Leading Oil And Water

Facilitating better team relations for a better outcome and better product


I’m not a doctor, but I play one at work sometimes. I’m actually a content strategist, so really — zero qualification to be a psychologist, but I have managed and led large teams before, so that’s where I cut my teeth in organizational psychology. Recently I’ve been taking workshops through my employer on the 'real' way to be an effective leader and to navigate office politics and I’ve realized that the reason my techniques have been successful is that the psychology behind 'what seemed to work' is actually quite sound.

I am on a team currently that has been in place, working on this one service redesign for almost 10 months now and while each person on the team is clearly talented and stellar at what they do, there has been an undercurrent of friction between two of the people. I sit next to one of them and I worked with the other briefly, one-on-one, before the team was officially assembled — we have a bit of history in that sense, and we got along reasonably well. Within 3 months of this project's kickoff, it was becoming painfully aware to everyone on the team that these two folks were just making everything more difficult. It was unpleasant, and draining for everyone else, as they couldn’t seem to get along or work together in a way that wasn’t making each of them incredibly frustrated with the project, work in general, and themselves.

Now, on a cross-functional team like this, there is no one person on the team that all are accountable to, at least not internally. So if there is conflict between team members it is not crystal clear who owns that situation. Having managed difficult working relationships between others before, I agreed to do what I could to mend this relationship. The goal was to get us to the point where we could continue work on the design sprints without wanting to scream or cry. The short end of the tape is that currently, while things aren’t all peaches and cream over here, we are functioning, making progress, not talking over each other in meetings, and actually getting sprints completed as planned again.

What did I do with this opportunity to make a stronger team?

First I had to alert each of them that there was a problem if they were not already aware. They were, but in different ways and with very different viewpoints, as you might imagine. So first I took each, Mrs. Oil and Ms. Water, out for coffee, separately. I started each conversation with non-work chit chat, letting them talk and open up a bit about themselves. Then I guided the conversation to acknowledging a communication issue, it’s affecting the team, and closing with asking whether each was open to the idea of 'starting over.' They each agreed. One cried during this chat and it was then that I realized I may be treading into emotional territory here that goes far beyond work. Which meant I had the potential to really hurt this woman and do some unintentional damage if I didn’t proceed in a healthy way. But the potential also existed for me to help both with things they seemed to be struggling with at home and elsewhere, too.

I was finally able to find 90 minutes on all three of our calendars and brought us to a small conference room that is under-used on our floor. I had spent the 3 weeks it took to schedule this agonizing over what game or activity I was going to have us do as a 'let’s get to know each other as people' exercise. Just coming up with the activity was proving to be much more difficult than I had thought. My initial thought had been to take them window shopping, but Mrs. Oil came to this country 10 years ago and Ms. Water had been living in a very different part of the world for the last 10 years, only recently moving back to America. I needed to be mindful of the fact that there were 3 very different cultural backgrounds that would be in the room (including myself) and I needed to tread carefully when it came to any activities that made any assumptions as to socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds. So I pondered some more.

I consulted my Surrealist Party Games book and found the perfect game to play — it would hopefully elicit the empathy I knew was a necessary starting point for getting these two to work together more smoothly. After literally re-introducing them to each other, and pointing out their obvious shared ground of being a mother of 2, amidst a few nervous giggles, we got started. I took out a stack of scrap paper and pens and we each took a bunch. I asked a series of questions, we each wrote down our answers, folded the papers in half and put them in a pile in the middle of the table. The questions were things like 'what are you most proud of accomplishing?', 'who do you admire most and why?', and other open-ended questions that can only produce positive answers. Meaning, any tears that get shed are (hopefully) out of joy and/or empathy. Then we took turns opening the folded anonymous answers and guessed which question this was an answer to and who wrote it. I think of the 15 or so answers on the table, we read maybe 5 or 6, as each would spawn a story adding more color to the answer, and we had to get back to 'real' work at some point.

It worked. My teammates found a space to empathize with each other and in doing so were able to communicate clearer and in a healthier, more productive way. Our working sessions became more productive and less defensive and the work we showed to our product and tech partners reflected that lack of internal conflict, in my opinion.

Though I’ll be traveling with the product team in a couple weeks to observe some research sessions, so perhaps I’ll hear a different perspective from 'the outside.' But both Mrs. Oil and Ms. Water came to me privately afterward to note that they felt the difference and it was really helping them to get their work done. So, I call 'success!'


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