Transforming teams with courage
In our current environment, where the rate of change is accelerating, challenges are becoming more numerous and complex, and we are all working within a state of constant uncertainty; the work of teams is becoming simultaneously more difficult and crucial to the success of organisations.
All teams and especially executive teams, are struggling to work cohesively and develop innovative solutions whilst also managing:
- Increased pressure to deliver within a challenging operating environment
- Changing interpersonal communication patterns with hybrid working
- Constant reformation with people leaving and joining or through more comprehensive organisation redesign and task requirements
- Additional expectations to create inclusion and belonging based on employee demands, organisational pressure and more expansive societal change
- The increasing complexity of team structures beyond matrix working and including less role clarity, partly due to the increased pace of working and changing needs of the work itself.
In this environment, more than ever, it is crucial for teams to invest in coaching to improve how they communicate and find better ways of working together.
There are four stages to transforming teams with courage, and each builds on the work of its predecessor; teams are then likely to find themselves needing to return to the beginning of the process to work through their next transformation.
“Real transformation requires real honesty. If you want to move forward – get real with yourself.”
Safety, discomfort and complexity
Neuropsychologists have shown that in times of increased change and uncertainty, human brains register a threatening environment and move into a protective way of thinking and behaving (see David Rock’s SCARF model). Our natural threat response is triggered when we experience job uncertainty, financial worries, lack of connection in our relationships, reduced control of our environment and lack of fairness. In these situations, we tend to prioritise ourselves, seek clarity and certainty, and resist or avoid change and risk.
Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite of what we need to survive in times of change, either as leaders of our teams or organisations. As leaders, we need to find a way to open up to a growth mindset and encourage others to do the same.
Opening up to a growth mindset becomes possible in teams when they develop psychological safety in a way which increases everyone’s ability to deal with discomfort (e.g. from uncertainty or personal growth), such as that described by Shane Snow.
Alongside growing compassion, once teams become more able to step into discomfort, disagree with each other and take risks, they begin to open the door to step into uncertain and complex situations with honesty and authenticity, avoiding the trap of simply doing the same things faster.
“I spent many years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those meaningful experiences wrought with uncertainty: Love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity, to name a few.”
One important and impactful way to build safety and tolerance of discomfort in teams involves facilitated conversations with a leader role modelling openness and vulnerability. When leaders openly share their vulnerabilities, they encourage others to openly speak about things they would usually hide e.g. their emotional reactions to change, within a compassionate environment. I’d strongly recommend working with an external facilitator to manage all of the group dynamics to build these communication patterns and relationships within your team.
Valuing our differences
Safety is just the beginning. To build relationships within a team that are based on trust and will allow the team to work better together, we need to know each other in a way where we can value everyone’s contributions, even the people you don’t understand or naturally get along with.
By now, we know that diverse teams improve all types of outcomes, such as financial results, creativity, engagement, decision making and overall business outcomes (see various works by Juliette Bourke and Deloitte, amongst many others). However, some teams do not have much diversity based on identity or aren’t ready to address the issues that come with creating anti-racist practices, facing patriarchal structures or reducing homophobia and disability discrimination (to name but a few). So as Gardenswartz and Rowe illustrate, personality is central to our diversity. It is also something we can measure objectively through personality assessments, and it is easier for teams to discuss as they begin their journey in valuing their differences.
Even better, strengths-based tools can help leaders and teams understand and create a language about their unique strengths that allows everyone to value contributions from people they may previously not have understood or found irritating! With a combination of individual and team coaching sessions, everyone in the team will understand themselves and each other and their roles in teamwork, including decision-making.
Making emotional transformations
Once there are good levels of safety and team members begin to value each other, work can start to uncover the underpinning attitudes and emotions which drive behaviour.
William Bridges helpfully defines the difference between change and transformation. He says change happens around us whether we like it or not and is generally tangible (e.g. a restructure). In contrast, transformation describes the emotional transition we need to make to accept, move on and implement the change. As leaders, we need to make those transitions quickly and then support our teams to deal with their emotions through change.
Leaders then help their team members to let go of what is no longer, travel through uncertainty with safety to create a genuinely new future and begin to connect to what is new (bearing in mind the new reality is in itself likely to include even more uncertainty and complex change).
When transitions aren’t successful, outcomes can include:
- Lack of innovation and truly creative problem solving
- Failed transformation programmes
- Disengaged and resentful employees
Coaching leaders and teams through such transitions takes emotional intelligence, a heightened awareness of what’s unspoken in a group and skill at intervening to help people be vulnerable and give voice to their emotions. It also requires an understanding that we all experience change transitions differently. We create unintentional patterns of transition based on past experiences, so to have a team transition successfully, every individual needs to be brought on the journey, generally in different ways and on different timescales.
“We resist transition not because we can’t accept the change but because we can’t accept letting go of that piece of ourselves that we must give up when and because the situation has changed.”
Being creative and tapping into 'Divergent thinking’
By the time most people enter organisations to work, they have internalised societal messages that creativity is of less value than ‘real work’. Creativity is connected to children and play or lower paid jobs. Naturally creative people may have learned to suppress that part of themselves or apply it only to a hobby which belongs firmly outside of work. However, any transformation requires creativity, either of thought or to help process emotional transition.
So often, teams problem-solve or make decisions primarily by building on the ideas of a small number of influential people in the group. Pressures of group dynamics, such as conformity bias, generally drive many to agree and build on other people’s ideas. Teams can avoid conflict or debate in favour of emotional and psychological comfort. Interestingly, this generally reduces psychological safety for the whole team, causing people to avoid speaking up and withdraw or even leave. Teams are so used to this process that if original ideas are suggested by anyone other than a few people, they are quickly rejected. The individual offering them can be ridiculed, reinforcing the unwritten rule and reducing creativity.
Divergent thinking in such teams can be encouraged simply by asking, ‘Could someone share a different opinion or idea?’, or a similar question. Of course, this requires that the team is already able to apply everything outlined so far in this article. A more complex but thought-provoking and fun activity could be to use De Bono’s six thinking hats methodology to work with a team over a couple of sessions (including a ‘sleep’, which can help gain perspective and develop powerful reflections).
Other techniques include someone in the team who brings some form of diversity in professional expertise, experience or even personal identity. A group of even world-renowned specialists can be prompted to think about something from a different angle by someone completely inexperienced.
Finally, using creative processes can prompt teams to transition in ways they wouldn’t otherwise achieve. Given the strong social messaging that some things don’t belong in the workplace, teams need to have established a grounding in the aspects of transformation already outlined. Then techniques such as mindfulness, guided visualisation, storytelling, writing, drawing, modelling and anything playful and humorous such as selected games can help teams learn that the transition process can be as important as the outcome in creating transformations and developing new solutions to ‘wicked problems’.
“The world we have created is a product of our thinking; it cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”
Concluding with courage
While I’ve not explicitly mentioned courage, I’m confident in reading this you’ll see that embarking on the process I’ve described to transform teams takes courage. People have different thresholds for courage, what would be easy for one person might be really challenging for another. Leaders must be able to role model courage for their team, step into uncertainty and reward others who do the same. The team must work together to encourage all of them to dare to try something new and potentially fail, then try again, knowing that the rewards when they succeed will be great. The critical factor of success throughout creative transformations is for a team to grow together in the pursuit of doing something they collectively find meaningful and worthwhile.
In the true nature of transitions, this exploration has now taken us full circle, back to the beginning, to find a reason to transform both personally as a leader and collectively as a team. Teams who can achieve this receive huge rewards, from personal satisfaction and career growth to delivering outcomes in the most challenging environments.
Practical steps to transform teams with courage
For teams to become genuinely high performing, I recommend a number of practical steps:
- Leaders should role model vulnerability and compassion which will encourage those in the team to speak about their emotional response to transitions
- Team members need to understand and learn to value the differences that each team member brings
- Leaders need to be aware of everyone’s differing emotional responses to change and be able to coach each member of the team through their emotional transition
- Transformation requires innovation, this is best achieved by increasing divergent thinking and using creative techniques to solve problems in new ways
- All of these steps take courage, everyone’s threshold for courage is different, leaders have a pivotal role to build a team in which creativity and risk taking is encouraged and rewarded to make sustainable transformations.
About the author
Al Pacifico-France is a business psychologist, organisation devotement consultant and diversity and inclusion specialist with over 20 years of experience, and Associate of You Collective. Al has also traversed the highest motorable pass (Khardung La, Ladakh in the Indian Himalayas) on a Royal Enfield Motorbike. They learned to walk again after breaking their back in an accident at home. Most recently, Al has embraced their creative side, producing mixed media art.