Running in the Dark

I am often asked to assess the structure and dynamics of teams I’ve never before met. With no contextual information, I am forced to rely exclusively on the accuracy of the data that arises from the Team Clock team effectiveness survey. Once the analysis is complete, I am introduced to the team for the first time for a debrief session. Sometimes, it feels like running in the dark.

Recently, one of these blind assessments revealed data that was not favorable. If the results could be trusted, the team would need to be informed that there was a rotten apple amidst their bushel. A toxic teammate appeared to be undermining the trust of the team. While they might be capable of overcoming this team poison, it was unlikely that they would be capable of achieving great results in their business metrics.

I had difficulty sleeping on the night before the debrief session. What if my tool had led me astray?  How do you tell a team they have trust issues? What if the problem is with the leader? Despite my apprehension, I forged ahead with the consultation. I shared the data and delivered the news. Unlike most team effectiveness assessment debriefs, this team was unusually quiet. The team leader fidgeted and squirmed in his seat as I detailed the implications of my evaluation. At one point, he scribbled a note and slid it across the table to a colleague. I sensed trouble.

As I awkwardly conveyed my position that the team was not likely capable of greatness under the current structure and dynamics, the team leader took a deep breath and said, “Stop. I need to call a time-out.”  The room fell silent as he prepared to speak.  “How did you know this?” he said. “It’s like you’ve been in our workplace,” he continued. “How did you know we had a trust problem without ever meeting us before?”

He went on to detail the struggles of the past year where a particular teammate made life miserable for everyone else.  He explained that, just the prior week, he had let the dysfunctional employee go.  When he suggested that the rest of the team had wished he had taken action a year ago, they all nodded in unison. “Somehow, he said, you hit a bulls-eye.”

The team breathed a collective sigh of relief and began the task of defining targeted actions for re-establishing trust now that the cancer had been removed. Their data had also indicated that they were anchored in crystal clear norms and that they historically responded to change with nimble adaptability. They quickly committed to taking immediate action and, energized by the evidence that they were attacking the correct problem, predicted measurable improvement in their business performance metrics within six months.

Running in the dark is scary. You never know if you’re going to hit an unexpected wall or sprint toward freedom. Often, one doesn’t happen without the other.

On your mark, get set, GO!

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  • Scot Witt  On June 27, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Hi Steve,

    I find that breaking bad news to clients is, indeed, a tough thing to do- almost as bad as terminating someone. In the consultant’s world, we never say ‘no’ or bring an issue to the client’s attention without several options from which the client can choose.

    If the consultant has done his/her job properly, the consultant is then a trusted adviser and can help the client choose the best option for the business.

    You did exactly the same thing, except you use data, I use options. As consultant, I’ve had to learn the hard way that the software I’m working on isn’t mine. It’s the client’s, I find I gladly give up ownership to achieve the objective.

    Like I said two years ago when Team Clock was unveiled- it applies to my IT, home, music making and friendship worlds.

    So, we’re looking for more business analysts on this project, you interested? 😎

  • Robert Smith, LCSW  On July 6, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Hi Steve,

    I was excited to read your entry and wouldn’t expect anything other than the results you received. You have consistently shown thoroughness and integrity in your work. It can be exciting to enter a system with little to no knowledge. Making an assessment is part one, and part two is intervening at the most useful point and in the most acceptable manner, will bring you the best results.

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