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ASK, NOT TELL

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A Midwife for Team Effectiveness


It was a difficult case of intact team development.


Aspiration Bridge Company (pseudonym) is a foreign-owned financial services company in China for decades. The newly-arrived CEO knew that the top team was a major obstacle for the organization to actualize the massive opportunity presented by the unique economical and global geo-political environment in the coming decade.


I worked out my diagnosis through interviewing the CEO and each member individually, as well as observing their meetings. In essence, the team was in a downward spiral of:


Invisible divisions (the old local long-timer vs young & new members with foreign background) + lack of skills to collaborate > clash at work > lower tendency to understand others > widening perceived division > …….


More acutely, the spiral has gone down to the recent incident of open personal attack among 2 members who respectively represented the 2 divisions symbolically. The workshop seemed to be covered by a layer unspoken tension of hostility and embarrassment. In presenting to and sense-making with the CEO, we realize that if not intervened, the spiral will go down further.


We decided to bring the team together for a day of conversation. It was clear to us that given the rather intense dynamics in the group, the ‘entrance’ into the workshop would be particularly crucial to make things discussable. By ‘entrance’, it included how we invited, how we framed and the physical workshop environment.


We spent lot of thought and effort on venue. At the end, we secured a hotel suite where members had to travel a bit but not too far. This aimed to give a sense of distance from the daily habitat but not too time-consuming. (…and avoiding another city for COVID consideration) We chose a suite as we intentionally avoid formal business setting. We sat up the living room as the conversation place and made sure there were corners and balcony for agenda-free and non-transactional pair / trio dialogue (read my previous post on why such dialogue is useful ) I particularly like the grand lake-view as the magnificence of nature tends to humble people. This could thus enable better listening, more open sharing and willingness to introspect – elements of developmental conversation. (read my previous post on venue)

Whilst the venue gave me some comfort, on the morning of the workshop, I still started with a mixture of anxiety and excitement. What if some break into fight, and some leave the workshop? Even worse, what if they just ‘play along’ to make it a ‘fun day’ and thus jointly keep the undiscussable untouched because of the accompanying discomfort? What if they project the discomfort and even anger onto me and launch into attack?


At the end, the workshop turned out to be a success. A lot happened. There was one particular moment which I would like to reflect on. The personal disclosure session in the morning left the group with a good sense of bonding and curiosity among each other. I decided to change plan and take advantage of the nice outdoor environment. I invited all to have a long ‘Walk and Talk’ in pair. All came back on time except for the 2 members who were in conflict.


I was thinking it could either be very bad or very good. They could break into a fight and simply chose not to come back. Or they could be doing some good work of talking things through and thus lost the sense of time. It turned out to be latter. I decided to make a bold move by inviting them to share their reconciliation publicly. I strongly felt that it would be useful not just for two of them but the whole team as well organization as the 2 represent the divisions symbolically. They took on my intervention and it was such a beautiful and touching moment for the team. It also humbled me for their courage to do so. To me, it was simply leadership in action!


Coach are midwives but not the mothers. All we can do is to put in place the conditions for the mother to push.

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