Empowerment Leadership Model for Small Groups, Teams, & Families
Course 5, Lesson 9
How to Help Teams Develop Closer Relationships
Copyright 2001 Dick Wulf
A certain degree of closeness is desirable on any work team. Friendliness and team spirit are good, but emotional closeness, commitment and caring between team members really helps a team excel.
Closeness, commitment and caring are needed for the giving and receiving of help to do jobs better, getting along with one another, and dealing with various frustrations that go with the tasks assigned.
Trust and Closeness
Under the right conditions, closeness (commitment and caring) will develop as trust is progressively established. But, problems with trust can lead to uncooperative cordiality, on one hand, or open hostility on the other. Each will negatively affect work output and progress toward the team’s purpose.
If a person opens up and becomes vulnerable on a team that has not proven its trustworthiness, a breach of confidentiality or a difficult confrontation might doom the whole team. On the other hand, the distrusting behavior of a team member on a team that has proven its trustworthiness can be destructive.
Just how close should a team aim to become? It should become as close as it needs to be to accomplish the team purpose, but no closer than it can be trusted.
Take for example the group that met for years at my house to watch each and every Denver Broncos football game. This group began needing little trust and intimacy. It merely worked at becoming close enough to deal with the social atmosphere of fun on one hand and disappointment on the other. But, closeness to enjoy one another in a non-problematic, party atmosphere is not too difficult to achieve. Trust for very little is required. This is why team luncheons often fall short of creating the degree of trust and closeness required for optimal team performance.
However, when it became necessary to help a member of our football group who became extremely disappointed, we needed to grow in trust so that honest compassion could be delivered. We also needed to develop greater trust and deeper closeness before we could help someone who acted like the outcome of the game was the basis of his personal happiness. No matter how lovingly we would confront, he who was the target of our help would have to trust our intentions as well as be willing to stick it out because of the depth of our closeness (commitment and caring).
As long as there is time for personal interaction, there is the opportunity to build closeness. It is the team purpose that defines the relationship between team members as needing to be helpful. It sets boundaries on interactions and encourages the building of trust. The successful team leader helps the team help its members to be consistently helpful to one another and to solve whatever problems come up between people. This proves trust and leads to closeness.
Confidentiality And Closeness
Significant closeness cannot develop without proven confidentiality that produces trust. Whether or not team members will pay the high cost of confidentiality depends, among other things, upon the strength of their desire to be on the team to meet important personal needs or something critical to their faith or for the Lord.
Many will have no trouble keeping confidences because they are very self-controlled and private. But many people do have trouble keeping things private. These people like to tell information that will get them attention or status. Therefore, people need something more than just an understanding of the necessity of keeping confidences. They need to know (1) that the team will hold them accountable for agreements made about confidentiality, and (2) that they cannot stay on the team if they cannot convince the other team members that they can keep confidences. The power of both of these considerations is proportional to the desirability of being on the team. And the desirability of being on the team is proportional to the potential of the team for meeting really critical personal needs.
This is why teams with purposes that will not meet deeper needs adequately should not even try to acquire much closeness or encourage vulnerable openness. Such teams are, in fact, too risky for personal disclosure. In such teams there is too little motivation for honoring confidentiality. There are no consequences “with teeth”. Nothing critical will be lost if a person spreads rumors or gossips.
This is the reason people get hurt in teams. They expect the environment to be safe because it is a Christian team. Eventually they say something a bit too honest and find that what they have said has gone to other people in the form of gossip. They find themselves being criticized or put on the spot. The team and possibly the whole church becomes dangerous. Interactions necessarily become superficial and merely congenial. Or they leave the church.
Thus the team leader must discuss the need for confidentiality if team members are going to help one another get the job done. The issue of trust and the necessity of confidentiality must be adequately dwelt with to form a safe environment for honesty. Once team members know that what they say and that their requests for ideas and advice will “stay within the team” and not become gossip, the team’s production will grow and relationships on the team will become more committed and caring.
How a Team Is Begun Lays The Groundwork For Closeness
The groundwork for closeness, honesty and intimacy on a team is laid during the process of starting or “re-starting” the team. The knowledgeable team leader will start the team off carefully to make sure that the team and its members address those things that lead to trust, openness and a host of other critical considerations. A contract or set of agreements are made about the purpose of the team, the role of the leader and many other things before the team actually gets going. These agreements make closeness easier.
When the team leader first identifies the team purpose, he or she wants to make certain it includes something critical for team members and/or their Lord, not just for the church. Therefore, the team leader thinks deeply (tunes in) about the needs of those people who will be on the team.
The better the job done in identifying the thoughts, feelings and realities of those on the team, the more sensitive to the team members’ needs the leader will be. No one is going to drop his or her guard if the team leader is not seen as someone who understands. And it is the job of the team leader to see that the team soon understands the needs of its members so that team members will interact constructively.
Once a team purpose is adopted by people, a team actually comes into being. At that point the purpose has a great deal of significance to team members, and they should really want to accomplish it. If the team purpose promises to meet their stronger felt needs, as it should, they will be quite motivated. So, when the team leader goes to the following steps in the contracting process, issues very critical to the development of closeness will acquire serious attention.
First would come a discussion of goals and action steps to accomplish the newly adopted, very critical purpose. Once the team has decided on specific action steps, the team leader should ask the team to identify those things, including individual and team behaviors, that will be necessary to accomplish the goals and action steps. It is in this discussion that things critical to closeness should be brought up by team members, necessary things like the degree of closeness, commitment to one another, openness, honesty, confidentiality, and other appropriate and inappropriate behaviors.
This discussion might take considerable time, but in the end it will be worth every minute. The team leader who wants openness, closeness and trust to develop in the team takes time to discuss these interpersonal requirements. There must be adequate discussion of problems that may become barriers to any team member’s honest participation. For example, in discussing appropriate and inappropriate behavior for accomplishment of the team’s purpose, the team will identify judgmental criticism as harmful to the team’s process and check each member’s perception of their ability to listen and respond without judgment. Similarly, the team will address confidentiality, the need for it and each person’s commitment to it.
Teams can be fairly accurate in identifying just how capable members are in keeping shared things confidential outside of the team. The team and its members will notice when a person on the team tells information about others that is not necessary or appropriate. The skillful team leader will help the team point out to that person his or her tendency toward lack of discretion. The team should then help that person develop new values and behavior. But the team purpose must be critically important and necessary to the person addressed to pay the price and face this kind of helpful confrontation about confidentiality. This is because it is implied in the team’s help that the person must leave the team if he or she cannot reach the level of confidentiality necessary for the team to achieve its purpose.
In a team where confidentiality, lack of judgment and helpfulness are sure things, trust and closeness will develop. There are not many safe environments, so when people find such a place, most will open up for the help they can find there. And, they will be reluctant to leave such a team.
But there will always be those who hesitate to open up and ask for help. What does a successful team do about these people?
The team should ask why a person does not want to seek ideas and advice when excellent help from the team is available. If the team listens closely, it will be able to decide if the person can be helped over whatever barrier to openness exists. If this is not possible, the team will need to get the person to agree to strict confidentiality, especially because he or she will not be equally vulnerable to other team members. Unfortunately, if the team feels threatened by the person’s inability or unwillingness to be more vulnerable, the person might have to leave the team for one with a purpose that does not require a high level of openness.
Then there are people who are afraid to admit anything that might be seen as a shortcoming or mistake. The biggest danger is that the person who needs to appear “perfect” raises the anxiety level about openness of all the other team members. Everyone can become uncomfortable about admitting their shortcomings. Closeness and openness require getting over the lesson life has mistakenly taught most of us that it is dangerous to appear weak or wrong. In other cases, the person’s culture or family norms (unspoken rules) will be dictating personal silence and superficiality. This is difficult to overcome. First, these people will have to have the group’s help in seeing different rules for teams. In fact, for Christians whose sins are not dangerous because they have already been paid for by Christ, such behavior is a spiritual misunderstanding.
Fortunately, the team can usually help most team members over the barrier to personal openness. Some people are afraid of betrayal and being hurt. They will need more reassurance and possibly more time on the team for members to prove their trustworthiness. But, later they will most likely open up.
The alert team leader knows that one of the biggest barriers to any team purpose is lack of trust.
How Trust and Closeness Develop Further
Trust is built and closeness results as incremental risks prove to bring no real harm. To see that this happens requires the team and the team leader to be very alert. Since team members are usually too close to the situation, this task is one that illustrates the wisdom of the team leader not considering himself/herself a team member.
The successful team leader will be careful with this issue of trust, openness and closeness. He or she will watch what comes up in the team, ever watchful for something said that is more personal than the level of trust established by past team behavior. When it seems a team member is bringing up particularly sensitive material that requires deeper trust and more confidentiality than the team has so far proven, and if the team doesn’t intervene to assure the person’s safety, the team leader should interrupt. In keeping with allowing the team to do as much of its own work as possible, the team leader should ask the team if what is coming out is safe or does it require more trust and confidentiality than the team has so far proven. The first time this is done might surprise the team, but team members should readily understand.
Before continuing, the team should then solve any barriers to safety for the person who is revealing deep personal things. If those barriers cannot be adequately addressed, the team leader should help the team advise the person to not yet tell what he or she started to relate. Perhaps the team will recommend that member talking with the team leader apart from the team. If appropriate and necessary, the team can begin working hard, with the leader’s help, to become a team that can handle such sensitive things in the future.
As successive incidents of personal vulnerability are dwelt with carefully, more and more trust will grow and more and more closeness develop.
Next: How to Help the Team Bring New Employees on Board
Copyright 2012 Dick Wulf, Colorado, USA