The Light Goes Off – and Then On Again!

We form teams and partnerships for all sorts of valid reasons.   Good collaboration can expand creativity, increase energy and commitment, sustain motivation, yield greater results, and provide deep connection and sense of purpose.  According to industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie:

Teamwork … is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”

At least that’s the goal.  It doesn’t always work that way.

Even good teams can lapse into a rut where people settle into roles and a comfy status quo.  I got a first hand reminder when our bathroom light switch started failing.  We could flip it on, but then the switch would droop back into the off position.  We’d coax it back up and have light until it sagged again.  Eventually it gets pretty annoying.

My husband was leery of fixing it ourselves given the mystery of electricity.  I, on the other hand, couldn’t bring myself to call an electrician just for that, so we continued to coddle the switch in a stalemate.  Then he left town for a few days.

I seized the moment and went to our local hardware store.  After chatting with the helpful guy in the green apron and getting a $3 new switch, my daughter and I fixed the pesky thing in about 15 minutes.

Somewhere along the line I had lapsed into an ancient, gender stereotype that said his role was to be the fix-it expert.  What?!

As a single woman I had managed home repair solo – relying on good sense, the advice of others, and the  “Do-It-Herself” toolkit my Mom had given me.   Ironically, that resourcefulness is one of the things my husband loves about me.  How come I caved over the light switch?  I knew I could fix it.  I had drifted into a role that made me a lesser me and weakened our “team”.


Craving alternative energy for 2010?

Team Agreements might be your fuel.

When groups of people work together, there evolves a sense of “rules”.  Some of these are consciously created and openly referred to while others are less precise, formal or even agreed upon.  Here’s a real life example:

Overt Rule:  Staff meetings are Mondays at 8:30am sharp.

Covert Rule:  It’s okay to be late (even really late) if you once smooched with the boss at a Christmas party or currently play football and drink beer with him.

Obviously it’s important to know both rules.  While your inner toddler screams “it’s not fair”, your mature, professional self knows fair is only an interesting concept subject to interpretation.   Forget fair and focus on full knowledge that creates common expectations.

One way to do that is by working with your colleagues to create Team Agreements.  These guidelines identify your team’s behaviors that help you achieve results in a sustainable, positive way.  To launch Team Agreements:

1.  Share the concept with your teammates; it’s best to do this live.  One client requested time during a staff meeting to present the idea which worked well.  Let others know that agreements:

  • Create common expectations and accountability
  • Provide a shared language so it’s easier to talk about things
  • Specify desired actions/activities
  • Generate productive energy since less time is spent muttering behind the scenes

Every group I’ve worked with has been able to agree on at least one area that could use improvement – typically it involves “communication”.  Just the thought of making that better can provide motivation for the process.  

2.  Schedule a 1.5 – 2 hour brainstorm session where everyone is present. Set the stage by reminding the team of their common purpose and establishing a supportive environment.  Listing a few guidelines might help. I like “assume positive intent” and “everyone is right, but only partially”.  Encourage people to be direct without pointing fingers.  This isn’t about who is doing what to whom, but what is trying to happen for the team. The following questions are a good starting point for uncovering what the team needs.


  • What are we doing/saying when we are at our best?
  • What behaviors, specifically, do we want to encourage?
  • How can we remain effective when it gets hard?
  • What won’t we tolerate?
  • What, specifically, do we need more of? Less of?
  • What can we count on from each other?
  • How will we hold ourselves to our agreements?


3.  Prioritize the brainstorming responses and create specific agreements. Start with 2 – 4 and see how it goes for a couple of weeks.  Set aside time for the whole team to check in and see if anything needs to be tweaked or added. Here are some agreements I’ve seen:

  • No gossiping about people when they’re not present.  If you have an issue with someone, address it directly with them.
  • If someone starts an unproductive conversation with you about another teammate, redirect them.
  • Send meeting agendas at least a day in advance so everyone can prepare.
  • Begin meetings by checking the status of previous meeting’s Action Items.

Remind everyone that you’re all new at this and can’t expect everything to be perfect right away.  Sometimes you’ll forget, other times you’ll be brave and try something new only to stick your foot in your mouth.  That’s normal.  You’re building new team muscles and until they’re stronger, support each other with compassion, appropriate humor and gentle reminders.

4.  Post Team Agreements and revisit regularly.

The groups I’ve worked with felt freer from openly discussing the team junk  and creating a common framework for positive change.  What better way to begin a New Year?


Find Yourself a Dragon

I’m big on transparency and authenticity in communication; it cuts out a lot of second-guessing and off-track interpretation.  By transparency, I mean speak and act in a way that makes it easy for others to know what you’re thinking while respecting professional norms.  (I shouldn’t even have to say that, but there are still those who roll their eyes in meetings.)

Transparency is an especially important tool for introverts who often host a party of ideas in their head, but may appear impenetrable to others.  In the absence of obvious clues, colleagues tend to infuse the “no-response” response  with their own meaning – often incorrectly.  (Maybe I should write another article for these Guessers called If You Don’t Know, Ask: A Guide for Improving Communication Until You Perfect Telepathy.)

To be more transparent:

  • Verbalize your thought process. Don’t wait until your cerebral ducks are in a row, share imperfect but promising ideas: “I haven’t worked out the details, but I’d like to toss out Huge Great Idea and get some feedback.”
  • Let people know when you’re unsure about something. Tell them what you need. “Candidly, I’m caught off guard by this sudden change.  Can you walk me through your thinking?” or “May we regroup tomorrow after I’ve had a chance to sleep on it?”
  • Express emotions to demonstrate commitment and professional concern. I’ve seen lots of misinterpretation as outwardly expressive types assume everyone conveys passion the same way they do – exuberantly , spontaneously, and verbally.  Clue them in by saying things like “I’m so dedicated to this project and feel frustrated by the minimal attention it’s receiving.”

If transparency were a formula, it’d be:

“What’s the conversation in my head now?”


“What would be useful for others to know?”


“Here’s what I need to say.”

While transparency is about being in alignment with others; authenticity focuses on being in alignment with yourself.   You’re known as being authentic when your words, actions, and values overlap to present a consistent  message about who you are and what people can trust about you.  Authentic means moving through the world according to your own compass without the magnetic pull of Shoulds and Oughttas dragging you off course.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy, especially in groups.  We facilitator types have tools to help. My favorite is a fierce dragon which I discovered with my team coaching co-leader, Tascha.  This mighty mite glowers from the center of the table, challenging particpants to seize what they need from the session.  It’s a personal talisman for courage and an ally for speaking difficult things.  The dragon may also be a symbolic request for tolerance, flagging  “I’m about to say something that’s hard for me.”

oct dragonInitially people awkwardly appreciate the cute feistiness of the little guy, but no one really anticipates “needing” to use him. Eventually, someone is compelled to say something difficult and  acknowledges the dragon, even if jokingly “Wow, I probably need the dragon for this one ha ha.”  They don’t always reach for the dragon, but the comment focuses others’ attention, curiousity and often respect as this brave colleague leads  into a deeper conversation.  By the way, we do toss the dragon to anyone who mentions it; it’s easier to say something hard with the dragon’s encouragement.  We also recommend that teams who want more candor and boldness get their own talisman.

During the off hours, Fierce Dragon sits on my book shelf glaring at me, daring me to be braver in every word I write, clearer about every prioritization (you procrastinating again?)  and more direct in the conversation I’m having.

*Originally published October 2009 in Jump In newsletter.


Comfort Zone as Irony

Spend enough time talking about professional development and eventually you’ll bump into The Comfort Zone. 

Sometimes, awareness of that imaginary land helps us see opportunities for pushing boundaries and climbing out of quicksand.   Other times, referencing our comfort zone is like playing a “get out of jail free” card.  The phrase automatically grants some sort of quasi-acceptable excuse for staying stuck.  We admit something from beyond the horizon is calling, but are put off by the perceived difficulty of the trek, so we legitimize the current position. 
Teams have comfort zones as well.  I’ve heard people talk about their group’s comfort zone as if it were some vortex sucking them down into unified mediocrity.  Once I worked with a group who clearly yearned for change but kept pulling back to the comfort zone defense.  In fact, little, if anything, was comfortable!  Their interactions were infused with distrust and territorialism.   The only things remotely “comfortable” were:

  • familiarity with the situation
  • a common language of dissatisfaction
  • a tacit agreement about the futility of pushing for better

These people clearly were rooted in some zone, but a better name might’ve been the Status Quo Zone or the Mess We’ve Made Zone.  Seeing the irony in their uncomfortable “comfort zone”, helped them realize they had little to lose by trying different things. 
How about you?  Ready to venture somewhere new?

To start, give your current zone a name which honestly reflects its characteristics.  What does it look and feel like?  What are the rules here?  (My zone is defined by the lilac scent of control, quickly answered emails and neatly folded laundry.  How embarrassing.)  

Now identify another place you may want to go.  Be more specific than Anywhere But Here or Aways Out Yonder.  Choose a landscape that will support your goals, desires and even barely whispered dreams.  Harmonious Partnering Zone or Creative Ease Zone, perhaps?  Imagine going through your day in this land.  What about it supports and encourages you?  How can you begin to build that zone as homebase?

*Originally published in Jump In newsletter September 2009.


Clean It Up

Don’t let the title fool you; this is not an article about excessive Post It notes or unfiled stacks crowding your desktop (and floor in some cases).  It’s about straightening up the less tangible messes we create in our interactions.  Frequently, we’re not even aware of how some of our responses may be upsetting and divisive.  In the context of team coaching , we refer to these destructive attitudes and behaviors as Team Toxins.
Dr. John Gottman, award-winning psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, is world reknown for his relationship studies and ability to apply leading-edge research to everyday situations.  “Team Toxins” are a derivative of his work.  They refer to 4 categories of behavior which significantly contribute to breakdowns in relationships. 
Team Toxins
Blaming/Criticism:  Attacking the person rather than addressing specific behavior.  Clues:  “you alway” or “you never”

Contempt:  Acting/talking in a demeaning fashion; often the implication is that you are better than the other person.  Clues: eye-rolling, audible sighs, name calling

Defensiveness:  Assuming all comments are a personal attack, refusing to take responsibility for your own actions/inactions.  Clues: making excuses, ignoring the other person’s concern and deflecting by adding your own complaint, saying “yes, but”

Stonewalling:  Avoiding conflict by not engaging, changing the subject and/or physically steering clear of the situation.  Clues:  withdrawing, remaining silent, pretending not to have an opinion, skipping uncomfortable meetings.  (I notice this one more frequently among high performing teams.  It appears to be more “polite” or “professional”, but don’t kid yourself; it’s still toxic.)
Anything sound familiar?  I’m betting your answer is “yes”; most people have had some experience with all of them.  If we’re honest, we’ll acknowledge that at some point we’ve dipped into the dark side ourselves.  (I tend to slip toward defensiveness.) It’s normal.  It’s normal and it usually doesn’t work so well, does it?  With repeated use, Team Toxins can become an unhappy norm that erodes relationships, damages morale, obstructs communication and ultimately undermines the team’s success.
Just writing about them makes me feel I have boulders in my stomach.  I’m suddenly aware of all the other tasks on today’s list.  I see how easily I could be coaxed from the grayness of the Toxins to something more “fun”.  Unfortunately, this shift parallels how many of us dodge addressing the toxic behavior on our teams or in our relationships. 
It’s a nasty, energy-sucking cycle and it takes awareness and courage to break it.  The first step is to recognize the toxins and their impact.  Just reading this article has started that process for you; pass it along to others.  Now you have a common understanding and language; use it to talk about what’s going on.  Together, consider:   

  • What’s a better way to manage frustration/disagreements?
  • What do we do when we notice toxic behavior?
  • How will it be different working in a ‘cleaner’ environment?

Create a few agreements to help you stay on track.  One team, for example, uses the “timeout” hand signal when they see a toxin creeping in.  Once alerted, the group can address it and move on.  Sometimes, if things are really heated, a five minute break helps.
Stepping into this conversation also requires a certain courageous boldness and commitment.  Someone has to acknowledge the snarly elephant in the room sullying any sense of joy and creativity.  Feed your bravery by imagining how it could be better.  Clearing out the current mess makes room for toxin-free collaboration, clearer purpose and brighter energy.