Were you ever in a team where there was one person who just seemed like they needed to show everybody how great they were all the time? They wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t collaborate and it seemed like they wanted it all to be about them. Perhaps you are even working with “such a person” right now?

A few years ago I was “one of those people.” I remember sitting on a metal and leather conference chair looking at my peers, feeling a mixture of embarrassment and anger rise. I couldn’t believe this was happening! How could I be in this situation. I had become the annoying workshop participant. I, the woman who normally lead these types of workshops.

I was reprimanding the others on how they were doing the group activities wrong and lecturing them on “the right” way to gain their learning. I couldn’t hear a thing of what my teacher was saying. It was like my ears were filled with cotton wool and all I could think was: “I know this already… and… all of these other people don’t get it.”

Mostly I was frustrated with myself. I had made a massive personal and financial commitment to be there, I respected the teacher and felt passionate about the topic. Still, I was not able to get anything useful out of the experience.

So what was going? And how do you turn “people like me” around to become engaged team players?

To understand what this is about, we need to think about the history of human beings. Historically the survival of the human race has depended on the survival of the group. The survival of the group was therefor more important than the survival of any single person. And despite our focus on individualism in recent decades, we, as human beings,are still wired to want to belong.

Belonging is a primary human need because it guarantees our survival. Within any group where we need to participate, even in corporate teams and organisations, we are always (unconsciously) looking for how we fit and where our “right place” is.

If you think about old tribal societies, it is easy to see how important it is that each person is in their right place. Those that are strong will defend the tribe, those that are weaker will be protected. Being in the place that fits your strengths is essential, not only for you, but for the survival of the whole tribe.

So let’s return for a moment to me sitting in that conference chair. What was preventing me from engaging in a productive way? See I was by far the most experienced in the subject matter after the teacher. I had already made a significant investment in certifications in this topic and just wanted one more perspective added to my knowledge. Most of the others in the group were completely new to the subject matter. So in terms of experience I was the “strongest” in the group hierarchy after the leader.

At the same time, I was by far the youngest in the group, so in terms of age I was the “weakest” in the group hierarchy. (Although we in recent times have stopped respecting age, it just is a fact that those that are older, came before those that are younger.)

So if my group had been back in tribal land, what I was doing was fighting for my survival and the respect that befitted my experience. I was struggling to find my place because on the one hand I was the “strongest” participant and on the other the “weakest”.

In modern day contexts – particularly in organisations – hierarchy is not one-dimensional. There are always several hiearchies to acknowledge. If you want to unlock high performance in a team, it is important to understand this. As a leader it is your role to not only find your right place, but also help others find theirs. You need to look at what “hiearchies” have importance in your context. Age and formal seniority are always relevant. But so are length of service in that team/organisation, experience of the industry, years of specialist knowledge in relevant areas etc.

When everyone feels like they have found their right place in a group / team / organization it is like order is restored and rather than fighting to be seen people can focus on participating in a useful way.

Thankfully the teacher of my course knew about the unconscious human driving-force to want to find our right place. She privately acknowledged that really saw me and all my expertise, but the thing that really shifted my attitude and behaviour was when she acknowledged my experience and professional study in front of the whole group. Once she had done that I could relax and focus. I no longer had to fight to get others to see how much I knew. I found my place.

Below you will find two practical ways you can make use of this knowledge with you team straight away.

Exercise: How to improve team dynamics and engagement by helping people find their rightful place

These exercises might seem simple and subtle – but they speak to core human needs and will start shifting team dynamics for the better.

A. ACKNOWLEDGING EVERYONE’S VALUE AND PLACE

If you are the permanent leader of a group or a team, the following exercise can be extremely beneficial to productivity. I use this whenever I get called in to work with a high-level team that wants to perform more successfully.

(1) Set aside an hour to do this exercise with your team. The purpose is for everyone to be really seen for what they are bringing, so they can find their place and for each person to really see the others.

(2) Give your team a brief explanation about our basic human need of being in our right place and being seen for what we bring. Explain that you will be doing several circle line-ups according to rank/hierarchy. The leader or ranking person in the hiearchy – e.g. the oldest – always stands at 12-noon and then it goes clockwise round so that the youngest stands at 11. Remember to include yourself in the circle line-ups. You are an important part of the team.

(3) I always start with time spent in the team/org as that is usually not controversial. So the person that has been the longest in the organisation/team stands at 12-noon and the rest organise themselves in the circle. Get people to do this as silently as possible. Then ask them what they notice and what it is like standing in this place.

(4) Other hierarchies/orders you can do: age, years of experience with a specific topic (e.g. sales, marketing, accounting), time spent in the industry. Go through all “hierarchies” that are relevant to this team. After a couple of rounds I usually ask the team whether there are other things in this team that is an important skill or piece of knowledge and then we add that line-up. Notice how I always ask people to stand in the order of the amount of experience in TIME that they have in each area. This is not about who is best. Simply, how much time has been invested in a subject, industry, organisation.

(5)  For each line up check to see how each person feels in that place and ask them what they notice about the group. Usually everyone has several different places. E.g. very often the person who has been in the team the longest might be the “lowest ranking” in terms of the official hierarchy as that might be the secretary. And sometimes the newest person in the group has the most experience – just from other organisations.

(6) Lastly I get the group to do the official hierarchy line-up as according to the org chart.

(7) The result of the exercise is that people start see to each other differently and feel differently. They get an embodied experience of the truth of the order in the team – which as mentioned is multi-dimensional.

NB: It is helpful to remember that people’s fears and discomforts often show up through this exercise. Many people are uncomfortable talking about rank and some individuals get upset that they are never at 12-noon in the ranking position and keep wanting to test out other line-ups where they hope to be at the top.

If you would like some support in facilitating this powerful experience, get in touch with me at noomi@noominatan.com

B. ACKNOWLEDGING THE SPECIFIC VALUE OF ONE PERSON

The second intervention is to do what my teacher did.

(1) When you notice someone in your team that seems to be “fighting to be seen”, see if you can figure out what they need to be acknowledged for. It might be their experience or extensive knowledge on a topic or it might be the personal sacrifice they are making to be present – e.g. a very long commute.

(2) Then find a suitable moment, to publicly say:  “If you don’t already know, you might really find it useful to listen to what Susan has to say because although she is new in our team, she has been working in PR with top companies for 17 years, so she brings a lot we can learn from.”

Or: “I know that you might sometimes see Darren leaving slightly early, but he has a 2-hour commute each way and uses his train journey to work. So he is super committed to us.”

Let me know how you get on using these exercises. If you want more details on how to put these interventions into action please email me at noomi@noominatan.com

What other tips do you have for improving team dynamics and getting “show-offs” engaged?

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