At Leading Teams, we have always held the belief that there is a fundamental link between the strength of the professional relationships within a team and the level of performance that team reaches. If we share strong relationships we are often able to sustain more genuine conversations, particularly around driving performance.
We believe there is a hierarchy you work through to develop these relationships from the point where you may barely know one another on the team to the point where you feel safe and secure enough to express your honest opinion openly in any situation.
If at any point you lose sight of the importance of these relationships and neglect them, it can have far-reaching consequences for your team and your organisation. I’d like to share an example of a situation I found myself in with Jim Plunkett, a valued colleague and friend for over 15 years.
Where it started to go wrong
Jim joined Leading Teams after completing his teaching degree and post his AFL career. I could always see that Jim had a great aptitude for facilitation and he quickly became a valuable and high-performing member of our team. Over the years our relationship transcended that of an employer-employee to the point where we were genuinely friends.
The turning point came in 2009 when my business partner, Kraig, and I developed a plan to encourage increased buy-in from the team – although performance was good, we felt it could be better if team members felt more invested in the company. We devised a concept to allow the team to buy a business unit of Leading Teams and become a ‘partner’ in the organisation. This represented a huge change for our team – perhaps more than we realised at the time. This is where the relationship between myself and Jim started to go downhill.
Stage 1 – In the early stages of the development of the new business structure I don’t think we created enough clarity to deal with the team’s anxiety. We saw it as an amazing opportunity and couldn’t believe others on the team didn’t feel the same way.
Stage 2 – When we saw the team questioning the structure I interpreted this as undermining. As an established member of Leading Teams, Jim was often the person raising the questions. It became easy to see him as a trouble maker, and the ringleader of this unnecessary opposition.
Stage 3 – Once I had interpreted their questions as undermining, I lost my ability to listen and, most importantly, to empathise. The team was incredibly nervous about the change and they needed more empathy, not less.
Stage 4 – After some of the most difficult conversations we have ever had I made a classic mistake – I labelled Jim’s behaviour as selfish. Instead of addressing the issue I began to look for any affirmation of my belief.
Stage 5 – This build up over time from stages 1-4 culminated in a very unproductive meeting at our office. I had not resolved any of the previous issues so the meeting ended with me delivering an unnecessary and sarcastic response to a question from Jim.
“My journey within Leading Teams began back in 2001 as an athlete facilitator running community and education-based programs. Throughout my time at Leading Teams, the two most consistent figures have been the directors, Ray McLean and Kraig Grime. I recall vividly sitting down with Kraig at Don Camillo’s in North Melbourne and him offering me a full time position in 2004 and Ray providing endless support and advice whenever I required it. The strength of these relationships is a big part of why I’m still involved with Leading Teams 15 years later. But that’s not to say there haven’t been times that have genuinely tested our relationships.
As Ray mentioned above, the big turning point in our relationship revolved around a new business structure that would see team members become ‘partners’ in the business, but with little consultation about what that would mean to everyone. From the outset this was not how I perceived the opportunity. My initial reaction was that I was being forced to pay to keep my job – and that it was either this or leave. This is where the relationship challenges began.
Stage 1 – In the early stages of the business structure development it was presented in a way that felt like this was the only option to stay at Leading Teams. I had been in the business for around five years at this point and this non-negotiable commitment long term made me uneasy. I’ll admit that I probably never clearly articulated this to Ray and Kraig.
Stage 2 – I began to question the structure and the benefits to the team. My fear was that we would begin to work in individual silos for our own gain and not support one another. I was pushy with my questioning – because I felt strongly about it – and this was not received well.
Stage 3 – As the discussions continued, perceptions became warped; all Ray felt he heard from me was negativity and all I heard from him was defensive justification of their position. I was struggling and began to withdraw and disengage.
Stage 4 – By now all the conversations we were having were around the issue of the structure; all other dialogue (formal and informal) had stopped. I was talking to others about the problem but not to Ray.
Stage 5 – The final straw came when I received a negative rating from Ray in a standard team exercise at a Leading Teams training day. I felt like I had reached the position where I had to leave the business but I love what I do and I didn’t want to go.”
Clearly, we had reached a tipping point. At this stage, if we hadn’t made a conscious effort to rescue our relationship it would almost certainly have led to Jim’s departure. To rebuild a relationship, listening and action are required – it takes a real commitment on both sides.
The first part of the solution was to address the mechanics of the new business model and deal with the details which had been causing the most anxiety. Rebuilding can’t be done with just talk – we first had to clear up the details of the structure to even reach a point where we could all move on.
We then gave the senior team members the opportunity to structure up as a leadership team and take more responsibility for running Leading Teams. Ironically, when you have a damaged relationship you are less likely to trust but we had to do what felt somewhat counter-intuitive and actually give more responsibility.
An exercise in reminding ourselves as to why we loved working at Leading Teams and working together also helped. It doesn’t hurt to remind one another what your relationship looks like when it is at its strongest and remind yourselves what you’re working back to.
Sadly, there was another step in this process which I hope none of you have to experience. During this tumultuous period, my wife Sally passed away after a long battle with cancer. Through that event, our team (including Jim and I) got a chance to consider what is really important in life. The level of support and care I received from our team put everything else I was experiencing into perspective. I have read a quote that states that you are in a relationship when the other person’s wants and needs become as important as yours. The team at Leading Teams reminded me of that at my most difficult time when they put my wants and needs first. I consider myself very fortunate to work somewhere that has that strength of relationship – both professional and personal.