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Recognizing Ineffective Team Patterns

Sometimes teams are stuck in ineffective communications patterns that aren’t even recognized although they may be having significant impact on the team’s success. These patterns can be focused on such issues as relationships, processes, behaviors, or resources. Even if you are sure your team is working well, it might be useful to step back and take a look at the patterns of communications on these issues and see if any can be improved.

How can you make improvements in these patterns if they are not even visible? Begin a process that will bring them to the surface so they can be explored.

Bringing the patterns to the surface can be done informally or formally. Informal methods include stepping back from the discussion periodically and paying attention to more than the information being exchanged. It’s referred to as being the “participant-observer,” the person who participates fully and with just enough distance to recognize the dynamics and process of the situation as well as the outcome.

Other informal methods include:

  • Gathering informal feedback from people who deal with your team to see how it is perceived by others, inside or outside the organization.
  • Conducting individual, informal conversations with team members to gain insight into how they feel the team is doing as a group.

Naturally, these conversations should be very informal and exploratory. More formal conversations make people wary and make them wonder why you are asking.

Formal methods include the use of focus groups, assessments or surveys, including formal interviews, and should be facilitated by an outsider to the group, and preferably to the organization. Inside consultants may not get all the information available simply because they, too, work for the organization and may be seen as not entirely neutral despite their best intentions and professional ethics. An outside consultant will have a fresh perspective; no internal relationships, loyalties or history to affect the process or the outcome; new skills to apply; and the platform to make recommendations more clearly than an internal consultant might have.

In addition, if negative information needs to be reported, especially about the department head, the consultant provides that feedback, absorbs the potentially negative responses to hearing it, and takes those responses with him or her upon leaving the organization. The internal relationships remain intact and can be called upon by the team leader or department head to support planned change. If an internal person provides that feedback, no matter how carefully, resentment may be generated that may be difficult to overcome in the future.

In three cases where I worked with teams, I had to provide very difficult feedback to the team leaders about their leadership styles based on focus groups, survey responses, and interviews. This information was hard for leaders to hear since they were at the highest levels of their organizations and thought they had effective leadership skills. After providing the report and recommendations, I worked in the background with two of these leaders to follow-up and provide coaching on how to implement the recommendations. Whatever positive actions and changes were observed by staff members were attributed to the leaders, not the consultant, and these leaders gained credibility for the changes they made.

If you have identified ineffective patterns and want to make some changes, fix the easy things first.

  • Few comments during discussions? Go around the room and ask each person for comments on each topic. Don’t let them hide.
  • Little participation? Tell each person in advance what part of the meeting he or she will facilitate, not just what topic he or she will report on.
  • No clear actions taken on decisions? Have a recorder note every action that needs to be taken by whom and on what date. Have these actions read to the group before the meeting ends so people can’t say they didn’t have the same understanding as others about the necessary follow-up.
  • Difficult behaviors? Talk to people privately, define preferred alternatives, and provide coaching as necessary.
  • Lack of focus? Remind people of the goals – constantly.
  • Disordered meetings? Improve your facilitation skills. The problems are not just other people’s.

The harder part of the process will be holding people accountable, including yourself. If you are the team leader, first prepare team members for adaptive change, change in culture or thinking style, not just change at the technical level. Tell team members what you have noticed and what kind of changes you plan to make and why. Help them feel safe during the process. Then make it clear that they are accountable for meeting their responsibilities both at the meetings and after them. Hold yourself accountable by making the meetings an effective use of their time, asking for their feedback, and being prepared to lead, not just read the next item on the agenda.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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