How to Manage an Unruly Team, Virtually
What do you say we pause to take inventory of 2020? Thus far in this eventful year we have had the Pandemic from Hell, the Supply Chain and Economic Disruption from Hell and, for many of us, the Fiscal Quarter from Hell. (With a few notable and very fortunate exceptions.)
But, life goes on, and we have learned to adapt to the new realities of working and interacting remotely. But still, work is work and people are people, and that brings us to the Team from Hell.
A recent blog from Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries — “How I Taught the ‘Team from Hell’ to Trust Each Other” — caught my attention because we are all facing unique challenges these days. Kets de Vries is distinguished clinical professor of leadership development and organizational change at INSEAD, which ambitiously refers to itself as “The Business School for the World.” Presumably, he knows a thing or two about people.
Kets de Vries wrote about being asked to manage a virtual meeting of the above-mentioned pack of “nine geographically distant alpha males and females who had never worked together and spent far too much time on power plays.” Most of us might prefer to have a COVID swab stuck up our nostril than step into that lions’ den, even virtually, but that’s Kets de Vries’ thing.
Like any good lion tamer, he began by doing a little background work on these particular beasts. “To prepare for the virtual team intervention, I first read a large number of written reports pertaining to their project,” Kets de Vries wrote. “Then I had one-on-one virtual interviews with the team members, as well as with some of their past superiors, peers and other relevant stakeholders who were familiar with the project. This allowed me to get a sense of everyone’s major concerns.”
Then, he set a number of ground rules. I’m married to a teacher and, frankly, his guidelines don’t sound different from how she manages a virtual classroom of 17-year-olds. (Kets de Vries has a background in psychoanalysis, among other disciplines, so he has some thoughts on how the behaviors people demonstrate at work have their roots in childhood.)
His participants had to attend the meeting from start to finish and not wander in and out at will, could not multi-task, had to keep their cameras on, be “fully mentally present” and practice “active listening.” Please stop fidgeting and spit out that gum, Mr. EVP of Procurement.
“During the virtual team discussion, I regularly summarized the proceedings, listening very carefully to what was said — and left unsaid,” he recalled. “At times I confronted the participants in order to clarify their challenges through asking open-ended questions. Also, at times, I asked them how they felt — referring to the here-and-now — about specific comments. While doing so, I tried to discern the dynamic, emotional forces that were blocking the team’s progress and have team members discuss these issues.”
By creating this atmosphere of trust supported by rules, Kets de Vries reported that “the mood among the group had changed remarkably at the end of our session. They seemed more trusting and connected. Many admitted it was the first time they had had an open and honest conversation. There was a greater willingness to make commitments.” A follow-up with their project director confirmed the former Team from Hell was indeed continuing to work cohesively, and had not merely been acting nice for the professor.
You probably don’t have the time to do all the preparation Kets de Vries did and likely don’t share his background in studying people. But there are some takeaways here for you if you have to manage your own remote Team from Hell (although I hope you don’t):
- Try to familiarize yourself with the participants’ agendas.
- Set rules that will allow a fair and productive exchange of information.
- Listen carefully to what they say and intervene in the discussion when necessary.