Empowerment Leadership Model for Small Groups, Teams, & Families
Course 5, Lesson 7
Dangerous Abandonment in Teams
and What to Do about It
Copyright 2001 Dick Wulf
People in teams abandon one another regularly. This leads to adverse reactions ranging from disappointment to great fear and anger. And the insidious thing is that people do not know enough about team dynamics to know that they have been abandoned. Instead, these abandoned people feel like fools, losers, misunderstood victims, and failures. Many of the abandoned ones jump ship, and some who witness the danger also leave. Others stay and remain aloof or angry, an equal danger to team survival.
It is quite disheartening to discover this abandonment too late. Yet, true team leadership can easily prevent such pain. Teams can become safe – if led properly.
THE DANGER OF ABANDONMENT
Teams can be dangerous if they do not function as teams and, instead, individual concerns predominate. This is the usual case in individualistic societies like the United States. Most often, the rights and the needs of individual members are elevated far above the needs of other people and the team itself. Individuals feel most responsibility toward themselves and little toward others, especially when their personal sense of comfort and safety seems threatened.
Consider the need to be understood. A child wants to be understood by her father. A teenager wants to be understood by his uncle. A committee member wants the committee to understand her need to contribute in her area of expertise. A training group member wants his confusion to be understood before answers are given.
Where teams are not led as corporate entities, they often do not take the needs of team members seriously enough to try to understand. Teams are filled with people who want to give right answers to yet undefined questions and problems. All too often teams steer clear of the tough problems their members face in order to protect individual comfort. Pastors and church leaders are dependently and passively followed without the team’s destination ever being important or understood.
What a shame! Teams, committees and boards often self-destruct because someone who tries to be understood is abandoned during the team process. Then the person becomes discouraged and withdrawn, or angry and quits or hurts back, or continues to interrupt the team process to continue the quest to be understood.
That is just one of the many dangerous pitfalls in teams. That just addresses the need to be understood. There are even far more dangerous pitfalls in any team not led as a corporate organism.
Consider the danger faced by two people in conflict with each other when the team is not helped to be a successful corporate entity. Most often, when two people disagree, other team members do nothing. They go into silent, thoughtful safety, forgetting to come out again. They resist becoming personally vulnerable. This puts the two in disagreement in great danger. It also places the extended existence of the team in great danger.
Hostility and resentment may grow when needed help is not forthcoming from the team. Rejection and abandonment may not be obvious, but it will be recognized subconsciously. Resentment that no one is helping out will result. Worse, the disagreeing individuals might instead feel like failures, when it really was the team’s failure. In the absence of full-fledged involvement of the others, frightening anger, debilitating frustration and/or embarrassing humiliation will grow. These team members will likely withdraw in self-protective silence, many of them eventually quitting. The destruction of the team is following closely behind. The team will sink into dysfunction from which it may or may not ever emerge.
When the team is not led as a living organism, a corporate power for success is missing. Then the team does not ensure that its members all get involved to see that disagreements do not become conflicts, but lead to understanding and team resolution, which, in turn, will strengthen the team. Unfortunately, what usually happens is that those not in the conflict have no idea how by working together they can be the very help that is needed. So they passively abandon those in disagreement and the seeds of team breakdown are sown.
IMPORTANT TEAM TASKS TO PREVENT ABANDONMENT
During the beginning or “beginning-again” team process, the team leader should lead a discussion about the benefits of membership. (This was covered in Courses 2 and 3.) Normally, this immediately precedes the team’s deciding who is to be a true member of the team. It is best that the team first brainstorm without the leader’s involvement what it can think of as benefits of team membership. Then the leader will probably need to add a lot of other things to the list. Some, like confidentiality, will have to be thoroughly discussed by the team. Others will be obvious. Definitely needing serious discussion are the benefits of (a) having help in being understood and (b) being protected during conflict with another team member.
During its start-up task, the successful team defines in general terms what activities are appropriate for the team and its members in order to accomplish its purpose. Inappropriate activities are also decided. When the team talks about what it will need to do, much is covered. During this exploration is a good time to bring up that the team will have to get everyone involved when someone needs to be better understood or when disagreement or conflict arises. The leader can explain the dangers of passivity by so-called “uninvolved parties”, noting that there is no such thing as an uninvolved party in a team. The purpose of the team demands that any lack of understanding or any conflict is dealt with by the corporate identity (the whole team) just because it does affect progress toward the purpose, and, therefore, affects everyone and is everyone’s business.
The successful team also discusses what kinds of corporate and individual behaviors will be detrimental to the purpose. During this discussion it can be pointed out how passive inactivity is actually abandonment of those wishing to be understood, those wishing to better understand, and those in conflict. The leader should explain how individuals can be seriously hurt by non-involvement, how the purpose can be hindered, and how easily team self-destruction can result.
It is always necessary for the team to help its members behave in line with the team purpose and goals. When there is needed understanding or when there is conflict, the team needs to see that members stimulate one another into appropriate action. Such actions include, but are not limited to, pointing out that there is a problem, clarifying statements, coaching people’s communications for effectiveness, encouraging continued interactions, developing humility in behavior and communications, exhorting tolerance of divergent understanding and viewpoints, bringing everyone into the action, knowing when understanding is achieved or conflict resolved, etc.
The team also has the responsibility to control dysfunctional behavior of members and the team as a whole. The team will need to dissolve anger through understanding, eliminate personal attacks in whatever form they take, change arrogance to humility, correct timidity, etc.
Taking only the two dangerous pitfalls mentioned already as examples of the many dangerous abandonment situations spawned by pseudo-teams, let us contrast what would happen in a typical team with what would happen in a true team-led team.
HOW PSEUDO-TEAMS ABANDON THOSE WHO NEED TO BE UNDERSTOOD
In most teams, only the leader gets involved when someone is not understood adequately. However, at best, the leader will only perceive about one-fourth of the need.
Without the whole family’s help, the little girl will eventually give up trying to be understood by her father. She will think that something is wrong with her that her dad doesn’t want to be more interested. Research shows that when she becomes a young woman, she will most likely unconsciously seek a man like her father and continue unsuccessfully to try to be understood. Her feelings of not being worthy will grow. Meanwhile, the father will wonder how he failed his daughter, when, in fact, it was the family’s failure because it did not pay attention to the sister's/daughter's need.
The teenager wanting to be understood by the uncle will likewise give up, thinking that his more easily understood siblings are favorites of the uncle. Perhaps he desires to follow in his uncle’s footsteps vocationally. Dreams will be discarded and long term job dissatisfaction might result. Meanwhile, the uncle will never know how very important he was to that nephew. The teenager’s own immediate family of father, mother and siblings will have failed the boy.
Without the whole committee’s concern and help, the member of the committee wanting to be used in her area of expertise by the committee will stop trying. She will become less productive, functioning with only half of her normal enthusiasm. If she is wise and fortunate, she will join another church committee where her skills will count and be utilized.
The member of the training group will receive answers, maybe even the right answers, but answers that are not well matched to the confusion felt. Abandoned by the training group because it does not know how to work together to listen and understand, this confused church member, no matter how young or old, will conclude that training groups are just for showing off knowledge, not really for getting confusion cleared up. The training group will most likely feel quite successful because the curriculum was covered and the right answers regurgitated, but in reality it will have failed its members by abandoning their needs to be understood and helped.
HOW PROPERLY LED TEAMS DO NOT ABANDON THOSE WHO NEED TO BE UNDERSTOOD
Here is how families and teams led as corporate entities capable of interdependent synergy would handle the above situations.
The family taught to watch out for one another would have a history of parental guidance that everyone needs to involve himself or herself in the success of every other family member. This family would immediately see that the father was not understanding the sister/daughter. Anyone, mother, a brother or a sister would begin the synergistic process of helping the father understand the daughter and helping the daughter be understood by the father. Someone might point out to the father that he does not really understand. Or someone might start the process by helping the daughter say what she wants understood in a different way or by rephrasing the daughter’s/sister’s statements in his or her own words. If necessary, other family members would help the father overcome whatever is stopping him from understanding, whether that be his defensiveness, arrogance, poor listening skills or partiality. Other family members would help teach the father what the daughter is trying to get across. The family would not give up until the father understood the daughter and the daughter felt understood.
Other important things would come from this family synergy. The daughter would be affirmed that she had something legitimate to be understood. Poor self-worth would be prevented. The father would not go through life knowing, at least subconsciously, that he did not do a good job of being a father to this particular daughter.
In a similar way, a successful family would recognize that one of its teenage boys was wanting to follow in the uncle’s footsteps. When they saw that their son/brother was not getting through to the uncle or not getting enough encouragement from the uncle, the other members of the family would do a variety of things to help the uncle understand his importance and respond enthusiastically. They would also help the brother/son make his needs better known to the uncle.
The successful committee leader would point out to the whole committee, if it did not notice on its own, that one member is desperately trying to get across that she has skills to contribute to the committee's effort. The committee would then go on to seriously consider that committee member’s desire to contribute, recognize her skills, or get that team member the necessary help so that the skills are refined for maximum use on the committee’s purpose, goals and projects.
The successful trainer of the training group would point out that it was the training group’s job to see that everyone in the group understood what was being taught. This would greatly increase the effectiveness of the training.
ABANDONMENT WHEN CONFLICT ARISES IN THE PSEUDO-TEAM
Unfortunately, conflict in the family is usually dealt with as misbehavior. However, conflict is not necessarily dysfunctional. How it is handled is almost always dysfunctional. That is because most families are not functional families but merely relatives living together as roommates. Conflict arises between two family members and the pseudo-family does not recognize that there might be legitimate points on one or, more likely, both sides that need to be considered or that a long-standing problem in the family needs to be solved by the family as a whole working together. So, instead, those in argument are merely told to stop the conflict. Most likely, the conflict will come up over and over again, just with different subject matter or focus.
In a team, conflict will likewise often be glossed over. A rift might develop between those in conflict. Worse yet, sides might be taken, splitting the team into two dysfunctional halves. When those in the team do not roll up their sleeves and get involved right away, bitterness will develop and the atmosphere of the team will deteriorate and become contrary to success.
PROPERLY LED AND FUNCTIONING TEAMS DO NOT ABANDON THOSE IN CONFLICT
Those few families that actually function as families (rather than relatives co-habitating cooperatively) jump in and help members in conflict understand one another, resolve problems and develop ways of communicating together that yield win-win interactions. By helping the two in conflict, family members learn how not to take sides, but, instead, be on both sides. This is being on the side of the family itself. Family members in conflict come out of the interaction closer to one another than before. And this is done not by merely burying the hatchet, but by actual understanding and higher regard for each other. Avoided is the need to not ever talk about certain subjects with one another, which can limit or ruin relationships for life.
Likewise, the team working corporately when conflict arises will not let such conflict fester into ruined relationships. Sides will not be taken. Everyone will help those in conflict resolve their differences. No one will even think of staying silent. Those who do not have the slightest idea what to do will at least express their fear that the conflict will negatively affect the work of the team – or that people will be hurt.
Teams need to be led in such a way that self-protective uninvolvement is destroyed. Then individual team members will not be abandoned in their time of great need.
It must be stressed by leadership that everyone needs to get involved. Otherwise, the victims of abandonment will just grow larger in number. For example, if just one brave soul risks clarifying an argument and those in conflict turn on that person, the victim count has gone from two to three. Everyone should verbally participate. Although not the best type of participation, a few can get by only showing non-verbal communication. (Even crying can be dynamic communication.) But silent passivity, even until the next meeting, is at best poor damage control and at worst quite destructive. In fact, it is the inaction that is the real danger – not the conflict.
Next: Team Leadership to Reduce Tardiness and Absenteeism
Copyright 2012 Dick Wulf, Colorado, USA