Not too long ago I was having dinner with a client in the midst of a project that was going well. At some point my client looked up at me and said, “I’m glad you’re not one of those OD people.” After recovering from my surprise, we had a good discussion about what OD is and isn’t. Here is a summary of that discussion.
An important key to having great teams and organizations is their sense of safety. Their members feel free to speak, to dissent, to be radical, and even outlandish. This freedom is key to having high levels of productivity, engagement, and creativity. In so many organizations and teams such freedom has been stifled. Cultures and norms of group think, submissiveness, and ennui develop when team members sense that being different is risky or useless. What a waste of human capital, of human energy, of human beings!
Here are two ideas I’ve found useful toward creating an environment of safety in teams and organizations. Both level the playing field where those involved see each other as human beings rather than boss and subordinate, sales and manufacturing, or some other form of more power and less power.
The Leader Goes First
The leader of the organization or team must be willing to show herself or himself as a human being with all the feeling, warts, and fallibility that all human beings have. Many leaders are reluctant to show their humanness at work believing they should appear strong and invulnerable. However, in my 40 years as an organization development practitioner, I’ve not met a leader who wasn’t eventually willing to open upgiven enough coaching and support. The importance of the-leader-goes-first stems from the tendency for people to follow their leaders for better or for worse. Leaders who are willing to be without the artifice of position or authority will find their people willing to be without artifice with them. The leader who only feels safe behind some particular image of superiority will be followed by people who also minimize how they will present themselves.
I was working with the CEO of a good-sized behavioral health organization who wanted his executive team to be more proactive and creative in responding to the ever-changing vagaries of government regulators and funders. “They’re always look to me for what to do rather than coming with their own ideas,” was his complaint. He suggested that I work his team without him present believing that would be a key to their opening up. Instead, I said that he not only needed to be present but also must be willing to acknowledge that he was part of the problem. I also suggested he ask his team what he needed to do to be a more effective leader. He was quite taken aback: “Won’t they lose respect for me if I admit to that?” I asked him to imagine how he would feel if his boss asked him for how she could improve her leadership. He said he would admire and respect her for that. I sat with him until he grew accustomed to the idea. We did have to work through his concern that the meeting would turn into a bitch focused on him. Notice hissafety issue surfacing. After assuring him that myjob included not allowing that to happen as well as supporting him to stay focused if his defenses went up. With that, he agreed to see if his being more open would support his team in being more forthcoming.
The meeting we scheduled with his team to do this work was typical in its progress. He was open and honest about the team he wanted them to be and his sense of having failed them. As agreed, he requested feedback about how he could be a better leader since his own ideas had fallen short. The request is met with a profound silence.
I facilitate such silence in a couple ways: One is wait it out until some extravert or courageous person breaks it. What they actually say doesn’t matter more than getting the ball rolling. If the wait gets too long even for me, I point to someone and say you first, then we’ll go around the table until we’ve heard from everyone. That invariably get us started albeit slowly. The pace picks up as it is noticed that those that have spoken up have been listened to and respected. Conflicts that have been around for a while surface and are safely worked through.
Gradually the meeting turned into an open, free-flowing conversation as they negotiated what they wanted from him and what he wanted from them. My facilitation focused on keeping them listening to each other, moderating the pace, and checking for consensus. The more people felt heard, the more they felt respected as human beings rather than positions or roles with their attendant power dynamics. When we are heard and respected as a human being, we listen to and respect others as the human beings they are. In a dysfunctional team or organization, it is the leader who must go first.
The Big Share
I learned this exercise from Edie Seashore. I often use it prior to the leader-goes-first exercise to make it easier for everyone. The seven questions below are the heart of the exercise. I may add other questions relevant to the team at hand, but the seven are sacrosanct. It takes five to ten minutes a person when used with an intact team of ten or so people. In stranger groups where the risk is less two to three hours can be needed. Interruptions and questions are not allowed. I also suggested everyone be conscious about what they choose to share and not share. Finally, I admonish them not to share anything they want no one to know
- Where were your ancestors from? What impact is it still having on you?
- Where were you born? Raised? What impact is it still having on you?
- What was your family like? What impact is it still having on you?
- When was the 1st time you realized you were different in some significant way? What impact is it still having on you?
- What have been your milestones of your life?
- What are your ambitions?
- Other important things you would like us to know about you?
The stories increase in personal depth as the process unfolds. To get off to a good start, I suggest that the leader go first after having coached him or her to do so. The questions support the team members in sharing a version of their life’s story in ways that are often moving and emphasizes the humanity that is shared by all. Thus, they level the field. I highlight this by asking the group after everyone has had a turn, what impact did hearing the stories have on you personally and on the team as a whole. They recognize that trust increases as we are willing to be open and vulnerable. From there the trust that has been built facilitates the team working through whatever issues it has .
We’ve used this exercise at the highest levels of organizations in the corporate world as well as the military. Feel free to put away any concerns you may have about groups not wanting to do this exercise. If the leader is willing and sets the stage, the others will follow.
Much of the dysfunction of teams come from the uneven playing field of win/lose power dynamics where position, department, race, and gender determine who the winners and losers are. Experientially leveling the playing and building trust through vulnerability allows for the compassion and listening that are at the heart of good collaboration and consensus-building as well as high levels of engagement and performance.
These two exercise help move teams and organizations toward the sense of safety needed for engaging, synergetic teams. There is always more to learn about creating great teams and organizations. One way to significantly deepen your understanding and skills for working with organizations and teams is to sign-up for my new online program “Creating Great teams and Organizations Intensive” under development for a Fall start. It’s based on the highly successful Triple Impact Intensive that Edie Seashore and I ran for 16 years. The Center for Human Systems is offering significant discount for initial pilot program. Click to check it out at chumans.com/intensive or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO
Center for Human Systems
The CEO is frustrated! She is the CEO of a major health care organization and, like many other organization leaders, believes in teams. She has project teams, functional teams, cross-functional teams, process improvement teams, etc. A few of those teams work very well and others not so well. She wishes she could clone the leaders of her good teams and rid herself of the others. That so many of her teams are mediocre really bugs her! She’s got the dysfunctional team blues.
She is not alone. Her problem is well documented. “75% of Cross-Functional Teams Are Dysfunctional” is the title of a June 2015 Harvard Business Review article by Benham Tabrizi. A 2013 University of Phoenix national survey found that 95 percent of those who have ever worked on a team say teams serve an important function in the workplace, but 75 percent would prefer to not work on teams because they are so often problematic. Teams are seen as important and a problem that needs a solution.
If you followed my past articles, you may have noticed a consistent emphasis on system thinking and here it is again. Teams are small human systems whose behavior cannot be predicted by the intentions and desires of it individual members. They are synergetic in ways that can be positive where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts or negative where the whole is lessthan the sum of its parts. The latter describes dysfunctional teams. Want to move your dysfunctional teams to positive synergy? After all, teams are the fundamental unit of organizations. Here are sixSS useful tactics for improving team performance:
Utilize a systems perspective. A team is a human system whose behavior is the product of its members’ behavior. However, the behavior of a team’s membership is most often derived from the norms of the team rather than from their individual desires and intentions. A system is doing what it is doing only because each member is doing what they are doing. Team members who are being silent to avoid contributing to the team’s problems, are contributing to the problems by virtue of their not doing anything constructive just like those who are being actively not helpful. No single person is responsible for a team’s success or failure. Finger-pointing and fault-finding at individuals simply exacerbate the team’s problems. For more on human systems go check out The Power and The Problem of Organization Development.
Create norms that support a sense of safety. A major contributor to ineffective teams is the lack of anyone willing to address the team’s ineffectiveness while the team is face-to-face. Speaking to the problem is perceived as too risky or futile. Eliminate that perception through ensuring that each member (particularly, the team’s leader) consistently is interested in, curious about, and appreciative of what other members are saying. People often consider silence as consent. Silence more often signals that speaking up is perceived as not safe or is fruitless. Some fear that such a norm will lead to interminable conversations. Move to decision-making when little new information is forthcoming, conversation has become repetitive, or the topic has wandered off course. In the safe group, members will speak when any of those three conditions may have presented themselves. Please notice that being interested, curious, and appreciative need never indicate agreement.
Use Basic Facilitation. Moderate the pace and focus of the team’s interactions. Facilitating the pace of interactions involves minimizing members interrupting each other. Interruptions in case of conflicts between team members tend to escalate the conflict. In such cases, interruptions should be eliminated altogether. Moderating the team’s focus involves helping the team stick to a single topic at a time. Discussion of on topic can easily generate other topics while allowing none to be concluded unless managed. Topics that are ancillary to the agenda of the team meeting should be tabled for a later meeting.
Make consensus work. I’ve ready mentioned attempts at consensus becoming futile exercises in unanimity. That is avoided whenever a reasonable percentage of the team is leaning toward a particular decision and everyone feels heard, and those who do not agree are asked if they are willing to support they proposed decision even though they do not fully agree with it. I’m often asked what if they refuse to support the idea? In my forty years doing this work that has never happened
Manage Egos. Our egos have the goal of maintaining our sense of self-esteem and identity. When we perceive some threat to that maintenance, those goals now driven by the emotions of fear and anger can overwhelm our behavior as if our lives depended on them. In such cases our ego-driven behavior will be contrary to whatever team goals may be at hand. Emotional insistence on being right (i.e., not wrong), emotional attacks on other team members, and avoidance of responsibility are typically ego-driven behaviors. The admonition to “leave egos at the door” is fruitless. Here are two tactics which can counteract ego-driven behavior when it is disrupting movement toward team goals. One, allow the person in question to share his/her point of view with little interruption until the load of emotion has been depleted. Two, assure that s/he feels heard. Feeling of being heard is an enormous ego-boost for many of us. Of course, there is more that can be understood about egos and their management. Stay tuned to my next article.
Establish feedback mechanisms. There is much verbal emphasis on teams and teamwork. Rarely are there significant feedback and rewards for team-based performance, certainly not as compared to other performance. Most organizations monitor their production, sales, and equipment performance on a weekly if not daily basis. How often have you seem organizations monitor team performance? Human systems are guided by whatever feedback systems dominate others. Teams are clearly losers in the comparison. Likewise, organizations offer few individual rewards for being on a good team. And, there are no penalties for being on a poor team. Many organizations provide a great deal of training, but team-leader skills training is typically missing beyond Bruce Tuckman’s “forming, storming, norming, and performing,” but no instruction about how to navigate the first three stages to get to performing. In summary, these feedback inequities tell employees that teams are not that important and carry more weight than statements to the contrary.
These six tactics will help you move toward more productive and engaging teams. Still there is much more to learn about creating great teams and organizations. For more go to chumans.com/intensiveto checkout my new online program titled “Creating Great teams and Organizations Intensive” currently under development for a Fall start. If you want to find out more sign-up for its pilot offering at a significant discount!
Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO, Center for Human Systems
Michael is an organizational psychologist with 40 years of experience with all kinds ofpeople and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organizationand Power, The Infinite Game (with Donald Klein). His next book, Creating Great Teams and Organizations, is in final manuscript form and almost ready for publishing. Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he founded the Center for Human Systems and is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.
Dr. Broom is available for
- Executive coaching for organizational leaders,
- Coaching in organization development for practitioners
- Consulting for organizational excellence!
Contact him at
Once again, at a major organization development conference, I heard OD practitioners bemoan how hard it is to tell potential clients (and family and friends) what they do and how they do it. As usual, I refer them to a definition of organization development I published several months ago. Today, I decided that it was time to totally restructure that definition.
Much of my thinking about this restructuring stems from the work of Bob Marshak and Gervase Bushe and their work on “dialogic OD.” They propose that OD needs a new “generative image” that shifts away from the problem-solving, change-orientation of the past which rarely addressed “change” to what. Hence, they propose “creating great teams and organizations” as a more useful and powerful image. I am following in the footsteps of Bob, an old friend, and Gervase, a new friend. Starting with our purpose (why); then, our goal (what), and concluding with how; here we go!
Creating highly productive, engaging, and sustainable teams and organizations through…
Strengthening the human systems that determine the effectiveness of all other organizational systems by…
Using the collaborative and consensual processes of applied behavioral science with leaders and their groups.
WHY: Creating Highly Productive, Engaging, and Sustainable Teams and Organizations
My old definition focused on the root-cause problem-solving perspective of OD, while still important, focuses on what we wish to leave behind rather than where we want to go. As often as not, my new clients start from “I hope you fix this awful situation and those awful employees” and the negative energy embodied there. In response, I ask, “if all those problems went away, what would you and your organization be able to accomplish?” As that conversation unfolds and a vision for their organization emerges, I watch my client’s energy pick up and blossom into excitement. We have switched the focus from the problem to where they want to go—their own generative image!
My job in these conversations is to stimulate a sense of possibility while getting a sense of the distance we must travel to get there. I do this through identifying and shifting dysfunctional belief systems, instilling root-cause systems thinking, emphasizing the development of support, and offering empowerment. By the time we are done, the energy of excitement is front and center. So much more appealing and productive than the energy stimulated by the goal of pain relief alone.
WHAT: Strengthening the Human Systems that Determine the Effectiveness of All Other Organizational Systems
This area makes organization development more potent than any other change management technology. All organizations have been developed, are run, and maintained by some set of human systems. As much as an organization may attend to their mechanic, electronic, and financial systems, they are all dependent upon the organization’s human systems.
And, like all systems, they are synergic in the sense that their behavior cannot be predicted by the sum of the intentions and desires of their individual members. Put a bunch of bright, knowledgeable, and friendly individuals together. There is a no initial way of knowing if their synergy will be negative as they waste and energy time kvetching, power struggling, or other non-productive behavior. Or, if their synergy will be positive as they gel into a high-performing team that invents the next great breakthrough. Without a focus and an understanding of human systems, creating effective teams will continue to be the mystery in many organizations. It is the rare organization that doesn’t focus its feedback and accountability structures on individuals rather than the more important human systems. They do this in spite of their emphasis on being team-based.
As human systems become more effective so will their individual members and the organization. Working with human systems is the special skill the organization development practitioners have to solve problems at the roots and create great teams and organizations.
HOW: Using the Collaborative and Consensual Processes of Applied Behavioral Science with Leaders and Their Groups
OD practitioners accomplish these goals in two fundamental ways:
- We coach organizational leaders to increase their ability to see their human systems, understand their impact on them, and to manage their behavior to optimize that impact.
- We facilitate organizational leaders and their teams to collaboration and consensus to create alignment and establish the effective use of differences to accomplish team and organizational goals.
Those are two sets of skills effective practitioners must have. Describing those skills, however, is well beyond the scope of this article. For more about those, check out the Dragon Principles Intensive at chumans.com/intensive. It will help you both understand and build immediately useful skill in…
- The eight Dragon Principles that represent the most powerful technology for managing change in human systems from yourself to groups to organizations to communities. I describe these principles briefly in my article “It Takes a Dragon” at chumans.com/it-takes-dragons/
- The six Core Interventions will help you navigate even the most difficult projects. I will describe them in my next article in a couple of weeks.
To enhance your skills with creating great teams and organizations check out the Dragon Principles Intensive. It is a workshop of twelve full days spread over ten months. It offers immediately useful skill with the eight Dragon Principles and the six Core Interventions. We start in San Francisco on October 12 and 13 and in the Washington D.C. area on October 19 and 20! Go to chumans.com/intensive for details and to apply. We keep groups small, so put in your application now! Build your skills and change your life!
Also, Jumpvine, Inc, workforce optimization company is sponsoring a workshop on “Creating Positive Change in Organizations” that I will lead on September 15 in the Atlanta area. For more and to sign-up go to jumpvine.net/broom.
Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO, Center for Human Systems
Michael is an organizational psychologist with 40 years of experience with all kinds of people and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game (with Donald Klein), and the upcoming The Dragon Principles. Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he founded the Center for Human Systems and is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.