Dealing with Team Challenges

Excerpt from “Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results” by Roger Schwarz (Jossey-Bass, April 2013).

By Roger Schwarz

If you head up a leadership team, you probably face a variety of team challenges. Two of these challenges are dealing with direct reports who can’t resolve a conflict and dealing with direct reports who are trying to influence you. Creating a smarter team means approaching these situations with transparency, curiosity, accountability, and compassion so you and your team create informed choices. Here are two frequent challenges—when direct reports can’t agree and helping your team influence you—and ways to approach them.

When Direct Reports Can’t Agree

What do your direct reports do when they need to agree on a decision, but can’t? You’ve probably seen this situation. Two of your direct reports have strong views on a topic, the stakes are high for both of them, and they can’t bridge the gap.

If they’re using a unilateral control approach, they’re each thinking they need to influence you so their own position wins out. They may try to get to your office before the other one does. Alternatively, if they think you’re the “decides-based-on-the-last-person-who-got-a-word-in” type, they may try to figure out when you have talked with the other teammate so as to swoop in afterward.

In any case, the problem with one person escalating the issue to you is that not all of the information gets on the table, which undermines commitment. You don’t get to hear all the information and neither do the direct reports who are escalating the issue to you. When one direct report finds out that the other has prevailed with you, both will have a larger problem to solve—they will lose trust in each other.

As the leader of the team, you can ask your direct reports to be accountable to each other, not just to you. If you’re using the mutual learning approach, you’re thinking that you want everyone to be transparent and to accept accountability, and you want to ensure that everyone can make an informed choice. Ask them to jointly design a way to bring their disagreement to you. When direct reports are in conflict with each other and at an impasse, have them come to you together. The first direct report to recognize that they are at an impasse might say to the other, “I think we’ve gone as far as we can by ourselves and we still don’t have a decision we can both support. Do you see that the same way? If you agree that we’re stuck, I suggest we go together to , describe where we are, and figure out the next step together. I want to make sure hears each of our views, so we all hear the same thing at the same time and we’re all involved in the next step. How does that sound?”

 Before they get to a meeting with you, ask them to prepare together as follows:

  1. Identify the source of their disagreement. Is it that they disagree about some information? Is it that they have different needs they can’t reconcile? Or is it that they are making different assumptions that lead them to different conclusions?
  2. List the possible solutions the two of them have considered. Ask them to be ready to explain what it is about each of their solutions that didn’t work for the other.
  3. Be ready to tell you what they need from you to help resolve the disagreement. Do they need you to validate whose assumptions are correct? Do they need you to identify which of the competing interests should take priority? By asking your direct reports to jointly design a way to resolve their disagreements, you increase the chance of a high-quality decision with high commitment that maintains or improves your working relationships. And you ensure that your reports do not inappropriately depend on you. They are supporting the decision and expect their direct reports to do so, as well.

Helping Your Team Influence You

Your direct reports spend a lot of time thinking how best to influence you. You probably spend time listening to them try to influence you. You can save them and yourself time and effort simply by telling them what it will take to influence you.

There are times when you’ll be making a decision for the team after getting input from team members. Although you haven’t made a decision, you’ve thought about the issue and realize that only certain kinds of information will influence your decision.

Tell people what kind of information will influence you. You might say, “I’m leaning toward combining the two groups instead of keeping them separate. I’m convinced it makes sense in terms of reliability and cost. I think it also makes sense for improving service quality, but I’m not completely sure. I’m open to being influenced about that. If you have information or thoughts about how it will affect service quality, I’m open to hearing that.”

If you were operating from a unilateral control mindset, this strategy wouldn’t make any sense. Telling people how to influence you is like helping others beat you. But in mutual learning, it’s simply being transparent about your reasoning. This helps others be accountable for the kind of information they share with you so that you can make a more informed choice. It also saves time.

Team members can use a similar approach with you or anyone else they want to influence. Rather than trying to figure out whether someone is open to being influenced, they simply ask something like, “Are you open to being influenced on this issue? I’m asking because I don’t want to take your time or my time if you’re not.”

If you say you’re still open to being influenced, the team member could ask you, “What would influence you? What kind of information would make a difference for you? I’m asking because it will help me quickly figure out if I have some information that could be useful to you.” By being curious, the team member asks you to be transparent and accountable. That enables both of you to make a more informed choice.

Excerpt from “Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results” by Roger Schwarz(Jossey-Bass, April 2013).

Roger Schwarz has been a thought leader in the realm of team leadership effectiveness for two decades. The best-selling author is an organizational psychologist and president and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates, an organization development consulting firm formed in 1996. His clients include the American Red Cross, The Brookings Institution, TransCanada Corporation, Chevron, the World Bank, and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Prior to founding Roger Schwarz & Associates, he served as tenured associate professor of public management and government, and assistant director at the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Schwarz’s new book, “Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results,”is the follow-up to the best-selling “The Skilled Facilitator.” For information, visit Follow Roger on Twitter @LeadSmarter.

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