Leadership Dynamics: What Is Really Going On Here?

Updated Over a Week Ago


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Danielle definitely looked stressed. She was leading a new project and finding team leadership dynamics confusing and difficult to handle.

“This team is such a nightmare…I don’t know if I can carry on with this.”

But what was really going on here? As leader or coach, how do you help Danielle make sense of her experience in order to work out how to improve things?

Is the cause of the stress something located in Danielle, in the team, in the wider organization, or in some combination of these?

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

I have found some insights from art criticism helpful in, for instance, conversations about aesthetics. If we consider an object as beautiful, is beauty an intrinsic quality of the object itself or something we attribute to it?

The former defines beauty as an objective quality, the latter as a matter of personal preference or experience. Hence the phrase, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’

If a preference is shared by a particular group of people, we could describe beauty as cultural.

By analogy, is Danielle’s team situation intrinsically or objectively stressful, or is the stress something to do with Danielle and how she perceives and experiences it?

Some art critics would say that an object can be considered beautiful if it is widely regarded as such. By analogy, we could wonder if most other people leading Danielle’s team would find it similarly stressful.

If so, we may conclude ‘this is a stressful team to lead’ and thereby consider with her how to change the team.

Team Dynamics

But what if others working with similar teams don’t find it so stressful? What if other leaders find ways to handle similar team dynamics differently?

In this case, we may want to explore the following:

  • How Danielle is feeling
  • What anxieties this experience is tapping into for her
  • What beliefs or constructs she holds about herself, and the team that are affecting her feelings and behavior
  • What strategies she could deploy to feel less stressed and achieve a better team result

Imagine, however, that other project leaders are experiencing similar stresses and difficulties in the same organization. What if it isn’t only Danielle?

In other words, what if Danielle’s stress experience is symptomatic of a wider systemic-cultural phenomenon?

In this case, we may work with Danielle and others to identify factors creating the stress, e.g. lack of clarity, conflicting goals, unrealistic time pressures or inadequate resources and find ways to raise and address them organizationally.

Diagnosis Determines Intervention

To help myself bear these different frames of reference in mind, I wrote ‘diagnosis determines intervention’ on a large white board behind my desk. It reminds me when working with people to consider intrapersonal, interpersonal and organizational dimensions.

I also wrote, ‘what passes for rationality is often rationality in disguise’ to remind myself that things are not always as they at first appear.

The question now written large on the white board in my mind is, ‘what is really going on here?’

How Can Leadership Dynamics Be Analyzed and Changed?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

Would you like to contribute a post?

Nick Wright
Nick Wright
Nick Wright is a qualified and experienced psychological leadership coach and organisation development (OD) consultant who works in the UK and internationally. He is an experienced leader and a Fellow of the UK’s Institute of Training & Occupational Learning. Check his site at nick-wright.com
  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi all. I would be very interested to hear what frame(s) of reference you use when working with people and what this looks like in practice. With thanks and best wishes. Nick

  • julie bullen says:

    I’m reminded of a lesson learnt during my clinical psychology training, many moons ago. We were told of an exceptional doctor who trained his students mainly in Listening. His mantra was “Listen to the patient – they are telling you the diagnosis!” It really works – we often try to solve things too quickly – listen and then listen some more – its clear when an ‘answer’ comes – and of course answers are often layered and only after working for a while on one dynamic (eg, her tolerance of difficulty) will she realise ‘others are having this problem in the company’…etc.

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi Julie and thanks for responding with such interesting comments. I agree with you that learning to listen and hear are core attitudes and skills of an effective practitioner. I liked your comment, ‘it’s clear when an ‘answer’ comes’. It reminds me of similar ideas in existential psychology, listening to what the situation ‘calls for’. It also reminds me how important it is to help a person find his or her own answer or calling, rather than trying to impose a diagnosis or solution from the outside. With best wishes. Nick

  • James Henman, Ph.D. says:

    Nick,
    To me the key is in your statement: “It reminds me when working with people to consider intrapersonal, interpersonal and organisational dimensions.” When the “and” is at the heart of your perspective, it makes it possible to hear more deeply and share more meaningfully with the client.

    Active listening, when combined with NLP and Ericksonian elements, helps the client see different perspectives as aspects of an integrated whole. The moment we try to impose our views, we create resistance. A blank screen can be too overwhelming, but feeding back the clients perspective and sharing other possible perspectives allows the client to expand their choices of understanding/approaching the situation.

    Always enjoy your nuggets.

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi James and thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I liked your emphasis on helping the client see aspects of an integrated whole. It reminded me of insights from Gestalt psychology. I also found your comment, ‘a blank screen can feel too overwhelming’ interesting. It reminded me of a humanistic psychologist friend who comments that our goal as coaches is to be facilitative, whatever approach that might entail in practice. Thanks for your encouraging feedback too. With best wishes. Nick

  • s.k.chakrabarty says:

    Hi Nick,
    Happy to find time to response to your thoughts.
    Any situation in the external world will always remain the same for everyone, whether it is Daniell or anybody else.
    However, it differs in respect of how different people perceives it differently.
    One way of assessing the situation (as an option given by you) is to get different people exposed to the same situation and try to find out the real characteristics of the situation. But that process may not always be practical to be carried out.
    The second option is to clear the vision of the person who is facing the situation and finding it stressful. Our perceptions most of the times makes a pre-judgment without making critical reflexion on a subject or creating inference guided by bounded rationality.
    Before one comes to a conclusion that the situation is stressful, one must think or be inspired to think that, “Think, there must be a better way”.
    Helpful in this path, is getting experience which over a period of time may help one to identify the real characteristics of the situation. The other way is to train people how to think more positively being devoid of personal biases or to share the experiences of different people in the similar situation.
    Maturity of a person in this regard is more a process than there is any short cut.
    The reason as I feel is that howsoever rich knowledge we may give to somebody, assimilating that in the human system takes its own time. The answer therefore may be to the best is to make people exposed to such situations as frequently as possible and inspiring him to face it. Time will take its own course to polish the coarse diamond.
    s.k.chakrabarty

  • V.Lakshmidevi says:

    Hi Nick & everyone,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences. Great to read through the intrinsic and personal attribution aspect.

    Most of the time people around expect a quick fix solution to any aspect not realizing the intricacies or the process as you rightly mentioned as “what is really going on here”. It may be similar industry but the root cause for the problem may not be the same. Dynamics may not be the same.

    Even in coaching as a practitioner, “holding the space” is key for emergent solution for the coachee.

    Have also experienced how appreciating individual effort and “communicating change in plan” to sub-ordinates and peers play a vital role in moving a team to desired result than moving ahead with one’s own action plan however great the result can be.

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi S.K. and thanks for sharing such thoughtful reflections. I agree with you that a person’s experience is influenced by his or her perception of and beliefs about a situation. That resonates with insights from cognitive behavioural psychology and it helps explain why different people perceive and respond differently to (apparently) the same situations.

    Perhaps one of the challenges in a leadership or coaching situation is that the leader/coach and client each hold their own perception and beliefs, sometimes subconsciously, which makes dicerning ‘what is’ challenging. This is compounded by challenges from social constructionism that what is perceived to be ‘what is’ is really a personally and sociallly-culturally constructed idea.

    I found your final thoughts very interesting, concerning the value of exposing a person to a situation as frequently as possible and inspiring him or her to face it. It reminded me of aversion therapy, and the notion of growing stronger through exposure with support. I liked the wisdom and hope in your final statement: ‘time will take its own course to polish the coarse diamond’.

    With thanks and best wishes. Nick

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi L and thanks for posting such helpful comments. Yes, although there are times where quick wins are important and possible, a continual expectation for quick fix solutions can lead to inadequate or simplistic understandings of a specific situation and ineffective or unsustainable solutions.

    I agree with you that holding the space is very important, and sometimes quite challenging. It can feel paradoxical that the best insights and solutions often emerge from non-doing, which is one of the benefits of interventions such as retreats or coaching spaces away from the normal busyness of business.

    I think you make an important point about leaders taking people with them, not simply advancing with their own ideas, no matter how great they are or may appear. In my experiences, that can be one of the greatest challenges for visionary, passionate leaders. With thanks and best wishes. Nick

    …sorry V. Lakshmidevi, I meant ‘VL’, not ‘L’!

  • Mike Baker says:

    Nick,
    Monitoring the dynamics of the team is a key accountability of the leader and understanding the origins of the stress is a key task. If the issue is project related, the effective leader will insure the team has a clear purpose and tasks have been assigned with quality objectives and well defined resources. This allows team members to get on with the work. With appropriate monitoring,review and communication, the leader can minimize stress on the members and insure a reasonable confidence of success. It also helps to insure team members have a good understanding of their accountabilities to understand purpose, clarify and demand review when needed. Obviously,none of the above is of comfort if the stress is non work related. So, maybe “what’s going on here” may be as singular as a poor leader or a larger organizational culture of poor task assignment, communication and allocation of resources.

    Thanks!

    Mike Baker

  • Nick Wright says:

    Hi Mike and thanks for the helpful comments on team leadership. Yes, I agree with you that a key role of a project leader is to identify and address those factors that typically influence a project team’s success, including those you have listed.

    In my experience, shifting the frame of reference can be helpful if, having done all those things well, issues still emerge that seem inexplicable within the current frame. In such situations, it can be helpful to ask those involved, ‘what could explain this?’

    With thanks and best wishes. Nick

  • Art Worster says:

    Hi, Nick. You are obviously a Platonist from your differentiation between the existence of objects or attributes and how our perceptions are created and used. I would add a third dimension to this – that of cognitive principles. Some use the term paradigms, however, I think that cognitive principles covers a broader concept, so that is the one that I use. In this analysis, an object or process (in this case the leadership of a team) can have attributes that are “real”, perhaps as simple as the list of members. We would agree that there have to be some attributes that are factual by any definition. Second, we have our perception of those attributes that are usually filtered by our interaction with them and may or may not be factual. An example would be that a person is “difficult”. While this could certainly be a widely held perception (even universal), it could also be a personal and narrowly held perception so it would be difficult to assign “reality” to it. The level of cognitive principles, however, provides another dynamic to this. We all have “scripts” that we use to organize, analyze and understand our perceptions of what we see. While these are often imbedded in our psyche, with work they are also not beyond understanding and changing. In fact, they usually change over time without our direct intervention, but not always in a positive manner. If, for example, your environment growing up and your education has reinforced that all teams are difficult to manage or that you self-image is one of inability to deal with interpersonal differences, that will dictate how you think about teams and regardless of the reality or your perceptions, will cause you to behave defensively, which will usually end up with predetermined results. In other words you expect the team to be difficult and so your actions ensure that it is. This last case would not be factual in the sense that the team is, in reality, difficult. It would also not be based upon objective perceptions, but instead would be based upon cognitive frameworks that preordain how your experience is interpreted.

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