This story of transformational teamwork begins three weeks ago when I was the only person standing between a roomful of professionals and the start of their Labor Day weekend. We were at the Oregon coast for a team retreat, tackling five distinct topics.
Under the circumstances I was impressed to see nobody drag their heels. Nor did they hold anything back. They worked earnestly and boldly throughout the session.
Before wrapping up I posed a question, one I commonly ask.
“What’s your insight from the day?”
In the final five minutes we circled the room to hear from all 26 participants. They spoke openly, which wasn’t surprising given how courageously they piped up at other points. People had veered into controversy instead of away from it.
With two participants remaining, one shared something I never saw coming.
“Today was healing.”
I was riveted.
It wasn’t that someone admitted to a personal, transformative experience.
No, what struck me was how a session so rigorous, so results-oriented and so focused could leave her with an experience of healing.
She said she would go back to work after Labor Day with renewed understanding of her team and the concrete ways it is genuinely aligned. Others in the room nodded in agreement.
As I did my own silent reflection, here’s what I saw.
While focusing on the work at hand, a disjointed team started to weave itself back together. This wasn’t therapy and it wasn’t heavy on process. Practically speaking, the kinks got worked out because people:
- discovered they actually want the same thing,
- named the big obstacles to achieving shared goals, and
- created plans to make the changes they want.
The right kind of tension
The force that propels teams forward needn’t be left to chance. There actually is a way to infuse productive tension that is organically motivating. Using the right elements, a team can begin to operate in well-orchestrated ways to advance its goal. (The opposite is also true. The wrong elements lead to oscillation; this is where conflict is inadvertently built in to the structure, thereby preventing the achievement of a goal. Unfortunately, it can’t be fixed with patchwork solutions.)
Healing wasn’t on my mind when I prepared the agenda. The client’s objectives and priorities were clear and I designed the day accordingly. Each exercise flowed into the next, building momentum and concurrence.
Most importantly, I tapped the principles of structural tension to navigate the live session and usher the team forward. For example, at each step, I called attention to valuable contrasts such as:
- how things have been working versus how people want them to work
- convoluted communication versus direct, simple conversations
- systems issues versus one-time fixes to improve work flow
The first few people to bravely speak their mind did so constructively. They were succinct. They didn’t complain but rather stated facts as they saw them. So, it didn’t crash the meeting. There’s a way to name the good, the bad and the ugly to uplift and not pull down. People feel the difference. It makes it safer for others to speak up, too.
Hence, the discomfiting inner tension of, “will this team ever feel good to me?” was displaced by a constructive question for team members. “What steps do we need to take to achieve what we all want?”
I checked in with the group’s leader after Labor Day. “To me,” she said, “we all want the same thing. It’s that people’s perspectives differ. I walked away from the session with a heavy load lifted because now we’re moving in the same direction, and we know it.”
Given a few simple tools, teams can become self-sufficient and move ahead without dependency on outside support. The right tension – one that leverages the gap between today’s reality and the team’s vision for the future – does most of the lifting. It sparks motivation, since people are drawn to work on the things they want to have. That has a healing effect all by itself — a welcome and non-trivial side benefit.