When is a weed not a weed?

Success in gardening is about getting the right plants in the right place. Experienced gardeners will tell you that there’s no such thing as a weed – only a plant in the wrong place.

Most of us have done at least some gardening. We know that if we put a plant in a less than ideal spot then it will struggle. No matter how much water, fertilizer and love we lavish upon it, it will continue to be unhealthy and growth will be stunted. Sooner or later, we’ll have to move it or it’ll probably die.

Put the same plant in a location it likes, and things change dramatically. It will grow vigorously and require attention of a different kind. The challenge now becomes to control and manage its growth so that it’s rapid progress doesn’t become a problem.

Leaders are equally capricious.  Put any one of your team in the wrong environment and you’ll find yourself investing lots of time – with little to show in the way of improved performance. Put the same person in the right environment and suddenly you’ll be constantly challenged to focus their talents and energy on the areas of greatest leverage. The same person – but very different results!

I’ve certainly been in jobs which felt like both of these. I daresay you can too…

A team in dry shade

In leadership teams this phenomenon is multiplied. If one team member is in the wrong environment, their problems ripple out across the group. Their frustrations impact on their colleagues, whose effectiveness is, in turn, compromised. A complex circular pattern emerges in which no-one gets the climate they need to thrive and perform.

Once the environment for one person is wrong, problems multiply. Relationships become frayed and a lack of trust gets in the way both of bilateral cooperation and also of the challenging but constructive debates needed to unlock the difficult issues facing every top team.

In gardening, dry shade is the place where almost nothing grows. There are a few tough, specialist shrubs that can live there but they lack colour and grow slowly. You have a choice. Resign yourself to a dull garden and a lot of hard work to keep that patch going – or cut down the tree!

Too many leaders I have met are settling for a dull, high maintenance team. Often this is because they’ve spent so long digging and working in dry shade they have forgotten that it’s the tree above them that’s the problem – shielding out the sun and sucking up all the water.

The team leader’s chainsaw

Whose responsibility is it to create this environment in a team? Isn’t it the team leader’s task to create the climate and conditions for every team member to thrive? I don’t think it’s possible for them to do alone. The leader’s job is hard enough with all that is on their own plate. They also need to ensure they do what they can to create their own conditions to thrive. It’s no wonder that so many fail!

Each team member will need different things. This is not just from the team leader but also from their colleagues – and from their own teams. Some of the problems each individual faces will, inevitably, be self-created. Others will be a function of the dynamics that evolve between every pair of personalities. Any team leader that tries to address all of these issues themselves is consigning themselves to an impossible task.

It’s like trying to tackle the dry shade with a trowel. What they need is a chainsaw to deal with that tree!

Speed dating changed my life

I was a member of a team some years ago which opened my eyes to what is possible. We were a talented but spiky and individualistic group. Our leader, Mark, was spending a lot of his time and energy mediating between us to smooth ruffled feathers and foster better co-operation. He knew the raw material was there. He also knew that he couldn’t change the team environment on his own. He recruited a facilitator to help him develop the team.

One of the first things the facilitator did with us was scary. She had us sit down with each of our colleagues, in speed dating style, to give one another feedback. We were to tell each what they did that helped us, what they did that made life more difficult for us and what we’d like differently from them.

We’d had time to prepare but the initial tension was palpable. To all of our surprise, however, the brief conversations were much more positive and constructive than we’d expected. The experience as a whole was motivating rather than difficult. It was great to be acknowledged for our positive contributions, some unspoken issues were aired and positive steps identified to make things better.

The atmosphere in the team changed discernibly even by the end of that day. Many of the tensions had melted away a little. Most powerfully, we’d been shown how easy it was to get what had felt like very difficult issues on the table. Whilst there are many ways to achieve them, I now call interactions like these ‘Relationship conversations’.

Over the following weeks, we put the commitments we’d made to one another into action. It wasn’t all plain sailing, but the new spirit of communication lived on and helped us through when we got stuck. We all felt better about our work and one another. Our performance increased as a consequence. Over the next few months we made some huge and difficult decisions together that we’d been skirting round for too long.

Tending to your own garden – and a health warning

I now use the ‘speed dating’ approach to Relationship conversations with amost every client team. It’s one of a very few tools I use that always works! It does, however, also always cause some anxiety. The set up needs to be carefully handled to ensure everyone is confident and knows exactly what is required to have positive and constructive conversations. For these reasons, I would strongly advocate external facilitation.

If you’d like to make a start without a facilitator, there are some steps you can take yourself.

  • Sit down with each team member and ask them what the conditions look like for them to give their very best.
  • Ask them what they are prepared to commit to in order to bring this about.
  • Ask them what they need from you to help them do so.
  • Tell them what you need from them to give of your best – and ask them what they are prepared to commit to.
  • Follow up. Agree a date when you’ll discuss the progress that has been made and the next steps needed to advance things further.

You probably haven’t had this conversation with your team members – even those you’ve known for a long time and the answers may well surprise you…

Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.

Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.

Chris Henderson