Johnnie Moore

Embracing frustration for better teamwork

There are benefits to engaging with a team's frustration
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Sometimes it pays to embrace frustration if you want better teamwork

Transcript of this video:

The writer, Donald Factor, who was a contemporary of the physicist and philosopher David Bohm, said that he thought frustration was perhaps the one experience that was almost universal in the groups that he worked with. Indeed, he said he thought frustration was almost pervasive in the culture. And that culture consisted mostly of ways to try and distract us from our frustrations. 

Now, of course, having standardized processes and ways of smoothing our path and avoiding predictable problems are a very healthy thing to have in society, but Factor argued that if you wanted a group to go deeper, to go into dialogue, or to be really creative, you had to stop avoiding frustration and actually, basically, engage with it. And it reminds me of working with a management team a few years ago, which wanted to improve their coherence as a team. 

They felt they weren’t working well as a team. And they had done many of the standard things that a team would do. So they had done some version of a strengths finder analysis. They had been on retreats. They’d done some soul-baring work and team-building. And yet they still felt they weren’t getting there, which created interesting conditions for an inquiry, if you like, because they were open to trying something different and something less obvious, less standardized. 

So we talked. And what began to emerge in the conversations was I noticed that the way they talked about shortcomings in teamwork tended to be in quite general terms and not specific. So they would say, “No, I think we’re quite well aligned around values, but sometimes I think we let ourselves down.” But it was quite hard to get specifics, or if you did, they were always about other people outside the management team. They weren’t about problems within the team itself, which after all was what we were supposed to be addressing. And I kept pushing for specifics until I realized that perhaps I needed to demonstrate this rather than describe it. 

So I took the risk, and even recalling it, I actually feel the risk now even describing it. I think what I did was I turned to the chief executive and said, “Well, for example, I’ve noticed that you’ve arrived 10 minutes late for our last two meetings, and I do find that a bit frustrating and it would be great if you could arrive on time next time.” And he seemed to take that in good part. He seemed almost relieved to have had it named, and was happy to acknowledge it and to agree to behave differently in future. 

And that seemed to sort of create permission. And then I think it was actually the most junior member of the team got the idea and addressed one of his colleagues and said he’d been disappointed by, I think it was something like a slow response to a proposal draft that had been sent that caused him a lot of extra work. And again, the pattern repeated. The person complained to seemed almost relieved to have it named, was happy to acknowledge it, and to agree a way of doing things differently in future. And then we had what felt like the rest of the afternoon, an hour and a half of a fairly relaxed series of these complaints with recommendations for change. 

And, you know, I wondered if at the end that they would all have found this a bit of a downer, but they all seem to leave feeling quite buoyed up by it as if it had been really good and useful. And over the next three months it seemed like many of the issues that they were wrestling with, big strategic problems, seemed to start to get easier, to solve themselves more readily. They had more productive conversations. Although to be honest, the really brilliant KPI, if you will, was that I think after three months it was three members of the team all said that they felt that their marriages had got better in the last three months. 

So working with people, sure, there’s value in looking for solutions, focusing on the bright side. And yes, of course, there are times when we want to use standard processes to get things done. But sometimes if you really want to create a breakthrough, generate an insight, inspire creativity, and invite something a little more positive from the universe, it may be more effective to take the risk to be the one that takes the risk of leaning a little into frustration and saying exactly what it is.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

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