In charge but not in control: Lessons from leading teams in a networked world

23 August 2021
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

[This article was originally published in the OTT Annual Review 2020-2021.]

In the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to lead teams to deliver complex assignments. The teams I’ve managed have ranged between five and ten people in size, some of whom I had not worked with before. Working in the international development sector has meant that most interactions with team members and the client have been virtual, with the odd in-person workshop or meeting taking place from time to time. However, with Covid-19, assignments took place entirely remotely — perhaps the epitome of Manuel Castell’s networked society. In this article, I reflect on what I’ve learnt from my work to date, drawing on ideas I’ve picked up from completing a course on consulting and leadership at the Tavistock Centre in London, UK.

Enduring difficult feelings

As project lead, I had to accept that while I was in charge, I was not in control of specific tasks. Leadership was distributed throughout the team. But this had implications. My advice could be taken up by task leads, but it could also lead to various degrees of defensiveness in colleagues or be ignored altogether. Tasks were not necessarily delivered in the way I hoped, which would, in turn, provoke feelings of frustration in me.

Why might task leaders feel strongly about my advice? They might see themselves as wholly accountable for their task. Advice might have been experienced as persecutory rather than a legitimate exercise of authority by the project lead.

Collaborative work could be difficult as people were confronted with threats to their sense of self.

Conversely, when colleagues found themselves in unfamiliar situations, I might find myself being leaned on more than usual, indicating a degree of dependence that would in turn leave me in some discomfort.

Wilfred Bion, one of the pioneers of group dynamics suggests that groups tend to behave like this, which he called the ‘basic assumptions’, when they experience anxiety that interferes with the ability of the group to effectively function.

Leaders are often a ‘container’ for projected unwanted and negative feelings of others. Not surprisingly, then, as a leader, I often found myself having to endure my own difficult feelings as well as those of my colleagues.

Making sense of what’s going on

When people in teams experience anxiety (and other difficult feelings) they may act this out through certain behaviours (Bion’s basic assumptions). However, there is a tendency to ignore them, and if they are acknowledged, to manage them, which might mean exploiting, diffusing or sanitising them. And when we stay with them long enough to interpret them, we tend to do so at an individual level. However, feelings and emotions are important data about what might be going on below the surface in the (consulting) team, but also in the client team and perhaps even more aggregate groupings/dynamics (like across society or between different societies, depending on where team members are located). If these are understood, they can help to ‘cut to the quick of situations’ and transform teams and organisations.

The anxiety experienced by team members might be indicative of the emotions being felt (and perhaps denied) by those in the client team, through processes of projective identification where the consulting team pick up on the ‘vibrations’ of the client team through their interactions with one another.

For instance, members of the client team who are themselves stretched, overworked and feeling inadequate might project high levels of competence into consulting teams, expecting them to deliver large assignments in short timeframes. This in turn result in increased anxiety and a feeling of not being ‘good enough’ among the consulting team. Alternatively, high levels of competition and fragmentation within the client team might manifest in the consultant team. Or an inability to make decisions about priorities in the client team might be projected onto a consulting team, who are left with a task with too large a scope.

Recognising and making sense of the anxiety being induced in the group and bringing this to the surface through discussion among colleagues and the client can help everyone to be more comfortable with what’s going on and open up possibility to do something about it, which in turn might mean clarifying the task, redefining people’s roles, or managing the team’s boundaries more effectively.

Creating structures to contain anxiety and think collectively

Teamwork involves in large part contesting differences. And as we’ve said above, they may be differences that the client team has but which the consulting team are holding. However, contesting differences with others is hard when there is little previous experience of working together, limited trust levels and little psychological safety to have difficult conversations. This is exacerbated where there is a lack of in-person communication and a reliance on communication platforms like Slack, where individuals can choose when they want to engage or not.

I found it important to set up regular structures and processes (in the form of video meetings at the task level, comprising small groups; the team level, comprising everyone; and 1–2–1s with task leads), to discuss the task as well as factors that might be enabling or constraining its delivery.

You might find it tempting to set up lots of 1–2–1 meetings at the expense of group meetings. Groups can be scary places, However, when it comes to difficult issues, they can often get stuck in a 1–2–1 with some degree of blame and defensiveness taking hold. A group, however, can take ownership of what might look like an individual issue and call on the contributions of a range of people to help to move things on.

Although labour intensive, setting up relevant structures and processes was crucial, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic where most associates were sheltered at home and feeling isolated, others with children were faced with juggling work and home schooling, and almost everyone was experiencing significant mental and emotional strain.

Discussions helped to support colleagues to acknowledge their circumstances, to ‘name’ how they felt, and discuss whether task delivery needed to be paused or modified, working towards deliverables that were ‘good enough’. They also provided opportunities to make sense of the anxiety that the team was experiencing.

Although conversations initially tended to lurch between being overly polite and confrontational, over time, teams were more able to ‘spar’ with one another without falling out irreparably.

Finally, leading a team can be a lonely place. At certain times, when I found the going tough (not being immune to the feelings others in the team were experiencing), I found speaking to the firm’s director helpful. He was able to provide sympathy as well as managerial support, helping me to move from an anxious state of mind to a more neutral one where I was able to think and reflect on what might be done to address problems.