Shifting Difficult Team Dynamics within Local Government

Summary of a challenging piece of Organizational Development work focused on helping a large Social Services team to rebuild trust in their leadership, and in themselves following an incident in which a child nearly died.

Keywords: Team Building, Leadership Capability, Performance Improvement, Sustainable
Change, Local Government, Social Work, Serious Case Review, Cultural Change, Emergent, Minimal Intervention.

The Challenge

This challenging piece of Organisational Development work was completed over a 4-month period and focused on helping a large Social Services Team to rebuild trust in their leadership – and in themselves – following an incident in which a child nearly died. This incident had resulted in the local authority initiating a Serious Case Review followed by a Disciplinary process. The disciplinary was led by the teamʼs Head of Service, which in turn led to an individual being clearly subject to ʻsanctionsʼ. All this took place in the wake of the ʻBaby Pʼ case and the accompanying media and public outcry concerning the safeguarding of vulnerable children.

When we were invited to help -over a year after the incident – the teamʼs performance was described by senior management as ʻacceptable – not the best, but by no means the worstʼ, yet particularly resistant to change, struggling to deal with adversity, and hard to lead.

The Initial Contract

Our client, the Head of Service, believed that the team itself held most of the answers to the problems it faced and had in mind a team Away-Day to learn lessons from past events, encourage the team to re-engage with its sense of purpose in relation to children and families, and support the Team Manager in asserting her authority and changing the culture of the team.

So, initially, one of us – our Co-Founder Esther – agreed a 4-day piece of work, in which she would firstly interview around half the team, plus the Team Manager. These interviews would be confidential, in that individuals would not be quoted by name, but themes and issues would be identified to play back to the team and its leadership. Esther would also read the teamʼs and the departmentʼs work-plans, and the serious case review summary, and have a conversation with the clientʼs line manager to get an increased sense of the Local Authorityʼs strategic take on this case.

This preparatory activity would result in a draft design for the Away-Day, to be discussed with the Head of Service and the Team Manager. Esther would then coach the Team Manager to lead the day well, facilitate the away-day, and provide email follow-up to ensure key actions were tracked and completed.

Re-contracting in Response to the Data

The initial interviews uncovered complex dynamics in the team that needed serious attention. The team still seemed highly unsettled and ʻunsafeʼ. Signs of this were:

  • Some team members unwilling to open up at all to the interviewer, others crying as they talked about how difficult they were finding it to feel safe in their day to day work.
  • Much suspicion about the Away-Day process, and what it was intended to achieve
  • The Team Manager saying that team members carried out their day-to-day duties conscientiously, but improvements or changes were almost impossible for her to make happen
  • The team admitting to constantly criticising the Team Manager behind her back, with many expressing a loyalty towards the disciplined member of the team – now working temporarily elsewhere
  • Team members appearing very detached from the wider Division, expressing anger at a perceived lack of support, and feeling disconnected from the senior management.

This data pointed to a deeper problem. Esther therefore involved her colleague Nick Mayhew and engaged in a supervision process underpinned by a systemic mapping technique known as ʻconstellationsʼ. This process, in which we have been building our skills over the last 5+ years, is uniquely able to generate deep insights regarding the underlying tensions in organisational systems and how to proceed towards possible resolution.

The process revealed a traumatised team polarising around an especially tense relationship between the Team Manager and the disciplined team member, and also further highlighted the relative isolation of the Team Manager and apparent disconnection between the team and the Head of Service.

In short, it seemed clear that the ʻobstructive attitudesʼ of team members to change stemmed not so much from their individual behaviour-preferences, but from a larger system/team dynamic that felt unsafe – since senior management support was perceived to be missing – and left individuals seeking security in what or who they knew (or thought they knew…).

We therefore went back to the Head of Service and Team Manager with the following diagnosis and revised way forward:

  • The extent of the trauma requires the rebuilding of trust and a gentler process of engagement with the issues than a one-off Away-Day would allow.
  • The way the team is polarising around the team manager and disciplined team member suggests a need for two consultants rather than one, to both hold this polarity and help it shift into a less oppositional, more productive pattern.
  • As part of this shift, we would need to work hard to strengthen the Team Managerʼs authority over the team, while also  encouraging team members to ʻseeʼ and take greater responsibility for their counterproductive behaviours.
  • The work needs to involve the Head of Service more than initially realised – both to demonstrate clear line-leadership in support of the Team Manager, and to enable team members to clarify their relationship with her, given her involvement in the Serious Case Review and Disciplinary processes.

Given the limited budget available for such work, we agreed an integrated, ʻminimal interventionʼ as follows:

  1. Two half-days with the team, with a month in-between – facilitated by both Esther and Nick.
  2. Two ʻsupported conversationsʼ between the Team Manager and the disciplined team member – again facilitated by both Esther and Nick
  3. Two follow-up coaching sessions for the Team Manager and Head of Service together, delivered by Esther alone.

Our ʻMinimal Interventionsʼ

First Workshop – half day

The first workshop set out to improve the relationship between the team and both the Team Manager and the Head of Service – in particular by helping everyone own a clearer, shared sense of what was problematic, what a better future could look and feel like, and how they could each contribute to getting there.

With the disciplined team member present (despite working elsewhere on an interim basis at that time), as well as the Head of Service, it was important we could create a safe, responsive workshop environment very quickly and get people to name and own their own views and behaviours, so that as much of the polarising/splitting and distrust as possible could be surfaced and worked on.

This involved simultaneously affirming the line-leadership positions of the Head of Service and Team Manager through the roles we asked them to play, while also helping them to be open about their difficulties and regrets, and enabling team members to both challenge and make requests. (This required some pre-workshop coaching for both leaders.)

We supported people being brave in naming problems by sharing our findings from the initial interviews in a way that was both provocative yet encouraged dialogue and joint sense-making. We then offered a very different ʻsolution-focusedʼ session, which enabled some breakthrough thinking about how it might be in the future ʻwhen all the problems are solvedʼ. To begin the process of responsibility-taking, we then invited everyone to make ʻoffers and requestsʼ that would support progress towards this future. These were recorded and owned by the whole group.

To conclude, we ran a short and ʻedgyʼ session to flush out the polarising dynamics around the Team Manager and disciplined team member resulting from the recent Serious Case Review and Disciplinary process. This enabled a fraught, but very productive, naming of ʻhome truthsʼ such as not trusting the Team Manager, not trusting the Head of Service, and feeling hugely upset and unsafe as a result of the way these processes had been conducted.

The risk we took was to leave the team with the turbulence and upset that this provoked, while trusting that we had already done enough to re-set some key team dynamics – such that the team could continue a developmental journey over the next month, without us, prior to our meeting with them again. Certainly, it appeared that something important had been ʻunblockedʼ, as many used the word ʻreliefʼ to describe their dominant thought/emotion as they left the session.

First Supported Conversation – 2 hours

The first supported conversation between the Team Manager and the disciplined team member was designed as simple opportunity for the two people involved to name their issues with one another and to explore how/if they might be able to work together again. They were both given a ʻthink sheetʼ to consider before coming, derived from other pieces of successful conflict work, which was intended to help them clarify their own positions while simultaneously growing their empathy with the otherʼs situation.

We facilitated the conversation in a light-touch way, with each of us deliberately ʻlooking outʼ for the interests of each of the individuals. We also used a range of simple socio-drama techniques – e.g. imagining that we were all team members looking in on the conflict – to encourage different perspectives to emerge, and allow difficult conversations to take place in a safe way. Our aim was to ʻcollapseʼ the polarity between them, as much as possible, in the belief that this would produce a wider effect in the ʻfieldʼ of the team – enabling team members to let go of their polarising loyalties towards one or the other, and discover a more relaxed and supported relationship with their team manager.

One month later…

Second Supported Conversation – 2 hours

We scheduled this second conversation between the Team Manager and the disciplined team member for the afternoon prior to the second workshop. Our belief was that the state of the dynamic between them would offer us clues about how the team would show up the following day, and also that any further progress we could make with this pair would be supportive of the next dayʼs work.

We framed the session as an opportunity to make plans for potentially working together in the future. This enabled a greater focus on the deeper issues still troubling their relationship and allowed us all to pinpoint those that continued to seem un-resolvable and to face into the operational implications of this.

While difficult, this paradoxically enabled greater contact between them, and they grew more prepared to make specific demands of each other to support a good working relationship in the future. In turn, this clarified their responsibilities towards each other and what they needed to do to accept and act on these. Their conversation continues…

Second Workshop – half day

Our first objective in this second workshop was to help the team review the extent to which its dynamic had shifted since the last workshop, and to what level individuals were taking responsibility for this. We used the imagery of ʻsnakes and laddersʼ to get the team thinking about what green shoots of progress had emerged – ʻladdersʼ – and what blocks were still around, making progress difficult – ʻsnakesʼ. The group reported much positive improvement, particularly regarding their relationship with the Team Manager, but still seemed to find it difficult to truly name their issues with more senior leadership with the Head of Service in the room.

We deliberately named the difficulty they had mentioned previously regarding their relationship with the Head of Service, which allowed the subject to be aired and for requests to made of her. This felt very productive. Other related issues began to be named and attended to, which paved the way for a clarifying session led by the Head of Service regarding the Serious Case Review and Disciplinary processes. This served several purposes:

  1. It allowed the Head of Service to step fully into the role of ʻleaderʼ, such that the team experienced both her authority and humanity, and she could experience more directly their confusion, distrust and upset
  2. This resulted in a clearer ʻcontractʼ between them all concerning ʻnext stepsʼ, empowering team members and deepening the relationship between ʻleaderʼ and ʻledʼ more generally
  3. By making the SCR and Disciplinary processes more transparent, the session cleared up mis-understandings and unhelpful perceptions based on gossip, and encouraged helpful shifting of loyalties between team members, and loosening of the polarity between ʻmanagerʼ and ʻdisciplined team memberʼ.

In the last session, after a short lunch to give people time to reflect on progress and any outstanding issues, we proposed five ʻsuccess criteriaʼ for them to monitor themselves going forward. We created this during the lunchbreak, using the vision they had proposed in the first workshop, and incorporating their most resonant phrases/words describing progress to be built upon, and obstacles requiring continued attention.

The workshop finished with each participant writing a ʻpostcard to selfʼ setting out two specific actions they were going to take to support progress into the future, and then sharing this with the whole group.

In the following months…

Dyadic Coaching for Team Manager and Head of Service

After the two workshops and the supported conversations, the Team Manager and the Head of Service agreed that it would be useful for them to have two follow-up sessions together with one of us, so that they could ensure that their actions supported the teamʼs progress, and catalysed further improvement. We suggested ʻdyadicʼ coaching, which is a form of coaching in which two people are coached ʻin relationshipʼ, as a system, rather than as individuals to develop individual skills. In this way, the pair can be supported to ʻsort outʼ the problem together, and learn something about how to do this better together in the future.

The Impact

The results of this work are still unfolding, but it was clear by the end of the second workshop – both from what each individual said in conclusion, and from their actual behaviours – that the team had moved to a different, much healthier place.

In particular, the intense loyalty towards the disciplined team member at the expense of the Team Managerʼs authority had fallen away; individuals were taking clearer responsibility for contributing to a more transparent, productive team dynamic; the Team Manager reported feeling increasingly empowered and able; and the Head of Service had regained trust, and was experienced by all as being in much better relationship with the team.

Many of the team described the atmosphere at work changing from ʻdepressingʼ, ʻunsafeʼ and ʻawfulʼ to ʻmuch more positiveʼ, ʻopen and honestʼ and ʻmore supportiveʼ.

The Team Manager told us: Although I found the whole process very uncomfortable, it did do what we set out to achieve, and the impact on the team has been considerable. I have now become more confident in my role, and the team members are responding to that. I have also learned quite a bit from watching you facilitate, and from our very first conversations – you helped me see how a middle manager like me needs to maintain a certain independence, in order to make the best decisions. You also helped me to see the value of facing into difficulties rather than suppressing them and trying to move on.

The Head of Service: I visited the team recently and the atmosphere was completely different – friendly, engaged… This process has really worked! Your external view on the situation really helped us to see what was going on and understand what we needed to do to rectify things.

The Assistant Director: From my point of view this was very valuable work, which now needs to be shared with others in the authority – itʼs not only front line social work teams who get stuck.

Key Learnings

It feels interesting and productive to reflect on the above work in relation to our commitment at Integral Change to be continually developing the art of joined-up, ʻminimal interventionʼ change consulting. Our sense is that, through a relatively small set of elegant, integrated interventions, we supported a considerable shift in this large social services team, from very unpromising beginnings. Reflecting on how this ʻteam re-setʼ occurred, we can identify a number of key aspects of our work during this project that point to some broader lessons about how this ʻmore from lessʼ approach to change consulting might work for others:

  • In order to achieve ʻmore from lessʼ, we have to be able to work the issues at a certain depth, with considerable focus – as this heightens the clientʼs responses and accelerates movement. However, such a process also requires solid ʻcontainingʼ, so that the heightened responses can be adequately processed, and all movement – from the obvious to the subtle – can be productively channelled.
  • Our relationship with the lead client was a key contributor to the quality of ʻcontainingʼ referenced above. We ensured that we contracted carefully and respectfully with the Head of Service, and in response she was very trusting of our approach while taking responsibility for the work. She shared with us what was necessary, responded in a robust way to some fairly direct coaching, made sure that she listened to advice but did things in her own style, and made sound and helpful decisions regarding what could and couldnʼt be achieved/discussed.
  • The strong contracting and high quality containing enabled us to work ʻemergentlyʼ with issues as they arose, rather than ʻprogrammaticallyʼ. This enables clients to experience a certain ʻrightnessʼ (eg. in terms of relevance, proportionality, tone) in any particular intervention – and certainly enhances the efficiency of the work. So, for example, our ability to respond to levels of anxiety and trauma in the team by suggesting a two-step, half-day team session format, allowing us to customise the second session given movement – progressive or otherwise – as a result of the first, probably made a significant difference to the way in which our interventions were received.
  • In order for us to do ʻlessʼ, we have to support the client to do ʻmoreʼ – for example, by taking greater responsibility. In this case, a key challenge was to get team members to take responsibility for dysfunctional dynamics that they were unwittingly supporting and to help them see how they could take a more empowered stance in relation to ʻleadershipʼ. So, by holding an ʻOffers and Requestsʼ session towards the end of the first session, which demanded that team members said clearly what they needed and what they could contribute, and by leaving a month between the workshops for them to experiment, we really encouraged responsibility-taking across the group.
  • It was especially important in this piece of work for us to not be seen as ʻmanagement stoogesʼ, supporting a senior leadership view of the world, thus exacerbating the teamʼs feelings of distrust. We needed to truly be working in service of the whole system and its service users/stakeholders, thus maintaining a much broader perspective. This meant ensuring that the Head of Service faced the disappointment and anger of the team members when it came. We were not there to protect her from that, but to help them all to find a way through it.
  • Our ʻminimalistʼ approach involved working across the span of the whole system, including:- consideration in the workshop of the larger political context shaped by the death of Baby P, direct work with 2 levels of linemanager individually and as a ʻdyadʼ, whole team work and sensitive ʻsupported conversationsʼ between two individuals. We believe that this ʻsystemic coherenceʼ gives the work a certain power – and certainly enables more to be achieved with less.

The sort of work we are describing above is rare – it requires an ability to create safety, contain a potentially highly emotionally charged process, face into immense difficulties such as conflict and personal upset, understand and help shift the wider system dynamics, and coach leaders to lead in the moment. Many consultancies are expert in conflict management, leadership development or team dynamics whereas we are in a position to provide a complete service that addresses all aspects of the problem in an integral way, and leaves the organisation stronger and delivers sustainable change.

contact-pic02-eContact: For more information about this work, contact Nick Mayhew, Director, via
email hidden; JavaScript is required or +44 (0)7753 620811. Conversations with the client quoted above can be arranged, if appropriate.
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