It was like a flashback to elementary school. Remember when the teacher used to say, "I'm going to have to keep you two separated?" That's where John was. He put each of his team members in a "corner" by assigning them to separate business units. If they didn't speak to each other as much, maybe they could get along.
But there's a downside to segregating staff that John soon realized. When a finance team member ran into something that was unfamiliar, she didn't have anyone to partner with. So John had to decide if he wanted to ping-pong team members across units swapping each other out, or leave them to struggle in their assigned units while John prayed they would figure things out on their own. Needless to say, it wasn't going well.
As always, it was unit operations that paid the price for all the mayhem. With finance team members refusing to support each other and collaborate on projects, business units weren't getting the help they needed. It wasn't long before they were fed up and starting to complain. That's what led John to finally call for help.
What John didn't realize was that his problems started before the bickering got out of hand. He used to hold a weekly staff meeting. When I asked him when he held the last one he said it had been at least 6 or 8 weeks. My first reaction was, "...well, what happened to the 'weekly' part?" John said he stopped having it weekly because staff couldn't find much in common to talk about. That should have been his first clue that something was wrong. Naturally, when people are disagreeing they have, by definition, less in agreement and therefore less in common. So it was no surprise that the team voted conveniently to "save time" by holding off on a meeting until staff had something in common to discuss -- like that was going to happen anytime soon.
John had thought he was holding things together when he tried to keep the acrimonious accountants apart. But by operating independently, and without regular interactions, staff lost their sense of team-ness and attention to common, interdependent goals and purposes. So there weren't really many reasons left to interact with and help each other. Instead of splitting them up, John needed to reunite team members. He needed to find ways to refocus staff on common goals and provide more positive social collaborations -- such as team problem solving -- to keep everyone working together for the benefit of the units they served.
My advice to John was to first reinstate the weekly meetings whether or not he and his team members thought they had anything to talk about. But this time John would focus the agenda on promises they had made to John's boss about how they were going to support the business and on what they needed to do to help the business units they supported. He would provide team members with lots of opportunities to collaborate on work issues to glue the fractured team back together. His staff meeting was the perfect place to do that.
A defining moment occurred in the first meeting when, after the group discussed promises they had made as a team, each team member described his or her work in detail sharing both what was working and what wasn't. The team member who went first described a project she had been working on and explained how she was stuck. John was ready to move on to the next person when another team member jumped up and wanted to help; he said he experienced the same problem in a previous job and was able to solve it. To John's amazement, the two agreed to work together. The next team member had an almost identical experience. When she shared what she was working on, another team member said she had been working on the same thing with her assigned unit, and the two decided to join forces to support both business units. A similar thing happened with the next team member, and so on.
John was astonished. He couldn't believe that a meeting that got people sharing and collaborating could make such a difference in how people worked together. Of course, John's team wasn't out of the woods yet. They still had some work to do to help the changes stick. But after that meeting things only got better.
One of the eye-openers for John was that meetings shouldn't always be just for giving and receiving information. They're also important for keeping the team on-target and building the social networks and relationships people rely on to get the work done. Without a common focus -- and those relationships -- work suffers. If you want to get people working well together, don't underestimate the power of constructive social interactions, particularly those that can be created in your meetings. Look for ways to structure and facilitate your meetings to get more collaboration and better teamwork. And enjoy how much better everyone gets along.
Trying it on for fit:
Make a list of meetings you participate in. Ask yourself how they influence your relationships with other participants. Do they support and encourage you to work closer together? Do they help you collaborate to solve problems and make decisions? Are they geared for sharing information or building teams? Do they reinforce TEAM goals as much as INDIVIDUAL goals? Consider how to use your meetings to engage each other more by discussing how to work together to improve team results. If you're the meeting leader, discover ways to participate less in the meeting and allow team members more time to do this.
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