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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
What other tips do you have for improving team dynamics and getting “show-offs” engaged?