Dealing with Divisiveness

Aug 22, 2018
Ever encounter someone that sabotages efforts to maintain a strong team? Perhaps they talk negatively about others and sow seeds of distrust and exclusion? What do you do in those situations? How can you engage in conversations worth having with this individual?

This week I was in a conversation with a group of business leaders about how to have a conversation worth having with someone who’s actions are sabotaging efforts to maintain a strong team. They described a team member who has created a sub-group within the team. He talks negatively about others when they aren’t around and in general seeds distrust and exclusion. At meetings he makes eye contact with members of his clique, using body language to convey disagreement or disapproval, but does not offer up his thoughts to the whole group. Have you encountered someone like this?

Here are some ideas for having a conversation worth having with this kind of team member. These ideas surfaced in our group conversation:

Establish Team Norms and Practice Them

  1. As a whole team, have a conversation to establish team norms or rules of engagement. In order to make sure everyone weighs in, use “rounds” to gather ideas. In other words, go around the group and invite each person to make a suggestion. After their suggestion, you move to the next person. People can pass, but everyone has the opportunity to contribute. Keep going around until everyone says pass and there are no more ideas. If you have a lot of ideas, work together to cluster concepts that can be included in an umbrella concept.  Then choose the 5-6 norms that everyone believes will support a strong, cohesive team capable of excellence.
  2. Have a conversation around each of the norms, clarifying what behaviors support this norm and what behaviors do not. You might even ask, “Share a story about a time when these norms contributed to our success as a team. Describe specifically how the norms showed up.” When you’ve arrived at shared understanding and meaning for each of the norms, have each team member give individual, public commitment to follow these norms and to hold one another accountable.
  3. Begin meetings with the norms posted on a wall. Invite everyone to support team excellence by following them. At the end of the meeting, have a quick learning conversation: Overall, how’d we do in maintaining our team norms (thumbs up, thumbs sideways, thumbs down)? What did we do well? What might we do to improve our practice?

 Have a Discovery Conversation

  • First, reflect and create an open mind. Get really curious instead of being judgmental. It’s likely there is a lot you don’t know:
    • What assumptions are you making?
    • What don’t know you?
    • What might be the motivation behind his actions?
    • What’s going on for him that this is his behavior?
    • Does he feel unseen, excluded in some way?
    • Is he fearful to express his opinions openly?
    • Does he realize how his actions are impacting the team?

The only way to find out the answers is to engage in a conversation with him. If you are truly open, curious, and looking for a positive outcome, your tone will be inviting when you speak.

  • Take time to create a positive frame for your conversation. Your focus might be: We all contribute to ensuring a collaborative and cohesive team.
  • Set up a time to talk with him in private. Share your intention to talk about everyone on the team contributing to collaboration and cohesiveness. Here are ideas for that conversation:
    • Begin by sharing a story of when you witnessed him at his best, collaborating and contributing to team success.  Share what you see as his strengths and how he contributes to the team. Lead into the conversation by saying, “I am puzzled about what I’ve been noticing recently (say what you’ve noticed).
      • What’s going on for you?
      • What’s that about?”
      • Are you aware of the impact your actions are having on the team?
    • Tell me about a time when you thought you were at your best contributing to overall team success.
    • What did you value about yourself and others in your story?
    • What might you do to have more experiences like this? How might the team support you?

 The Toxic Employee

If you’ve had many conversations and worked to support positive change and still the person continues to polarize and sabotage, they are toxic to the team and the organization. Instead of continuing to have conversations about everyone contributing to a collaborative and cohesive team, you’ll be designing a conversation focused on removing the person from the company.


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