When we get invited to help a team become high performing, occasionally, there is a team member who doesn’t want to participate in the process. It all starts innocuously; the team leader starts by inviting the person to participate and gets in response, “yes, but too busy right now.” The requests slowly escalate until they cease to be requests and start to be direct orders. The person on the other end goes silent. In a last gasp effort, I have even seen a CEO instruct an admin assistant to cancel all the meetings in an SVP’s calendar until he complied.

It’s a very challenging position for me because the value of my assistance (and ultimately the outcome of the process for the business) depends on everyone participating. At the same time, working with a participant who was coerced into participating is not ideal for anyone. I’d much rather try to understand the source of the resistance and earn the person’s confidence and eventually their genuine participation. If you’re struggling to get a team member on board with a team effectiveness process, try to empathize and get to the root of the issue.

Staying empathetic can be hard; it is for me too. I’ve noticed that it’s very difficult for growth-oriented people to understand or empathize with someone who doesn’t jump at the opportunity to learn. You’re wondering, “What has he possibly got to lose?” Let me start with the most commonly cited reasons for reluctance to participate in a team effectiveness process:

  1. It has no value. Behaviour, trust, communication, personal style, and all other “soft stuff” doesn’t belong in a business conversation.

I try to remember that the messages about “no place for feelings in the boardroom” are decades old, while our understanding of the importance of relationships is only burgeoning. This person is only echoing what he’s been taught. Assure the person that the conversation will be a business conversation and that you’ll veer into behavior and style issues only when they’re directly relevant to the team’s ability to do its job.

  1. It doesn’t have enough value. While the relationships on the team might be nice to invest in, they aren’t high on the must do list and we can’t afford the time right now.

This person hasn’t yet seen the link between team effectiveness and productivity. She hasn’t made the connection between the team’s poor alignment and communication and the slow speed with which you make and execute decisions. Provide examples of poor teamwork that have cost the business time or money.

  1. It doesn’t work. These types of sessions are never useful and even if we do make some kind of breakthrough, we never sustain the changes.

This ain’t this person’s first rodeo. He’s been through this kind of life-altering, beat-the-drums session before only to return to the office and to business as usual. Reinforce the things you’re doing to embed the ideas into your ways of working. While you’re at it, remind the person that if he sticks to his commitments, that’s likely to help others do the same.

  1. It isn’t safe. I’m willing to admit that we have issues on our team, but there’s no way it’s safe to talk about them. There will be retribution for anything that’s said.

This person is once bitten and twice shy. Tread carefully. Encourage the person to participate in the conversations and only to share what she’s comfortable sharing. Build confidence in the process slowly starting with important but unemotional topics. Be quick to call out anyone who makes judgmental comments and make it clear what type of conversation is and is not constructive.

For the most part, each of those concerns can be mitigated with the right team effectiveness process and a good, skilled facilitator. They shouldn’t be deal breakers.

I think the most common reason people don’t want to participate in team effectiveness processes is the fear of being exposed; to others, and more importantly to themselves. Our actions have repercussions on others and, some days, it’s just easier not to admit that. If we keep our rationalizations and defense mechanisms intact, we won’t have to own up to the harm we’re doing—or at least the things that we could be doing a lot better.

Whereas the first four excuses can be rendered moot, this one is painfully accurate and therefore hard to dispute. Yes, if you engage in a team effectiveness process, you will become more self-aware. No, you might not like what you see. Yes, you might be sabotaging your own success and possibly affecting others’. Yes, you will be asked to change for the sake of the team.

I don’t have a great comeback for this one. All I can do is make the process objective and useful. As a facilitator, I can empathize and be kind. I can use humor and other indirect methods to provide a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. But in the end, if you have someone on your team who doesn’t want to see their own reflection; who doesn’t care about the impact he’s having on the team or the business, who isn’t willing to change or grow; maybe you have something much more difficult to confront than one less participant at the offsite.

If you have someone who doesn’t want to sign up for a team effectiveness process, be open to his rationale, ask genuine questions and listen and learn. Make sure you are using a sound process that allows you to address legitimate concerns. If the person still refuses to participate, you’ve got more than a team effectiveness issue.

Further Reading

Mistakes Team Leaders Make: Culture of Fear

Why You Should Stop Pushing Back

How to Draw out the Quiet People

One Response to Dealing with a hold out

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