We are only two months into the year, but are you and your team feeling overwhelmed, de-motivated and stressed? It’s frustrating when you are leading a tired team of professionals who care about their work. Still, this fatigue is not uncommon. Small teams charged with large mandates are especially vulnerable as they plug away with little hope of reaching their goals. Sometimes an expected vacancy is what pushes everyone over the edge. Of course, demands increase as you deliver good results, but it’s hard to be celebratory when you are exhausted. As a leader you may be asking yourself if there is any truth to the worn adage that smart teams “do more with less.”
While a little bit of socializing and relaxation might smooth some frayed nerves, you’ll need a different approach to really inject new energy. I have discovered a way to structure a facilitated planning session so that it lifts your team out of the mire and helps them to see new possibilities. The process I’ve used encourages generative dialogue (a way to learn together) and is a hybrid of Appreciative Inquiry (a method of asking questions about what is working) and Solutions Focus (a way of staying focused on the future without blame).
How does this approach work with a tired team? Team members are invited to bring their knowledge and experience into the newly defined meeting space. It’s encouraging when the participants bring their deep business content to a Facilitator who is highly curious and enthusiastic at the start. By infusing intelligent optimism and interested energy the Facilitator guides the team through a process of dialogue. It’s much the way in which a stimulating dinner-party conversation with a stranger can make your seemingly dreary life seem worth talking about. Together, the group carefully explores linkages and possibilities, integrating all the complex pieces with a balance of inquiry and advocacy.
Each team’s session unfolds differently because of whom they are and their unique business context, but all four design aspects below are integral to the discussion. Often, these conversations happen over more than one meeting.
- Create a shared deeper appreciation of the work. First I ask direct and simple questions that demand unembellished answers. The group describes their work – not a detailed list of tasks, but higher-level sentences about what they do. I ask “Why?” a lot. Personal expressions of the published mandate or mission are encouraged. I bring a child-like, curious mind to the group’s discussion, and listen for what resonates and when their energy spikes. We strive toward a shared mindset of the function and purpose of the group, using inspirational words. Here’s the individual internal view – now on display for the group to enjoy.
- Describe the concrete change longed for. The act of creating a transitional list “We want to go from here to there” begins to uncover the painful heart of the situation. While feeling the pain we begin to imagine its contributions to the future. I help the team to tease out new perspectives – using metaphors, comparisons, reframing, brainstorming and interpretation. Together we start to “make new sense” of what the team is about every day.
- Celebrate success to create stronger energy. David Cooperrider, who developed Appreciative Inquiry, proved that success stories show what is actually possible. Successes increase the team’s optimism for going forward. Real-life stories, from their own perspective as well as those of the customer, remind the team of the capabilities they already have. Overworked teams often have no time to stop and celebrate, and incremental progress may be invisible to them.
- Make choices to continue momentum and build capacity. From this new, stronger and more energized vantage point, the leader and group begin to imagine more success in the coming months. A solutions-focus asks us to identify anything that can be leveraged. With a shared mindset about what is needed, the whole team senses the energy for change. We discuss how to increase capacity through ruthless focus and right resourcing. All that is needed now are concrete plans and a leader who will back the team up on their shared mandate.
Can leaders facilitate their own teams through a generative discussion? They can if they themselves are not yet fallen prey to the team’s exhaustion – and if they are not the major cause of it. Internal HR business partners and enthusiastic peer-leaders (with some distance to the work) can also be great allies if an external facilitator is not available.