Five Wounds That Hold Teams Back, And How To Begin Healing Them

Steve Salee is the Founder and CEO of Wildfire Strategies. He loves helping high-stakes teams and leaders work better together.

One silver lining of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the surge in creative ways that organizations found to survive and succeed under dire circumstances. But there’s been a cost: quiet quitting, toxic cultures, burnout, retention issues and frayed nerves. These issues are the visible manifestations of underlying wounds every team suffers from that have always been present but have shown up even more profoundly under stress.

In my previous Forbes articles, I talked about planning for a return to in-person work, why some people might be angry about going back and how divergent life can be without the glue of the office. While those focused on navigating the opportunities and challenges of coming back together after a pandemic, this article takes a deep dive into the five wounds I see most often in my work with teams across a range of industries, both public and private.

1. Taking Things Personally: Research shows that only 50% of conflicts at work are about the work itself. The other half are interpersonal, and 100% of those are unproductive. Yet the number-one wound that members of teams experience is the deeply personal experience of feeling disrespected, disregarded and being attacked. Many find it difficult to address work issues without the conversation devolving into personally wounding conflict. And taking things personally is contagious: Once work issues are either presented from a personal lens or received as personal, everyone gets hooked, and the discussion is no longer about work.

2. Fixed-State Thinking: When you hear team members say: “This is how we do things here” or “We know exactly how to solve that problem,” that’s the wound of fixed-state thinking in action. Fixed-state thinking is the belief that there is a set way of doing things, or that it is possible to achieve a final state of doneness. Tradition can be a wonderful part of team culture, but it’s not a great competitive strategy. And while it might be comforting to believe that it’s possible to permanently solve a problem, the truth is that problem-solving is a journey that never really ends. Ultimately, fixed-state thinking inhibits diversity of thought, innovation and competitive advantage.

3. Scapegoating: Many of us can think of someone at work who is a “bad apple” or “toxic.” Their behavior is infuriating, and we feel justified in seeing them as detrimental to the team. “If only so-and-so were gone, we’d be a great team!” And the truth is, that person’s behavior is detrimental, so it is very easy to blame them for the team’s problems. But instead, try to see their “bad behavior” as a gift: It’s a conduit to what is really broken on the team. Instead of vilifying, let’s give the “toxic” person some grace.

4. Abdication: The wound of abdication includes two parts: deflection and powerlessness. Deflection is the abdication of ownership of problems: the belief that it’s okay to kick complaints up the management chain without attempting to solve them. Powerlessness is the abdication of one’s power, based on a belief that they have no impact or influence on their team. Feelings of powerlessness might lead to avoidance of healthy conflict, sharing constructive feedback or a sense of ownership on the team. After all, if their voice doesn’t matter, why bother engaging in the uncomfortable stuff? Abdication leads to a sense of isolation, which results in a cycle of underperformance.

5. Fracturing: Fracturing is the split into factions that occurs when there is a power vacuum in team leadership. Whether due to a revolving door of leadership or a leader who lacks authority, fractured staff become warring factions vying for control. While the sparring between fractured groups may seem to be the most obvious drag on the team, the greatest cost of fracturing is the erosion of customer-driven purpose and team performance.

How To Begin Healing The Team

The five wounds described above wreak havoc on team and individual performance, employee retention and innovation, and sometimes imperil the organization’s very survival. These are some ways to begin healing:

• Healing The Wound Of Taking Things Personally: The first step is Notice: Are you feeling open or defensive about what your colleague is saying? If defensive, then you’re taking it personally. The second step is Name: If you’re feeling defensive, others likely are, too, so name it: “I think we’re veering into the personal here.” Naming creates the awareness you need to break the cycle. The third step is Reframe: Begin depersonalizing by reframing the issue from a shared organizational perspective.

• Healing The Wound Of Fixed-State Thinking: Think of a case of fixed thinking and begin to explore as a team what makes you stuck there. Is it fear of change? Lack of skill or resources? Fear of irrelevance? Then, start to identify what assurances and supports the team would need to get unstuck, and envision the great new things you could achieve.

• Healing The Wound Of Scapegoating: Try reframing your colleague’s incredibly irritating behavior as a life-saving canary in the coal mine that can help you trace the root causes of challenges the team faces. Then, invite the whole team (including your “bad apple”) to actually address those causes instead of continuing to scapegoat.

• Healing The Wound Of Abdication: Abdication of power can be healed through greater awareness of team and individual strengths and the development of influencing skills. To address deflection, teams need to establish a structure for collaborative decision-making and problem-solving that obligates them to identify possible shared solutions before raising the issue to the next level.

• Healing The Wound Of Fracturing: There are two keys to healing fracturing: developing strong team leadership and having agreements among staff that establish respectful collaborative behaviors, which begin to unify splintered factions.

In my next articles, I’ll dive deeper into these wounds and begin to talk about the team-healing process that addresses them. I’ll also look at what happens when some on a team have one set of wounds and others have different wounds.

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