What can be done when a group of intelligent and resourceful senior leaders appear stuck in a conflict-strewn deadlocked rut rather than functioning creatively and productively as a team? In an accurate observation, Gestalt consultant Herb Stevenson notes: “You cannot create real teams by convening a set of people and calling them a team.”

Recognising that team creation has been omitted at the outset isn’t a reason to cry over spilt milk. While it makes a good deal of sense for leaders to ensure from the start that they’re selecting people who can work collaboratively together, a group, even a dysfunctional one, can be invited to engage in the process of forming and brainstorming at any point.

When I’m team coaching in situations like these, I begin at the beginning: I invite members to (re)form and brainstorm around what the team’s purpose should be. This really needs to be very clearly articulated and the leader’s contribution – what he or she intended for the team – can be valuably restated anew here.

The forming process that occurs when members begin to free associate around a team’s purpose begins to facilitate the emergence of a more coherent team identity – a sense of “us.” All too often, dysfunctional teams have never established their purpose and identity. While it’s best done at the outset, the beginning phase encourages new formation even in formerly stagnant teams.

With purpose and identity more clearly established, it’s possible to move on to the middle phase. This is when the new sense of “us” can be harnessed to inquire which behaviours and structures aren’t working – and to devise new, agreed upon alternatives (including the ditching of any bad behaviour from the past).

To end, I recommend a review session to get a handle on how the reformed team is performing over time (at the end of a fiscal period, perhaps). When teams look back candidly at their successes and failures, they’re engaging in a type of action that will help them continue to develop.

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