The first time I talked to Stephanie, she left a big impression. She was enthusiastic, optimistic and forward-thinking. She had just been promoted to the North American senior team of a $20+ billion multinational, and she was its youngest member. She was moving back to the US after an assignment in Europe and would now be the head of the customer service organization. She was calling about her new assignment.
The 13-person customer service management team that she was now leading had been together for over a decade. She reported that the team was worn out from the nature of customer service work, and from her predecessor who had been described to her as a highly critical micromanager. She acknowledged their strong capability and technical skills, and also noted that their people skills were limited. All of these factors together, she concluded, was resulting in the low levels of trust on the team.
As you might imagine, she wanted to re-energize this team with possibility and wasn’t sure if her positive outlook was going to move the needle. As I learned more about the team, it became clear that team members had given up on surfacing and working with conflict. Instead, they had become masterful at tolerating unpleasant situations from customers, their leader, and each other. The atmosphere reflected a heaviness and the feeling that people were holding their breath and silently repeating “this too shall pass.”
Tolerating is a great short-term strategy for getting through a difficult situation, but if it becomes the normal mode of operating it will drain a team’s vitality.
She wanted to “bring life back” to this group, so they could be more relatable to the people on the customer service call center floor, and enjoy a better bond between themselves. She wanted this team to have high levels of trust, productive interaction, and team spirit. The team development work we did together started with giving team members the basic tools to manage their personal energy.
These seasoned managers quickly realized that they could create a different kind of work experience for themselves. It started with the awareness of how much control they actually had about their own perspective and emotional experience. From there, they each began to take more responsibility for their personal energy and the impact it had on colleagues, direct reports and customers.
Team coaching conversations became time to reflect on these new levels of awareness and on learning new techniques to transform their reactions to those pesky conditions that took them into tolerating mode again.
As they learned these new ways of operating as individual leaders, something else happened. The team atmosphere naturally became more supportive.
As individuals focused on themselves, they got clearer about what was important to them, more skillful at sharing their perspective about it, and also more responsible for managing their impact on others. Along the way, trust and cohesion on the team naturally emerged.
Managing personal energy has two basic steps: being aware of your emotional experience and then taking responsibility for it.
These two practices sound reasonable, doable and even practical when we see them objectively. But when we are in the heat of the moment of a situation that isn’t going the way we want it to, they get much more difficult.
This customer service management team stayed with it, supporting one another and learning leadership techniques that accelerated their growth. Every team conversation and meeting became a place where they were paying attention to how personal energy was being expressed and the impact that had on the operational aspects of their performance.
At the final team coaching session, members reported what was different about the team since the start of team coaching. This included a better team environment, more big picture thinking, and more trust. We also heard comments like these:
- “I see us using each other’s experience to deal with situations. Knowing who you can go to in team for guidance and advice and trusting that we can help each other be even better in job.”
- “There is more integration and working together regardless of individual responsibilities.”
- “There is more transparency and sharing.”
The team’s self-evaluation told a similar story. The 90-day focus on recognizing and working with personal energy resulted in 100% of team members reporting Significant or Good Improvement in two key metrics: Overall Team Cohesion, and Trust and Respect in Colleague Relationships.
The team had successfully rooted out tolerating as a default strategy for managing conflict, and they were experiencing the vitality of deepened connections as a result.
They had new capacity for tension when they saw things differently. They were each clearer about what they cared about, and had new conversation skills to address issues more directly, and with more personal connection to one another. The team leader’s enthusiasm and belief in the team were certainly important parts of the turnaround for this group. The missing piece though, was team members believing they could make a difference in their own team culture. Once this realization took hold, they easily went to work building their individual and teaming skills through diligent practice, and increasing awareness levels of the impact they were having on one another. Not surprisingly, improving the call center operations got much easier to accomplish.
Success stories like this don’t have to be uncommon. For most people, when we get a taste of what is possible by noticing our emotional experience and take responsibility for it, we want to get good at it. If you have a team that you’d like re-energized with this kind of commitment and cohesion, here are some questions to get you started:
What are we tolerating?
What do we want instead?
What would be different if we had it?