Transforming team dynamics and addressing organisational trauma: strategies for growth and healing


Team dynamics is a broad topic. Can you provide a general overview of the types of team dynamics that exist inside an organisation?

If we review two very broad categories for team dynamics, we’d be looking at healthy team dynamics, or obstructed or unhealthy team dynamics.

Healthy dynamics will promote flow and connectedness. You will see good communication flow and there’s a high level of productivity in a team, giving and taking between people, between roles, and between functions, people will overgive in times of high demand. If there are unhealthy dynamics, you will see blockages. You will see a lack of communication, a lack of connection. You will see the work getting obstructed rather than getting done. Things will take longer, and sometimes vital things don’t occur at all, and that starts to impact the organisation as a whole. If there is a ‘belonging’ rule of being expected to overgive more than one can soundly give, this can become an issue and lead to burnout.

Can you talk about organisational trauma. What is it?

Organisational trauma is where something has occurred within the experience of the organisation that has been overwhelming. The definition of trauma is an event that is so overwhelming that we lack the resources to understand it, process it, and move beyond it. So in a trauma situation, it’s a bit like a shockwave. People are not equipped to understand what’s occurred, to appreciate the human impact, and for it to be held in safekeeping. To hold an event in safekeeping means to give it a place in the narrative of the organisation. What we tend to do when something is overwhelming is we don’t talk about it. That makes it really difficult because rather than communication flowing, we’ve now got significant blockages between people, between roles, between functions, and over time, strangely, new dynamics emerge where people within roles or connections between roles or between functions go into a freeze-like state.

Something is in the way of understanding, in the way of working together, and information just flowing. Organisations need information to flow and remove blockages and obstructions in the way.

When an overwhelming event occurs, and this occurs in families in a very different way, and, it also occurs in organisations, we develop a belonging rule of forgetting what has happened. To belong here, we don’t talk about it, and that seems like it should make the trauma, the problem, the reverberations from whatever has occurred disappear and go away. But it doesn’t, it means that what the organisation is holding could resurface in other ways and other unhealthy dynamics. This occurs because human systems want to be complete, they want their history, their story, to be understood and processed for learning, for garnering new knowledge and hopefully even wisdom about what needs to be different in the future to what might have been okay in the past.

Tell us a bit about the fallout on staff wellbeing and productivity when there are unhealthy team dynamics or trauma?

We could look at this on a continuum. Trauma is at one end and an example is a death on site. There are many extremes like crime, there’s murder in organisations, and significant accidents that don’t necessarily just involve staff but customers as well.

If we go to the other end, you’ve got tension leading to conflict. You’ve got the inability for individuals to reconnect with the people they need to communicate and connect with to get their job done.

When you are down the trauma end of this continuum, a chunk of an organisation can be stuck with continuous obstructions, almost like there’s continuous conflict that keeps re-emerging. A bit like the immune system of the organisation is rejecting certain changes and it’s becoming impossible to digest new changes. There’s no energy to see this change through, or we’ve nearly got it there, but we couldn’t, and for some reason it has got blocked again and again.

The impact to productivity is significant. Most organisations are sitting on huge latent productive resources that due to unhealthy dynamics cannot yet be leveraged.

This is often misinterpreted as “we need more people”. We need to throw more people at this, throw more resources at it. If we could improve the dynamics in that team, they might be able to, in a very healthy state, be more productive and improve their wellbeing in the process. What we need to be able to do is promote the right healthy dynamics in the first place so that we are getting ideal productivity, co-operation, and reducing mistakes.

When mistakes become a pattern, they can be a sign of undigested history in a team. For example, continuous mistakes by smart people who previously did not make many mistakes before they came into this team. The stress of unhealthy relationships can be a lot of pressure, particularly when individuals have high expectations of their own performance and their team’s performance, and they’re rewarded by producing results.

The other fallout from this can be burnout and teams can get sick, it’s not uncommon that they will describe the environment as toxic. We don’t judge dynamics as toxic. We judge dynamics as misunderstood logic for that team or that organisation in addressing its undigested significant history. As soon as we label it as toxic, we’ve contributed to unhealthy dynamics. What we want to do is acknowledge what’s underneath the problems, rather than slap a label on it that makes people feel like there’s something fundamentally wrong with the organisation. The fact is most organisations experience unhealthy dynamics at some point in time, as do most teams.

Can you give us an example of when you saw this and how you solved the problem?

An example might be somebody in a role that is not doing well in. Perhaps they are ill-equipped for the role, yet it’s worth asking, have previous incumbents gone well in that role? Occasionally you find roles that are like revolving doors and people go into these roles having been very successful in previous organisations, but they cannot cope here for some reason. You even see roles where people routinely get unwell. Usually, a role like that has some kind of undigested history. It could be as simple as somebody’s left, unresolved, and it’s left almost like reverberations in that role. Previous people feel when they take up that role that there’s unfinished business.

If you are responsible for an enterprise, you might scan your organisation to reflect on where there is unfinished business. Occasionally, where teams have left badly in the past, there are broader dynamics at play, and many people having unfinished business or bad endings in that part of the organisation. The good news is this is entirely possible to resolve. We had an example in a government department where an entire team was told 18 months in advance that they would all be made redundant. What happened for that entire team is they were excluded for 18 months from the healthy dynamics with the rest of the organisation. Why? Because largely subconsciously, when we know people are leaving, we want to feel complete. It’s hard to hold that soon people will be gone. In this particular organisation, the remedy for the remaining dynamics was simply for the leader to present the significant contribution this group had made to the success of the organisation and also to share the lessons gained. It’s not helpful for people to know that they’re going to leave 18 months in advance. They will be excluded in the future. We need to manage our endings in a different way. As soon as it’s carefully disseminated for the lesson experienced, the whole organisation can experience an uplift in productivity in unexpected ways. The key is largely acknowledging what’s been omitted from the organisational narrative and needs to be present so that things can flow on.

What are some of the strategies for growth and addressing team dynamics?

The first strategy is educating people on healthy dynamics and the principles that need attention. They can be very instinctive and largely obvious, but not necessarily consistently reinforced in many organisations. Something like belonging that we talk about has some intricate principles that you can apply soundly to de-risk leadership decisions. Purpose is something well understood by most, but not always equally accessible to all roles across the organisation. Some roles more than others feel more connected to the purpose and the intention of the organisation. That can be ameliorated by making sure that purpose is switched on for all, meaning every person in every role. Other principles for healthy dynamics include healthy exchange (give and take) and the power of acknowledgment and making sure that your visible narrative reflects your hidden narrative.

What do we mean by that?

It means if we go back to belonging as an example, there will be stated belonging rules and there will be enacted belonging rules. They won’t necessarily be the same in every team. The unspoken belonging rules, the ones you can sense and feel and observe are not put formally into wording. We had one team that we worked with that had been competitive and there was an unspoken belonging rule. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. It wasn’t until we teased it out that we were able to promote healthier dynamics. At one point we uncovered that they were so passionate about their beneficiaries that there was an unspoken belonging rule of, we will do anything for you even if it destroys our own wellbeing. It was when that was enunciated in a particular workshop that everybody breathed a big sigh of relief and began to address that belonging rule in a much more sustainable way.

How do we heal organisational trauma?

Organisational trauma is more specialised. There are multiple constraints like non-disclosure and legalities around certain historical events. But to heal, we always involve a safe acknowledgment process. A garnering of the lessons and an appreciation of what was not recognised early enough that led to that organisational trauma occurring. Usually, when people look back, they can see the warning signs and it’s very painful. When we say it’s a specialised process, we mean that because what we don’t want to do is re-trigger the trauma.

With the new era of working and leadership and just the changes in workplace post-pandemic, how have team dynamics changed?

Team dynamics are sometimes now a lot less obvious than they were. Before the pandemic, you could walk around the office and observe signs of healthy dynamics and see issues. Now it’s less visible because people are jumping on and off online meetings, some are in the office, some are not in the office, some are in meetings online, some are meeting in person. So we have to be more alert, we have to be more in tune and we need to be more skilled in our observation to detect unhealthy dynamics as leading indicators. The trailing indicators are all too obvious, high turnover, lack of productivity, decrease in performance for a team, and obvious conflicts. However, we don’t want to wait till these things show up. What we want to be able to do is train leaders to be able to tune into the dynamics, understand the principles for healthy dynamics, and detect early before we have those trailing indicators deal with leading indicators instead.

What do you see the future of teams looking like?

It looks like teams will become more and more dynamic. We’ve got standard expectations now that people really expect flexibility with the ease of working from wherever they are. Some organisations have clamped down on that now, but the world isn’t forgetting those flexible options. The onus is going to be more and more on leaders to become skilled at appreciating dynamics early before they’re faced with navigating conflict and nonetheless be more skilled as well at navigating those conflicts because we are not going to be able to catch everything early.

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