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team dialogue

Brain circuits

Tools you can use to improve the dialogue on your teams

Published 4 June 2021 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

The pandemic has already forced a change on our regular routines of interactions, but these routines have by now been replaced by other routines – any many of these “new” routines fail to meet the human need for emotional connection and belonging in order to perform our best.  

Team routines are normal. All teams tend towards predictable dynamics and routines. Members will play the same roles in meetings: one person may often dominate; there may be predictable alliances and coalitions; there can even be routine conflicts, unspeakables or taboos. While some of these routines can cause anger and frustration, their predictability reduces some of the anxiety.  

Whether a team is working through technology or face to face media, all leaders need to find more productive ways to reduce anxiety. Teams may not relish having their predictable dynamics disrupted, (even new routines) but executives need to recognize when a team is emotionally stuck and help them become more adaptive. 

Three layers of Dynamics of Dialogue 

The real work that shifts the dynamics of a group from complacency and being “stuck” is for members to take a psychological risk with each other. This is probably the most important element in furthering trust and psychological safety within a group.  

The first level of risk taking is disclosure.  Storytelling is a typical disclosure exercise. One such dialogue is the Three Objects Exercise where each member chooses a meaningful object such as a “fishing rod” or a “a bar of gold” or a “1960 Chevrolet” to disclose something about their life that is personally very meaningful to them.  

Once a base level of trust is established, the second layer of dialogue is reflective feedback from individual to individual, or from team to individual. The third layer of dialogue is “in-the-moment” challenge and provocation. This layer happens when a high level of trust has emerged. 

Tools for Dialogue 

The dialogue tools that can help with these last 2 stages are important. Using a metaphorical approach, the tools allow for nuance, interpretation, exploration, and curiosity. Some examples of such tools are: 

  • Metaphor Feedback: You can ask team members to choose a metaphor for the team and how it is working, or a metaphor for each team member’s and the way they see each other in role. The metaphor becomes a vehicle for a feedback conversation – this is how we see you.  
  • Sociograms are visual representations of the members of the team. Using shapes and links to represent people and relationships the group can talk about the way they interact. It puts their dynamics on the table.  Then open the floor for discussion of how and why they drew what they did. 
  • The “bus exercise”: where you ask each team member to draw a bus, then somewhere draw each team member on the page as well and add any background images they like. This tool is useful for discussing the purpose and direction of the team, as well as the commitment the team members have toward the team and its purpose. 

These dialogues are all launch pads for discussing team dynamics and will give insights into the conflicts and groupings within the team that ordinarily are not openly acknowledged. 

While having these discussions may not solve every problem facing your executive team, learning to have different conversations reduces anxiety and frustration and goes a long way to restoring creative problem solving and effective collaboration. 

Authors

Ben Bryant

Ben Bryant

Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD

Ben Bryant is a Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD in Lausanne and the director of the IMD CEO Learning Center. He holds the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Chair for Responsible Leadership. Ben is a highly skilled educator, executive team coach, and speaker.

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