“We lost it during the 2nd half-time!”

by Didier Marlier on Saturday December 7th, 2013

I was recently invited to help to facilitate a dialog in a team of remarkably intelligent executives. The team wasn’t dysfunctional per se, but difficult discussions needed to be made. The leader expected those to be intellectually challenging and emotionally tensed.

Prior to the talk, I reminded the team of the Losada model (its mathematic may be questioned but our experience demonstrates the validity of its logic and flow): behaviors create a type of emotional environment which will be critical to the quality of the strategic dialog. I also provided as example, some helpful behaviors such as those identified, in its days with IMD, by Chris Parker and mentioned in our book, Engaging Leadership.

For childish as it may seem, we had brought black and white casino chips. Each participant had a stock of these and the instruction was simply to “gratify” other participants with a white chip if one found their behavior (not the content) creating value in the discussion and a black one, should they destroy value. My role was going to be to sit and observe, only allowing myself a process intervention, should I see a dynamic taking place, worth noticing and explaining.

The discussion was planned to last for 4 hours. The first part was simply amazing. People occasionally “derailed” (talking too much, interrupting, procrastinating, contradicting, defending, closing) but the feedback was immediate and the person corrected their behavior. And little by little people started to self-discipline and in two hours, the progresses made around very sensitive and politically touchy subjects were amazing. Everybody looked satisfied and confident that things would rapidly be solved after a well-deserved break.

And, like with a football team, that leads by 3-0 at the break, “we lost it during the 2nd half”… People fell back into their old habits, stopped  handing chips to each other. The discussions were still on very fundamental subjects but in a very disorganized, sometimes rambling, conflicting, repeating, advocating, imposing manner… Whereas it had taken us two hours to cover 85% of the way on the first half, the 2nd part seemed endless, sometimes boring. The energy level was much lower…

We ended up, though, where we should have, with clear and courageous decisions taken, and a clear action plan drafted. After closing our discussion, we ran a review amongst us. Whilst everybody was satisfied with the end result, we all agreed that we drifted heavily during the 2nd half. If we all recognized the symptoms (we let bad behaviors creep in again, we stopped giving feedback to each other, we switched our neutrality hats on when the boss fell back into his old habits…), we were all wondering why? Came the turn of an elite sportsman who made an interesting parallel with the world of sports: “We lost it during the 2nd half, he said, because we became complacent. We were nearly there after the first half and came back to the discussion field, being loose on our discipline. We were tired and everyone tried to score, but in isolation this time. This resulted in much more fatigue, frustrated efforts and lower efficiency”. And the team all agreed.

I chose to share this simple but highly symbolic story with you all as a follow-up of last week’s blog:

  • In order to challenge an organization’s culture, through the behavioral lever, you need to have an aligned leadership team, at the behavioral, emotional and intellectual levels.
  • Whereas the concept of constructive, value building, behaviours is simple to understand, the story above shows that it looks more like a marathon that a 100 meter sprint. The drift back to old habits survives for a long time and permanent attention as well as self and collective discipline are needed, in order to progress from the “consciously unskilled” to the “unconsciously skilled” modes of functioning.
  •  If you are a part of a team that has decided to hold either a punctual but delicate discussion, like in this story, or one that is going to transform the culture of a whole organization, like in last week’s story, do not expect “the boss” to be in charge and the sole responsible for the process and output. During the “first and glorious half time” of the story, two of the team members took an active part in the success by asking open questions, summarizing, refocusing, reframing and facilitating the debate, freeing the leader up to provide input and content guidance to the team.

Being in such a team is such a different and fulfilling feeling, at the intellectual and emotional levels, that it is something worth trying!

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