When your team drifts to “benevolent neutrality”, try “Positive Abrasion”

by Didier Marlier on Thursday February 28th, 2019

A friend of mine leads a team of 25 top professionals, recognizable by their strong egos. His main frustration was that a sort of “Paradox of Friendship” (following an old study at Bell Labs which found that, in many project teams, creativity and performance were plummeting 12 to 16 months after the team had been assembled, due to its members “neutralizing” each other, to avoid conflict) prevented his team to truly perform.

Confronting them, was greeted by a festival of avoidance: People would not recognize what he was describing, they were getting along well and their performance, given the difficult context, wasn’t “that bad after all”! His frustration was growing as he knew their collective IQ was way below the sum of the individuals.

My friend called me, excited and puzzled: A confrontation had happened, in front of many colleagues, between two team members. He happened to be present and his intuition suggested not to intervene. After all there was no “blood on the walls”. He let a bit of water flow under the bridge and two days later, called the team in to tell them how… happy he was about this clash, the way it was handled and that it was indicating a progression in the relational dynamics rather than a setback, as they feared. He was troubled by seeing a confrontation as a progress. But, he had since noticed a solid progression in the whole team’s dynamics: Energy was higher, dissenting voices were aired and listened to with interest, new ideas started to flow, old orthodoxies were identified and questioned.

What my friend and his team had just gone through was what Bruce Tuckman labeled “Stages of group development”, back in 1965. There are four steps in Tuckman’s model, to which we added an important fifth one:

  • Forming: It would be considered rude, arrogant or aggressive, when you join a team for the first time, to immediately disagree, challenge, shake people up. The Forming phase is the one when our social skills are tested. What people need the most at that stage are inclusion and sociability. Consequently, participants go a long way to try and find common ground, avoid difficult conversations and remain politically correct. It is an important moment when to build the foundation of “Psychological Safety” which Google explains to be critical in its project teams’ performance. The team leader needs to lower the guard, engage at the relational level and be capable of displaying vulnerability (not weakness).
  • Storming: This is the most sensitive stage in Tuckman’s model. It can go terribly wrong, end up in a nasty fight, give birth to anger, rancor and very bad feelings, which will, sooner or later, lead to the implosion of the team. A poorly managed Storming phase is a real time-bomb! Positive abrasion is what leaders should coach their team towards! The leader will act as a facilitator or a… marital counselor, allowing things that have to be told, to be expressed. She will ensure issues are put on the table, leaving nothing in the hiding. He will ensure that there is no blood on the walls and that punches are above the waist. The dominant needs of participants here are about “Let’s get real”, a rejection of benevolent neutrality or tolerance for underperformance. Authenticity is a keyword here. Many leaders (understandably) fear that step and avoid it or seek to block. This is often followed by a loss of respect of their people!
  • Norming: Seeds of discord and destructive “re-storming” may be forgotten behind, should the leader not insist on a review and feedback session. “What has the team learned from the storm? How do we improve the collective level of the game?” are questions for the leader to invite reflection. Norming is a powerful act for the leader who will reassure the team that they are in control and, if they let the storming emerge, it was all part of a bigger plan. Explaining Tuckman’s cycle to the team is also something I recommend at this stage. The team needs to feel that it has progressed as a result of the storming. It is at this very moment that a true Inclusion Culture (as opposed to the fake one happening in Forming, which is rather about avoiding conflict) can start to be created in the team, leading to richer creativity and higher innovation.
  • Performing: Finally, the Holy Grail! Performance only comes when energy, creativity and inclusion are part of the team’s culture. It is important to notice that a team rarely stays in Performing forever! As per demonstrated by “The Paradox of Friendship”, the temptation is high to play safe again, avoid conflict, display “Bela Figura” and go back to a (different) level of Forming. The leader will have to stay attentive to signs of avoidance, neutrality, exclusion and be ready to invite her team into storming again, not if but when necessary.
  • Deforming: Too often, bringing a powerful closing to a project or team’s history, is forgotten. People need a sense of conclusion, a sort of celebration (of failure or success). Providing a meaning to what the collective journey has been, how it has helped the organisation and team members, is important and will plant the seeds of their next adventure.

Jimmy Pontes holds a PhD in Marketing and teaches at ESPM, one of Brazil’s leading Business Schools. Passionate of samba, he uses the key learning of leadership in samba schools as a powerful metaphor for business leaders. Watch this clip: we were working for a Swiss multinational in Geneva. See the difference in energy between a “Neutralized Team” and an “Energized Team” which went, several times through Tuckman cycle. Aproveitem sua Jornada de Liderança! (enjoy your leadership journey!)

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