“In my twenty years as an executive I’ve never been on such a dysfunctional a team,” “Coming to team meetings fills me with dread,” “I’ve been thrown under the bus so often I have tread marks on my back.” These were just some of the comments I heard during my interviews to prepare for a two-day executive team development retreat I was asked to facilitate. I was astounded.

After all, these were ten highly intelligent and accomplished professionals – MBAs, JDs, and a CPA. As individuals they appeared friendly and congenial. But when they came together, conflict clouded their ability to function. How did this happen?

It was the perfect storm: For starters, three new team members were hired to introduce innovative processes, which they did with little sensitivity to existing methods. This led more tenured team members to feel criticized. They reported that the company’s culture was ‘under assault’ from the ‘newbies.’ You can imagine the suspicion and mistrust.

And a recent reorganization blurred lines of authority across departments, which slowed progress on key initiatives. Everyone was frustrated yet no one took responsibility.

Finally, a recently launched product was recalled, leading to embarrassing meetings with the Board, and lots of finger-pointing.

Good People, Bad Situation

Thus, here were gifted, well-intentioned executives who couldn’t find the exit ramp from the highway to team hell. But the interviews also revealed everyone’s desire to improve the situation, each claiming a willingness to do the work necessary to find a more virtuous path.

If you were asked to help this team, what would you do? They said they wanted to clarify the team’s ‘mission’ and their roles and responsibilities. They also wanted to discuss ‘elephant on the table’ issues – controversial topics like budgets and resource allocations they rarely talked about but needed to discuss. I suggested a different approach.

I felt that they first needed to have a full, public reckoning of the magnitude of the problem, so they could no longer just complain about it. I believed that if their motivation was amplified, they might be able to heal the wounds they inflicted on one another. Without lancing the wounds and beginning the healing process, I predicted the team would continue its downward spiral.

We gathered in the private room of a noisy French restaurant. After our hearty dinner, I distributed the interview summary report. As people absorbed the extent of the problem, a blanket of silence fell over the room. When I asked for their reactions, most said they weren’t surprised. The team leader winced and said, “I knew it was bad but this knocks me over.”

Relationships Before Tasks

And then, rather than permit them to dig in to the details, I asked each person to reflect on how they wanted to ‘show up’ during the next two days, in a way that might be different from their usual team persona. Several mentioned being less argumentative, a few declared they wanted to be more open-minded, and one said he needed to stop just being a ‘bystander.’

The next morning we dug into the report and prioritized the herd of ‘elephants,’ which built the team’s confidence that they could openly discuss divisive topics. The team then wanted to clarify roles and responsibilities, but I called time-out. I felt it was more important to spend time in ‘relationship recovery’ mode.

I asked each team member to sit in front of the team in the ‘chair of compassion,’ having prepared answers to a few questions:

  • Here is how I think people on the team perceive me…
  • When I am at my best on this team I am… When I am at my worst on this team I am…
  • I may have hurt others on this team by… I’ve been hurt by others when…
  • Here is what else I want you to know about what I am feeling or thinking….

Their confessions were courageous, and startling in their display of emotion: “My words can be brutal weapons,” “I want to feel part of this team but don’t right now,” “I feel bruised when John criticizes my operation without really understanding it,” “I’m often nervous to jump in because I’m new and fear your judgment, especially Mary’s,” etc.

But I was most impressed by the empathy each team member displayed as they listened to each other’s stories. They all realized they had hurt and been hurt, they had misunderstood each other’s motives, and they could make a fresh start.

We continued our conversations over another group dinner, but the mood was much lighter. And when we met the next morning it was as if the cloud of conflict had lifted from the team. After sharing what impacted them most about the previous day’s activity, it was clear that they had released their tension, and begun to forgive each other and themselves. They were ready to create a new future together, which we proceeded to do.

A return trip from team hell is possible but never assured. The entire team must first acknowledge that they are simmering in a hot underworld. Then they can begin to heal by seeing each other not as obstacles, but as people. That’s when the team can pave its own path to better results, and a cooler climate.