Helping teams to Happiness

Imagine yourself changing the emotional atmosphere of your family, work team, and other relational systems you are part of – from bad to good, and from good to fantastic and happy! In this letter I am going to be a little technical, but please bear with me because there are lots to be gained.

Some time ago I was asked to help a dysfunctional software development team in a technology company. All the members were very intelligent, creative and highly skilled. And interesting enough, although they had unique (perhaps alternative?) personalities and social styles, every member was likable. But it was not a happy team, quite the opposite. There were lots of misunderstanding, and with that unhappiness, frustration, miscommunication, gossiping, low trust and slow progress. One or two people already left. The HR manager feared that a few more might leave the company. High stakes, intense emotions. What do you do?

The problem is that when you just open the can of worms, things can become wild and very unpleasant with more harm done. On the other hand, if we don’t talk about the issues, things will fall apart. The challenge was to create a safe space wherein we can deal with the issues in an intelligent and helpful way.

Fortunately, I had some training in something called “Relational and Systems Intelligence” (RSI). With that in mind, and knowing that “every voice is right, only partially” and that we can intentionally choose how we want to “be” with each other, I designed a process, which I adapted as we continued. The first (3 hour) session broadly included the following:

  • Design a Team (or Partner) Alliance as a social contract about how we want to be together when we talk about matters. They agreed on Honesty, Openness, Respect and Curiosity.
  • The Relational Entity. I then symbolically set out a chair, representing the team as a human system (the collective), which we called the Third Entity.
  • Our relational story: I allowed every member to share their story about what positive factors attracted them to the company and what they initially enjoyed of this team, and what dreams and hopes they had.
  • Identify the issues: We then (only then) opened a discussion on what the issues are, with me writing it on a flip chart. Interesting, the emotional temperature was already a bit lower (and softer) by then.
  • Importance: I asked them: “Why is it important that we resolve this?” That process brought hope, but I could also see how desperate and eager they are.
  • The voice of the Third Entity: I asked them one by one to come and sit in the chair of the Third Entity and share what it want for the team. One member said: “We are a great bunch together. Put your weapons down and make the Team work”. This exercise changed our perspectives… and the atmosphere.
  • Solutions: We discussed what we can do to make thing work better. Eventually, we boiled it down to 4 actions or processes.

I wish I can say that after that everything was perfect. It was not. After that first session one more person left the team. We had another three sessions of team coaching on Trust, Conflict and Accountability. BUT, our last session was a wonderful celebration of relationship. We were realistic about the fact that there will still be misunderstandings and frustrations, but that they now have the will and the tools to deal with it (without me). A few weeks ago I saw the senior leader of this team. He shared with me how great the team is doing, how their levels of creativity lifted, and that results are now on a new high in spite of a difficult economy.

Teams, families, boards, marriages can go through difficult storms. That’s normal! But we can get beyond the stormy weather when we take hands and intentionally become more intelligent about the ways we relate and behave towards each other.

May we all play our part to make relationships safe and happy spaces! Start with yourself. Being human with other humans can be great, but then I have to choose to be a great person!