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Root team building issues are
unconscious defensive interactions.

There can be many potential team building issues for ineffective teams. So we need a team performance model to diagnose issues related to context, team structure and team processes. Business teams with a large degree of autonomy, like management teams and project teams, have the power to addrees many of these team building issues but they often fail because they miss the root causes in the team performance model: defensive interactions.

A common pattern of defensive interactions leading to poor team performance is illustrated in figure 1. A high number of defensive interactions lead to no/low mutual learning, then to insufficient alignment on team decisions, then to low level of engagement and poor/late team results.
business problems
This creates a whole set of new and difficult problems for the team and leads to even more defensive interactions… So companies experience not only ineffective meetings, but also issues in process improvement, mergers and acquisitions, allocation of scarce resources ... This vicious circle is illustrated in this story:  my experience of planning scarce resources.

To understand more deeply defensive interactions, we must spend some time with the team members and listen to their stories about their team building issues: see figure 2. The absence of mutual learning in interactions and the poor alignment on decisions lead to mutual mistrust .
trust issues
Subsequently mistrust leads to “un-discussable” subjects like poor team performance, low level of trust, lack of alignment and engagement… In turn the “un-discussability” leads to the perception by team members that the current discussion on a complex issue can lead to threatening or embarrassing results for them. These perceptions are obviously not tested (Argyris 1991) . This, combined with the growing of complex problems, leads to defensive interactions which account for low mutual learning. Then the poor business performance loop and the low mutual trust loop are reinforcing each other into a very stable system.

Why do carefully designed and highly skilled teams get stuck in the above two vicious circles, often called "storming" stage  ? A crucial part of this system is often happening below the awareness level of most team members: see figure 3.
unconscious part
We know that the team is not effective in handling its problems / opportunities. We feel the mistrust and the delegation issues. We can often see other team members using defensive interactions  like excessive control, avoiding embarrassing issues, holding useless time-wasting arguments...  We experience ineffective meetings.

But most of the time we are not aware of our own perception of potential threat and we sincerely believe that our interactions are effective. We just do not “see” nor understand the part of the system under the cloud in figure 3: we are unconscious of our interactions . And we then blame other people – inside or outside the team – and/or the company “culture” and/or our ineffective meetings process. This is illustrated in this team issue story: when I became dangerously disconnected from senior management.

So when we look at a team building workshop or technique, we should ask:

  • does it create first enough awareness of the system to trigger a commitment to learn constructive interactions over a realistic period ?

  • does it then provide an effective learning mechanisms for root team building issues, interactions, including metrics for progress ?

  • does it give simple tools to improve conversations and decision making while still in learning mode for effective interactions ?

Return from root team building issues to team building results

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