How One Person Can Change a Team


If you had to name one person on your team at work who needs to change their behavior to make things run more smoothly, who would it be? Is your boss letting half the team slack off on deadlines? Is one of your coworkers a terrible gossip? Does another hoard information like a dragon gloating over its pile of gold? Don’t hold back--be honest.

OK, here’s the bad news: That was a trick question. The real answer is you. You need to change your behavior to change the way your team operates. Unfortunately, most people point fingers at everyone else in the team as the source of dysfunction. 

"Healthy teams need to listen to and respect diverse voices - introverts and extroverts."

But the fact that you are on the hot seat is also the good news: You can  change the way your team operates, just by changing your own behavior. Walk into work tomorrow with a new attitude and a few new tricks up your sleeve, and you’ll start the process of rebuilding your team, one productive conversation at a time.

Start with a Positive Assumption

The first step in this process is to take a careful look at the way you respond to each of your teammates. Chances are you’ve got some teammates you see as allies or even friends, and some that you believe are out to get you. There’s probably at least one person you’ve clashed with before--and at least one person that you just don’t like.

It’s time to let that go. Every time you have a conversation with your least favorite teammate, you get tense and defensive. It’s unconscious--you may not even realize you’re doing it. But your teammate can sense your hostility, even if she’s not consciously aware of it, either. He’ll pick up cues from your body language and tone of voice, and he’ll respond with more hostility.

So your first task is to start with a positive assumption . Let go of that fight you had last year, and assume that everyone on your team is competent, is coming to work every day to get their job done, and is trying to say something helpful, too.

Add Your Full Value

Next, think about your participation in the team. Do you ever think about saying something and then think, “Why bother?” or “That’s not really my job”? Stop it. Speak up.

I once worked with an insurance company that had a great HR director. But even though she was doing a fantastic job in her role, the most important impact she had at that company came from her time in a previous job, in retail. Coming from retail, she was horrified to hear her colleagues referring to their customers as “policy holders,” and to see the internal systems treating one person who bought two kinds of insurance as two separate policy holders. By showing up as her whole self, and bringing the value of her past experience to the table, she showed this company how to put their customers first.

You have value to add based on your experience in other industries, your own experiences as a consumer, your role in the community, and so on. Don’t leave all that insight at the door--share it with your colleagues. Add your full value.

Amplify Other Voices

Once you’ve started using your own voice more effectively, try to listen to your teammates’ voices more, too. Healthy teams need to listen to and respect diverse voices--introverts and extroverts, old hands and newbies, big thinkers and fine tooth combers. But many teams end up with a majority of one kind of person, and a tendency to drown out minority voices.

There are real risks to shouting down those dissenting voices. The majority tends to represent the status quo and the way the team has always worked in the past, so ignoring the minority can stifle innovation. Teams that agree too much can also slide into groupthink, when excessive cohesiveness blinds the group to possible risks.

At your next team meeting, try using your voice to amplify minority voices.  Ask someone who hasn’t spoken up much to share their thoughts. Stand up to someone who’s trying to dismiss a dissenting view. You’ll broaden the scope of the conversation and make the team more productive.

OK, enough with the easy stuff. These last two steps are going to be a little harder.

Know When to Say No

First, you’ve got to learn to say no . We’re all socialized to believe that the best and most productive workers say “yes” to everything. But in reality, trying to do everything only means doing a poor job of most things. A team full of people who can’t say “no” will be overworked, overstressed, and ill-equipped to interact with each other in positive, productive ways.

To do this effectively, you’ve got to know what your own work priorities are. Figure out, with your boss if possible, your primary value to your organization, and a few key areas you should focus on. Your goal will be to--politely and productively--say no to anything outside those key areas.

Then, when a coworker asks you to take on an inessential project, help them think about whether this work really needs to get done at all. What’s the payoff? If there isn’t one, skip it. If there is, tell your coworker what your priorities are and give them a sense of what you’ve been saying yes to, so they understand the reason for your “no.” Then help them figure out who else on the team might be better suited to this task. And remember to be respectful when your coworkers say no to you!

"You need to change your behavior to change the way your team operates."

Embrace Productive Conflict

Even if you accept all the responsibilities I’ve laid out so far, your team might still disagree about some things. And that’s OK--that’s better than OK. In fact, to improve your team, you’ll need to embrace productive conflict.

Most teams I work with don’t have enough conflict. Some really do agree on everything, which can leave them blind to new opportunities--and risks. If that’s your team, try to broaden the conversation. Other teams do have conflict, but they hide it. Everyone agrees during the meeting, but afterwards, there’s gossip, or a small group reversing decisions the team made, or one person quietly undermining the group by shirking his commitments. If this sounds like your team, focus on getting that dissent out in the open.

One great way to disagree with a colleague without engaging in destructive conflict is to express your opinion as an “and.” Don’t tell that person she’s wrong--acknowledge what she’s saying, and then add your own view. You might say, “I understand it’s important to save room in the budget for a customer event, AND I’m concerned we’re short on money for employee training. What are our options?”

If you can take even one of these steps tomorrow, you will start changing the tone of your team. Think about how much time you spend at the office. Isn’t a healthier, more productive environment worth a little effort?

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