Third Rail

Published: March 30, 2011

Is it wiser to back off and leave well enough alone when a team issue is so hot that controversy is a certain result?

Chicago’s elevated railway trains are powered by the continuous delivery of electricity supplied by a conductor that feeds a “third rail” next to a pair of rails upon which the passenger cars travel. Anyone who rides Chicago’s “L” public transportation system knows that you never touch the third rail. The consequences are immediate and deadly.

In team dynamics, “hot button issues” are sometimes called “third rail issues” because almost any position taken is sure to please one group of people and offend another. The polarities generated by extreme reactions can be deadly to a team’s ambitions.

Viewpoints become easily entrenched. Competition ensues. Collaboration requires letting go of things that seem vital to the survival of an idea. Team members assume a protective stance. Differences grow dialectically opposed.

How does a team move forward? Is it necessary that one side acquiesce to the other?

Classic dialectics involve a dialogue between two opposite points of view. A dialogue, by its nature, seeks understanding of the other person’s position. Ideally, understanding leads to acknowledgment, appreciation, and then, synthesis of opposing perspectives into something new.

Synthesis enables something innovative to emerge from contrasting positions. Human service professionals call it “working through” where the mutual effort to understand the other person’s position creates collaboration and trust. As a result, rather than attempting to move forward with a chasm of inclusion versus exclusion of ideas, common goals are re-established on a platform built from mature dialogue and understanding.

“Us and them” becomes “we.”

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 College 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.