Working in a team can be both rewarding and challenging. Under pressure, teams may find themselves resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms that hinder their progress and sabotage their mission. In this blog post, we'll explore the dynamics of self-sabotaging teams and provide insights on how to spot and counter dysfunctional group behavior. Through a hypothetical example of a public transit authority, we'll delve into the psychology behind these patterns and discuss strategies for overcoming them.
The Hidden Tensions within the Team
Let's imagine a European city's public transit authority that hired a new head of HR named Jocelyn. However, integrating with the team became a significant challenge for her. The CEO expressed concerns that Jocelyn's attitude was impeding the development of a sustainable strategy to meet the city's growing transportation needs. Interestingly, when we speak to Jocelyn's subordinates, colleagues, and external stakeholders, we discover a stark contrast in their perceptions. Her peers viewed her as withdrawn and uncollaborative, while her subordinates saw her as professional and supportive.
As we delved deeper, it became apparent that the team's struggle to devise a coherent strategy predated Jocelyn's arrival. A major tension existed within the team - deciding between increasing transit infrastructure for less-connected areas or prioritizing a greener system. Unfortunately, limited funds prevented them from pursuing both options. We realized that the team needed help, not just Jocelyn. Overwhelmed by the strategic challenge, the team had fallen into a pattern of infighting. In order to escape anxiety and self-examination, they unconsciously projected blame onto Jocelyn, using her as a convenient scapegoat.
Unveiling the Psychology of Self-Sabotaging Dynamics
In our work with various teams, we frequently encounter underlying dynamics similar to the one we witnessed in the transit authority. When teams face pressure, they often regress to unhealthy coping mechanisms deeply rooted in human evolutionary psychology. The group instinctively acts like a pack, seeking ways to alleviate collective anxiety. In this process, unwanted roles are often assigned to individuals within the team, or the team as a whole adopts skewed behaviors to keep anxiety at bay.
This offloading process is comparable to splitting and projection, concepts observed by child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in individual psychology. It involves disowning disliked or uncomfortable aspects of the self and assigning them to another person. For example, one parent may become the family disciplinarian because the other parent consistently avoids taking on that role.
Furthermore, teams often assign roles based on perceived personality or demographic characteristics, such as age, gender, or ethnicity. These roles include enforcer, caretaker, clown, dreamer, rebel, follower, and bystander. While some individuals may be predisposed to certain roles due to early life experiences, teams often impose roles on people without their consent.
Assigning someone to a role may bring temporary relief to the team, but it ultimately sabotages group dynamics in the long run. The person chosen to absorb or handle the group's anxiety faces tremendous pressure. We sometimes experience this ourselves in our professional careers, that a team member is made an "enforcer" during a high-pressure project, which might not be their core competency. If you ask them they'd say something like this, "Some members projected their competent parts onto me, allowing them to avoid responsibility. I became the quality controller, exhausting myself to keep track of everything." Over time, they'd also became a scapegoat.
The Four Pathological Patterns
Teams occasionally stray from their central task, but the problems arise when they spend more time avoiding work than actually accomplishing it. These patterns become pathological when teams become stuck in these dynamics. The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion observed these extreme patterns of evasion and denial among shell-shocked soldiers returning from World War II, noting that while these coping mechanisms reduce anxiety, they hinder actual progress.
The Sole Savior
Under the sole savior pattern, a team surrenders its autonomy and looks for direction or protection from one member. This dependency relationship often mirrors childhood dynamics. While dependency can be helpful in times of crisis, it poses risks when other members abandon their own initiative. The team becomes overly reliant on the savior, who may struggle to meet their inflated expectations and contain the group's stresses. This dynamic often leads to a set-up-to-fail scenario for the savior. An example of this can be seen in a Dutch health care executive named Simone, who felt pressured to emulate her mother's leadership style despite having a more empowering approach. Recognizing the dynamics at play, Simone initiated conversations with her team to address the issue and promote a healthier working environment.
The Dynamic Duo
In the dynamic duo pattern, two individuals are cast as saviors, leading to a powerful but potentially disconnected relationship. This dependency can cause them to lose touch with reality and overlook the need for input from others. An illustrative example is a tech start-up where the CEO and COO formed a close bond, creating an echo chamber and resisting alternative strategies. As a result, the company failed to adapt to changing market conditions and eventually folded.
Teams in fight mode develop unrealistic expectations of autonomy and unity. They may fixate on a common enemy, either real or perceived, and blame them for internal problems. This defensive stance prevents the team from finding real solutions and can lead to an atmosphere of hostility and resistance. We observed this dynamic in an executive committee of an investment bank where tensions escalated and members redirected their frustrations toward external facilitators rather than addressing their own anxiety.
In flight mode, teams also seek autonomy and unity but attempt to escape their anxiety by avoiding a common enemy. This leads to resignation, fear, and withdrawal within the team. Important tasks are postponed or ignored, and members become preoccupied with external changes instead of focusing on internal improvements. An Australian subsidiary of a global information provider demonstrated flight mode behavior, blaming the head office for its difficulties and exhibiting an avoidant culture.
The Immensity of the Challenge
Recognizing and addressing these pathological patterns can be challenging for leaders due to several factors. Firstly, these patterns are difficult to avoid altogether as teams naturally experience moments of coping mechanisms. Secondly, they are hard to spot because there are often more accessible explanations for team dysfunction. Lastly, simply addressing the symptoms through coaching or training interventions may yield temporary improvements but fail to address the root causes.
The Self-Monitoring Team
To help teams uncover and address dysfunctional behavior patterns, sociograms can be employed as a tool for mapping relationships and interactions within the group. Sociograms involve each team member drawing a simple diagram representing their perceptions of the team and its relationships. These diagrams facilitate open discussions where participants freely explore their perspectives, dependencies, roles, and competition within the team. By using this self-monitoring approach, teams gain insights into their dynamics and can work together to break destructive cycles and improve performance.
Understanding the unconscious forces that influence team dynamics is essential for avoiding self-sabotage and fostering productivity and success. By recognizing and addressing the pathological patterns that teams may fall into, leaders and team members can choose a different path. The self-monitoring approach using sociograms empowers teams to take ownership of their development, uncover hidden dynamics, and work towards a healthier and more effective working environment. With a commitment to self-awareness and open communication, teams can overcome self-sabotage and unlock their full potential.