How To Heal Your Team: Five Steps

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

In my last article, I talked about five wounds that hold teams back and how to heal them. These wounds are present in most teams, and they’re human, so they will show up wherever people gather to collaborate. In healthy teams—where there is psychological safety, skilled leadership and overall cohesion—it’s possible to look at these wounds and address them.

But what if your team doesn’t have the trust, respect and safety needed to explore and process these wounds?

When a team is truly stuck, it needs to heal enough to establish a baseline of trust, respect and psychological safety so that it can process wounds as they come up, instead of letting them fester and become truly toxic. My Team Healing model grew out of work with hospitals and their teams, where a high-functioning team can literally be the difference between life and death, but Team Healing applies to most industries.

There are five steps to Team Healing:

• Venting and values

• Healthy design

• Commitments and needs

• Shared purpose and vision

• Actions and measurement

The potential areas for action in each of these steps are leadership, behaviors, tools and community.

Venting And Values

First, people need to vent! They need space to express their workplace frustration, hurt and upset. And it’s not just venting to anyone; they need to share their feelings with someone who truly cares. Often, team members speak up only to find that nobody is listening to them. So the critical first step is for people to vent and know that those feelings were heard by a person who has the power to help effect change.

Venting isn’t an endless conversation. Many leaders are uncomfortable with letting team members express deep frustration because it might feel endless. So it’s important to provide limited time for venting. Share what’s been unspoken, let the wounds breathe, capture them on paper and discuss them. It’s important for groups to vent in a safe space, so start venting separately with any “warring” factions that have arisen as toxicity has grown.

When people are venting, they’re also telling you what they value. Part of rebuilding trust is noticing and honoring those values, both within and across factions. When team members begin to see and hear one another, the team as a whole can rebuild the shared sense of purpose that is essential to healing and moving forward.

Healthy Design

Once frustrations have been vented, there is room to envision a healthier team. Ask each faction to describe a high-functioning version of their team and to consider the four areas for action:

• How might leadership function more effectively within the team and within the organization as a whole?

• How could people behave better and treat one another optimally?

• What kinds of tools—technology, processes or procedures—would this high-functioning team use to improve their work?

• And finally, what would the community of this ideal team look like? How would they collaborate, formally or informally, to achieve their goals, get to know one another and celebrate one another?

Taken together, these optimizations of leadership, behaviors, tools and community constitute your healthy design.

Commitments And Needs

In this step, capture commitments from the members of each faction in order to achieve the healthy design they’ve just imagined. Also identify what they need from other team members, as well as team and organizational leadership, in order to get there. For both commitments and needs, listen for connections to leadership, behaviors, tools and community. These are the commitments and needs that the factions can present to one another when they gather together for the next step.

Critically, the Commitments and Needs step is an opportunity to examine the root causes of impediments to achieving the healthy design. How much of what needs to change can this team bring about, and how much requires larger organizational intervention? The next steps in this work are determined by the answer to that question, and the order of addressing those issues is critical. If organization-level issues are the root cause of toxicity on the team, the team healing process needs to move to the organizational level. Those issues should be addressed before coming back to the team’s own issues. If team issues are the root cause, then the team healing process can continue at the team level.

Shared Purpose And Vision

At this point, all factions have vented their frustrations, identified what healthy looks like and named what they can commit to—and what they need from others—in order to achieve that healthier state. It’s now possible to bring these factions together to explore and define a shared purpose and vision. To begin, each group shares their values and discusses how much they all have in common. Chances are, there’s a great deal of overlap. They also share their healthy designs as well as the commitments and needs necessary to achieve them. The joint group can then begin to explore what actions they could take together to heal the team:

• What do they need from leadership in order to succeed?

• What are some new behaviors?

• What are some tools that would help?

• How might they coalesce as a community and appreciate and respect one another more?

Actions And Measurements

At this step, the joint team identifies and commits to specific actions that will help them achieve their healthy design and describes what success looks like and how they will measure progress. The team will also share this with their leadership, including what they need from leadership in order to heal the team. Team leadership can then work on its own process, which might include stabilizing the organization after high turnover, developing a vision and success metrics and clarifying the roles and authority needed to achieve them.

Using these steps, you can begin to heal your own team’s wounds and move toward team health. My next article will explore the role of leadership in contributing to team and organizational health.

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