There is a recurring theme with the leaders I work with right now - it feels like their team is flailing.
Work responsibilities keep piling on and hybrid work environments are taking a toll. A client of mine introduced me to the NY Times Primal Scream Line which she used after learning her top performer was giving her two week notice during their busiest time of the year.
In addition, many feel this extended period of remote interaction has worsened their team’s relationships. Their playfulness, levity, or even compassion for each other has diminished. Everyone is tired. Behavioral relationships within a group (or team dynamics) have taken a dramatic hit with the barriers required to survive a pandemic. Screens are put between us, masks cover our faces, and gatherings are avoided.
If when we have strong interpersonal relationships at work, we have increased happiness, less stress, increased engagement, and a healthier life (Forbes, Jan 2018), it is reasonable to conclude that when those relationships change dramatically or disappear, our well-being degrades as well.
The best step a leader can take right now, whose team is in this position, is to call this out. Acknowledge and be open about how crappy things have been, are, or might continue to be for a while. Authenticity goes a long way.
But it’s not enough to just talk about it (though that can feel therapeutic for some), action has more power. Here are three strategies to improve dynamics within your team right now.
Shift from Progress to Connection
This is often the hardest strategy to employ so we’ll start with it first. This is to downshift from results, performance, goals, and achievement to connection. This is to engage in activities that tie you together as humans. It might be the job but it also could be hobbies, family, friends, food, art, music, exercise, literature, or what makes you laugh.
It looks different for each team but here are a few real-life examples of teams connecting:
Shrimp Check! A small marketing team, many working remotely, periodically checks-in with each other via Slack (a messaging app). A favorite is to encourage good posture and not sitting like a shrimp. Sometimes, nothing is said. Instead, a picture of a shrimp just shows up in the chat. It makes everyone chuckle (and sit up straighter).
Best Practice Sharing: Due to increased staffing coverage and a lull in the pandemic, a team of Emergency Department physicians now take time to casually discuss cases and learnings with each other, something they haven’t been able to do for two years. Because it’s spontaneous and includes a different group on each shift, they not only learn more but build broader connections within the team.
“Top Chef” Challenge. A team of accountants have lunch together on Fridays. They identify 5 ingredients, and everyone arrives to virtual lunch having made their meal with the same 5 ingredients.
Cat Dance Party: A technology team at a large non-profit has periodic 10-minute dance parties in the middle of the day. Cats (and other pets) are encouraged to attend.
Keep in mind, all of these apply to you, the leader. Modeling the behavior you want to see from the team is required. They won’t downshift their work to connect with each other unless you do.
Make Meetings Worth It
There is no greater time suck and sole crusher than a wasteful meeting. Not only is an unproductive meeting painful on the micro-level (the day-to-day slog of having to attend it) but it chips away at overall engagement and job satisfaction, the macro-level too.
I worked with a team who acknowledged that their weekly update was a waste of time. One disclosed that she intentionally shut off her video and did other work to feel somewhat productive during the 60-minute meeting. Others fessed up to doing the same thing. There was a obvious feeling of camaraderie across this team. It was a relatable moment and it sparked team problem-solving, which can be a gratifying experience.
We engaged in a candid discussion about why the meeting was so unproductive. The core problem surfaced: participants were using that time to address individual questions. This resulted in most of the topics raised only pertaining to a sub-set of attendees. In that moment, they agreed the weekly update would now only be for topics that pertained to the entire group.
This reduced the update meeting by 30 minutes each week, and furthermore, engaged everyone in attendance.
Learn, just for the Sake of It
Many don’t need to read research to believe the benefit learning has on our well-being. Just consider it for yourself. Think about a time when you were learning about something you were really interested in. What did that feel like? What expression did you carry on your face when telling someone else about it?
Sure, there were moments of frustration. But I imagine there were feelings of determination, challenge, fulfillment, and wonder. These feelings perpetuate positive emotion, meaning, and engagement, all building blocks for well-being.
Examine ways to bring learning, just for the sake of it, to the team. This means to let the team explore (work related) topics of their choosing and, as their boss, reduce workload enough to create space for it. Think in terms of 1-2 hours/week. My bet is there is an unproductive meeting on calendar to be cancelled.
Maybe the team wants to learn together through group activities like reading articles, books, or listening to podcasts. Let the team choose their own learning path. Then, reserve time in an already recurring meeting to share the newfound wisdom.
Team dynamics have degraded over the past two years. It is a byproduct of all the barriers that have been put up between us. But by prioritizing connection over progress, ensuring meetings are productive, and learning just for the sake of it, leaders can provide the support teams need to turn this corner.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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