This review first ran in the Feb. 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
By Liane Davey
My all-time favourite team-building exercise featured a metal trash can, flames and paper.
Our team-building facilitator handed us slips of paper. We were headed on a journey. We needed the courage to lose sight of the shore. We were told to write down what we were prepared to leave behind as we set sail and moved forward together into the future.
I don’t remember what I wrote. I’m not a fan of corporate reindeer games so I likely left my slip of paper blank or wrote “ice breakers and team building exercises”.
We went outside and stood in a circle in the parking lot holding our slips of paper. We dropped our slips into the trash car. The facilitator doused the paper with lighter fluid and lit a match.
It was a windy. Flaming paper flew out of the trash can. What we wanted to leave behind came back to haunt us. One of our teammates got singed on the side of her head before the lid was slammed on the trash can and the fire was snuffed out. We then went back inside to reflect on what we’d learned.
Ice breakers and retreats may put the fun in dysfunctional teams. But at the end of the day, the team’s still broken and causing grief for its members and the entire organization. This is especially true if the toxic team’s at the top of your org chart.
“The problems facing teams are serious, but instead of fixing serious teamwork problems with serious solutions, most team-building sessions focus on fun or frivolous activities like cooking classes or white-water rafting,” says Liane Davey, author of You First and VP for Global Solutions and Team Effectiveness at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions. “I guess the idea is that if you can have fun outside the office, maybe you can recapture the fun back in the office. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out that way.”
Davey says there are five types of toxic teams.
There’s the crisis junkie team that only pulls together when there’s an urgent and immediate threat.
There’s the homogenized bobble head team.
The apathetic spectator team with members who show up for meetings, sit down and immediately check out.
The bleeding back team takes conflict underground and makes decisions through back channels.
And the ego-clashing royal rumble team is rife with personal agendas, shouting matches and vicious vendettas.
Maybe you think you can get your job done by sidestepping a toxic team and going it alone. Think again.
“Teams are the way we get work done,” says Davey. “Organizations need teams to live up to their promise instead of getting mired in dysfunction. Getting teams healthy will pay off richly in terms of productivity, innovation and risk management.”
You don’t fix a toxic team by playing games. You flush out the toxin by living up to five responsibilities. It’s a short list that Davey says is simple in theory yet difficult in practice.
Start with a positive assumption. Value what your teammates bring to the table.
Add your full value. Don’t be a spectator.
Amplify other voices. “Loan your credibility and your airtime to teammates whose minority perspectives are usually shut out of the discussion.”
Know when to say no. A team that tries to do everything invariably gets nothing done. Lose your own fear of missing out.
Embrace productive conflict and fight the good fight.
Everyone needs to put these responsibilities into practice. The good news is a toxic team can be cured even if the leader’s clueless, a bully or bobblehead.
“Each and every team I’ve seen recover from dysfunction has been led by one brave soul who looked in the mirror and didn’t like what he or she saw. And instead of waiting for everyone else to change, that person decided to go first. Each and every team that got healthy had one member who would trust without being trusted. One person who would respond to hostility with curiousity. One person who would stand up for the teammate who others were shutting down.”
And that person can be you. Starting today.