full speech: http://gos.sbc.edu/m/mankiller.html
Watch her PBS interview (2010): http://www.pbs.org/video/oetas-conversation-wilma-mankiller/