Do any of these situations sound familiar?
“Our team gets off track in meetings and wastes time talking about irrelevant topics.”
“My boss reacts too quickly to problems before we are able to fully understand the issue.”
“I freeze and shut-down when my colleague disagrees with me in a meeting.”
These statements represent some of the most common frustrations on a team. Whether it is wandering team conversations, a reactive boss, or handling the assertive (and maybe overconfident) colleague, teamwork can be a real challenge. In situations like these, people often shut down or disengage.
Some teams refer to it as stalling-out. It is when some sort of obstacle presents itself. It may be a difficult colleague, an unclear process, or a novel situation never encountered and because the person or team doesn’t know what to do or how to respond, they stall. Then, there are the various emotional reactions to the stall: irritation, fear, frustration, confusion, even anger.
A simple strategy to get momentum back is to ask a question. Questions not only deflect the pressure of feeling like you must have (in that moment) the perfect response or solution, but questions give everyone pause to think. Questions can also interrupt the often-emotional reactions people have to the obstacles.
This week we offer five questions that will prompt the conversations needed to solve whatever is causing the team to stall out.
WHAT DO OTHERS THINK?
This is the ideal question to ask when your opinion has been challenged in a group setting or there are one or two people dominating a conversation. Both situations will cause an individual or team to shut down.
Inviting the opinions of others is the best way to include diverse opinions. Teams who engage in this kind of dialogue will ultimately identify a better solution than those who only listen to one or two opinions. In addition, this question is a tried-and-true approach for giving yourself time to collect your thoughts after having been challenged or disagreed with in a meeting.
It sounds like…
“Thanks for your perspective. What do other’s think?”
“Thank you for sharing. I’d like to hear from someone else. What do others think?”
WHAT DO WE WANT TO ACCOMPLISH?
This is the first question to be asked at the start of any project, meeting, or problem-solving conversation. Yet sometimes it is not asked, or even considered. Many meetings will begin without a clear sense of purpose. This is different than a topic. Every meeting has a topic but what the team will do about that topic is what needs to be identified.
If the meeting or discussion purpose is unclear, it is appropriate to politely interject and ask for clarification. Do so earlier than later in the meeting or discussion so that the time spent is as productive as possible.
It sounds like…
“Before we move on, what do we want to accomplish in this meeting?”
“Can we pause for a minute to discuss our goal? What do we want to accomplish today?”
WHAT IS THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY?
It is easy to get swept up in the emotion of something going wrong. An employee reports the wrongdoing of another, senior leaders hear one piece of criticism and change direction, or colleagues complain about problems from the past. Sometimes, it even feels good to vent about these issues even though we know it won’t be productive.
If a person or team has a pattern of doing this, hear them out, acknowledge the stress it has caused and then genuinely inquire, “What is the other side of the story?” Seek out explanations and considerations from multiple perspectives. The time it takes to discover different perspectives will also yield a more thoughtful (and likely effective) approach.
It sounds like…
“I hear you. This sounds tough. What do you think is the other side of the story?”
“What explanations could there be for this? What’s the other side of the story?”
WHAT IS THE EXPECTATION?
A former colleague was frustrated with people on her team because they lacked follow-through. She explained, “The team meets weekly to discuss the work, everyone agrees to it, and then some people don’t deliver. Their work is late or incomplete.”
When asked if everyone on the team had the same understanding of the tasks and deadlines for the work she said “We don’t need to talk about that. Everyone should know by now.”
The issue is clear. What the team lacks a shared understanding of what is expected. If expectations aren’t specifically defined, ask “What is the expectation?” The purpose is to ensure the entire team has the same interpretation of what needs to be done and when it is due.
It sounds like…
“To be sure we’re all on the same page, what is the expectation?”
“Let’s have everyone share what their tasks are and when they will be complete. We want to be sure we share the same expectations.”
WHAT IS THE NEXT STEP?
“Ok. Here is what we should do.” These are the futile words of a leader who is prescribing a solution for the team. These are the same leaders who also complain about their teams not being able to solve problems on their own. To avoid this, a leader can simply ask the team “What is the next step?”
Leaders who hold back and ask the team to define the path forward will ultimately build a team that is empowered to make decisions independently. More so, encouraging others to define their own tasks will build buy-in and engagement around the work.
It sounds like…
“Great discussion. Where do we go from here? What is our next step?”
“What are the next three steps we need to take to make progress on this issue?”
There is no doubt that when a team works well together, the experience is fulfilling. But it doesn’t always happen that way. Leaders and teams can avoid stalling out by asking questions that prompt everyone to think deeper and keep the momentum going.
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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, coaching, and professional development resources.