Running in the Dark

Published: June 27, 2011

I am often asked to assess the structure and dynamics of teams I've never before met. With no contextual information, I am forced to rely exclusively on the accuracy of the data that arises from the Team Clock team effectiveness survey. Once the analysis is complete, I am introduced to the team for the first time for a debrief session. Sometimes, it feels like running in the dark.

Recently, one of these blind assessments revealed data that was not favorable. If the results could be trusted, the team would need to be informed that there was a rotten apple amidst their bushel. A toxic teammate appeared to be undermining the trust of the team. While they might be capable of overcoming this team poison, it was unlikely that they would be capable of achieving great results in their business metrics.

I had difficulty sleeping on the night before the debrief session. What if my tool had led me astray? How do you tell a team they have trust issues? What if the problem is with the leader? Despite my apprehension, I forged ahead with the consultation. I shared the data and delivered the news. Unlike most team effectiveness assessment debriefs, this team was unusually quiet. The team leader fidgeted and squirmed in his seat as I detailed the implications of my evaluation. At one point, he scribbled a note and slid it across the table to a colleague. I sensed trouble.

As I awkwardly conveyed my position that the team was not likely capable of greatness under the current structure and dynamics, the team leader took a deep breath and said, “Stop. I need to call a time-out.” The room fell silent as he prepared to speak. “How did you know this?” he said. “It’s like you’ve been in our workplace,” he continued. “How did you know we had a trust problem without ever meeting us before?”

He went on to detail the struggles of the past year where a particular teammate made life miserable for everyone else. He explained that, just the prior week, he had let the dysfunctional employee go. When he suggested that the rest of the team had wished he had taken action a year ago, they all nodded in unison. “Somehow, he said, you hit a bulls-eye.”

The team breathed a collective sigh of relief and began the task of defining targeted actions for re-establishing trust now that the cancer had been removed. Their data had also indicated that they were anchored in crystal clear norms and that they historically responded to change with nimble adaptability. They quickly committed to taking immediate action and, energized by the evidence that they were attacking the correct problem, predicted measurable improvement in their business performance metrics within six months.

Running in the dark is scary. You never know if you’re going to hit an unexpected wall or sprint toward freedom. Often, one doesn’t happen without the other.

On your mark, get set, GO!

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.