Business owners often tell us that their team is
“dysfunctional” (their word, not ours) and ask us to help identify and fix the
issue. When we dig deeper and ask them to describe what they are observing in
detail, we typically hear that certain team members are problematic and need to
change their behaviour. We also hear vague statements about “them” (everyone
else) not knowing how to operate effectively. As experienced business coaches,
we know that these are not accurate or helpful assessments of the situation.
Teams are complex systems of individuals with different
preferences, skills, experiences, perspectives, and habits. The odds of
improving that complex system in a meaningful and sustainable way are higher if
every team member — including the leader — learns to master these three foundational
capabilities: internal self-awareness, external self-awareness, and personal
Internal self-awareness involves understanding
your feelings, beliefs, and values — your inner narrative. When we don’t
understand ourselves, we are more likely to succumb to the fundamental
attribution error of believing that the behaviors of others are the result of
negative intent or character (“he was late because he does not care”) and
believing that our own behaviours are caused by circumstance (“I was late
because of traffic”). Teammates with low internal self-awareness typically see
their beliefs and values as “the truth,” as opposed to what is true for them
based on their feelings and past experiences. They can fail to recognize that
others may have equally valid perspectives.
The good news is that internal self-awareness can
be learned. To start, you — as a leader of the team or a teammate — can pause, reflect, and consider your responses to these
questions when you find yourself in challenging or emotionally-charged
· What emotions am I experiencing?
· What am I assuming about another
person or the situation?
· What are the facts vs. my
· What are my core values, and how
might they be impacting my reactions?
If you take the time to consider your responses and
resist the impulse to rush to an answer, you can learn a great deal about
yourself. As William Deresiewicz, author of Solitude and
Leadership, said in an address at West Point, “[The] first thought is never
[the] best thought.”
External self-awareness involves understanding how
our words and actions impact others. Most of the business owners we work with
have no idea how their behaviours are impacting their colleagues. As a result,
it’s difficult for them to recognize and leverage the strengths that make them
a productive teammate, as well as identify and correct behaviours that
negatively impact the team. Without this knowledge, they can’t improve.
One way to start building external self-awareness
is to observe others’ reactions during discussions. Did someone raise their
voice? Stop talking? Gesture? Sit back from the table? Smile? You can
collect some valuable information this way. You should also be mindful of the
fact that you will reach some inaccurate conclusions. In these situations,
remember that you are interpreting why colleagues react the way they do,
and those interpretations will be influenced by your personal beliefs and
experiences. Paying attention to your internal self-awareness and considering
how you reached your initial conclusions will help.
A more direct approach is to ask teammates for specific, straightforward feedback:
· What am I doing in team meetings that
· What am I doing that is not helpful?
· If you could change one part of how I
interact with the team, what would it be?
This may feel risky and uncomfortable, but it’s the
only way you can get accurate data about the impact of your words and actions.
In terms of timing, you should carefully assess
whether it is additive to the discussion at hand to ask for feedback in the
moment, or whether it is better to ask later. For example, in a one-on-one
conversation with a trusted colleague, it’s probably OK to pause and ask.
However, in a big team meeting, pausing the conversation to get personal
feedback can be disruptive to what your team is trying to accomplish.
When we think of accountability, we typically think
of holding others accountable. But the most effective leaders and teammates are
more focused on holding themselves accountable.
Like self-awareness, this sounds easy, though it
rarely is. When confronted with a challenge or discomfort, many of us have
established unhealthy patterns: blaming or criticizing others, defending
ourselves, feigning confusion, or avoiding the issue altogether.
If a team is not working well together, it’s highly
likely that every team member is contributing to the difficulty in some way,
and each of them could be taking personal accountability to make the team more
To be a personally accountable leader or teammate,
you need to take these steps:
1.Recognize when there is a problem.
Sometimes this is the hardest part because we’d rather look away or talk about
how busy we are instead. Resist the urge to do so.
2.Accept that you are part of the
problem. You are absolutely contributing to the situation.
3.Take personal responsibility for
solving the problem.
4.Stick with it until the problem is
A small shift in mindset will directly impact
behaviors and can have a significant positive impact on an entire team.
In most teams, a typical response to frustration is
“my teammate is annoying.” But when an effective leader or teammate becomes
frustrated, she will put the above tips into practice instead:
· Explore her reactions by considering
her emotions, beliefs and values, and asking herself what in her is causing
this reaction (internal self-awareness).
· Consider the impact she may be having
on others by observation or inquiry (external self-awareness).
· Assess how she is contributing to the
situation and make a conscious choice about how to react to improve the team’s
outcomes (personal accountability).
Most teams we work with learn to operate more
effectively by building and strengthening these three capabilities over time.
Changing how we process information and respond requires not just learning
these new skills, but also demonstrating them long enough to form new habits. Effective teammates
believe that, sometimes, you have to go slow to go fast. They invest the time
and energy needed to build these foundational skills, so they can be better at
tackling the difficult business opportunities and challenges that they face.
Adapted HBR Jennifer
Porter January 2019