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"My team doesn't seem engaged"

"My team doesn't seem engaged", he said. Two companies had merged recently and he was put in charge of a newly formed unit. He had explained to his new team why the unit was there and what was expected of them, how he'd communicate, what meetings they'd have and when and who would attend. He had individual meetings to talk through their goals and had set out what he wanted to achieve.

Despite setting direction and providing clarity, the team hadn't responded in the way he liked. They seemed disengaged, just going through the motions, not showing initiatives, , coming up with objections and problems, not with suggestions how things might work better.

Leading a team you inherit is one thing. The model to apply then is to assess the team against your expectations, re-shape it within the context of the organisational culture and your remit and mandate and then align it to the team purpose and direction. Once that is done you energise the team by ensuring early wins and development of individuals and build on early success.

This was different. He wasn't clear himself whether he had a mandate to change but more importantly, the people seemed capable and had good proven track records and worked well in the recent past. It was just their application that wasn't there.

We decided to use a different model. First, he described what he was observing, what was actually happening. It was important to separate facts from feelings and needs. Secondly, we identified how these behaviours could be explained by their feelings and by their needs. Thirdly, we needed to make clear what, on the basis of these needs, the people were actually requesting.

Making the observed behaviours (manifestation) explicit and separating them from feelings and needs (the cause of the behaviours) helped a lot. Silence at meetings, late arrivals, early departures, unfinished projects missing agreed deadlines, no initiatives and suggestions or answers, just pushbacks, no fun and smiles. May be most important was the lack of collaboration and taking responsibility for more than their own tasks (at best). There wasn't even conflict, just apathy.

The second stage was to try to understand these behaviours. As the unit was an amalgamation of two companies and various functions in these companies, there was a distinct feeling of uncertainty. People felt unsettled, unclear of what it all meant to them. One might say they felt threatened as they still saw people leave the company from one day to the next. One of the merged companies had in the past given people a fair bit of autonomy and now they felt curtailed. Some perceived they had lost part of their job or had to share it with someone else and were effectively grieving (denial, anger, hurt). And importantly, they felt no-one was listening to them and to these needs. It proved again that before getting to team purpose and goals, people need to be ready to buy-in.

We then tried to translate that into needs they might have. All could be summarised in four types of needs. First the need for security, about having a job and earning a salary and also about trusting new colleagues and management. Second was identity: most had been working in a team that was recognised and appreciated. As the entire organisation looked differently they were uncertain of their place and their role in that new organisation. Thirdly, they needed meaning and legitimacy. How was this new unit and how were they individually going to work in the organisation and add value. What was the purpose of the unit, how can it get credit and recognition for the good work it is doing. And fourthly, people needed a level of autonomy. In the previous six months they had lost a little control. Before, they knew what they could do, what decisions they could make, what resources they had, what information had to be shared and with whom. In the new configuration how much would they be allowed to get on with things?

Now that the feelings and needs that underpinned the behaviours were understood we could identify the requests of the group and of the manager. What did they want so that they had security, identity, legitimacy and autonomy, what were their requests? These conversations could be had once the manager had shown them that he understood their behaviours and the feelings and needs. As part of the process the manager also needed to share his feelings of frustration and his needs and subsequently the associated requests from the group.

"My team doesn't seem engaged" was an observation that needed to be dissected. In one-to-one meetings the manager started to listen and discuss the behaviours in the context of their needs and he used those meetings to express his needs as well. By applying the 3-step model of observing what was happening, explaining this by identifying underlying feelings and needs and formulating requests from each other, people felt heard and understood in a non-confrontational way which paved the way to engagement and collaboration.

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