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TEAMING: Under Siege – When Your Team Comes Under Attack

Last week I was speaking with a manager who shared that his team had been given a hard time recently when they asked for more resources to handle a high priority project.  The comments back, frankly, were not nice.  “Maybe your team shouldn’t be the one handling the project anyway.”  “You’re not taking anything from my area.”  “Ever thought that maybe your leadership is the problem?”

At the time, he was so stunned by the comments that he didn’t respond at all.  Instead he went back to the team and reported verbatim what was said.  Not surprisingly they got upset, not only with what had been said, but also with him for not defending the work of the team.  He was having an “I-can’t- do-anything-right” day.

It made me think about how a manager should respond when your team is under siege. In today’s economy with competition for jobs and budgets so high, it’s more likely that inter-and intra-departmental squabbles will occur.  We can probably anticipate that people will be less likely to share resources or have a magnanimous response to a request.  So I wanted to share some tips and strategies that might be helpful if your team comes under siege.

First, the team should sit down together and decide how they want to respond to feedback when they come under attack.  We call these quality service standards because they help to guide the team on how to handle various kinds of situations (e.g. how to deliver bad news, how to handle the person who wants to go up the corporate ladder, how to handle a problem that’s not in your area).  Well , how about a standard on “how to handle being under siege.”  The beauty of doing this beforehand  is that the team will have a game plan in place for when it does happen.

What are some of the things that should go into the standard?  First, I would include my Three Rules For Feedback:

1. Don’t kill the messenger: In other words, don’t come back with your own snide or sarcastic remark in retaliation.  Arguing and angry responses NEVER work.  Stay in a nice, open posture that shows you want to hear what’s being said.

2. See feedback as a gift. The person is probably thinking the comment anyway, so now it’s in the open.  That’s a gift because now you know, rather than having to guess or speculate about what someone else is thinking.  So it’s important to say in response to the feedback, “Thanks for sharing your opinions about the team and the project.”  You could elaborate and add, “I appreciate your honesty, speaking how you really feel.”

3. Separate getting the feedback from deciding what to do about it. This is the “piece de resistance.” (defined as showpiece or crowning point).  Here you turn the tables on the situation by taking control in a very non-offensive way.  You simply say, “I’d like to think about what you’ve said and get back to you.”  A sudden and immediate shift of control now puts the ball in your court.  Why is that so important?

Feedback generally comes in three forms:  valid (I did what you said I did), vague (I’m not quite sure what you’re saying I did), and manipulative (I can see that the purpose of the feedback is to undercut me emotionally).  When we are in the midst of receiving feedback, it is next to impossible to sort what type it is.  Yet sorting is vitally important because the responses to the three types are so vitally different.  For  example, if the feedback is valid, I should probably start out with, “You’re right.  I did do that and I’m sorry that it upset you.”  If the feedback is vague, then I need to say, “I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to.  Can you give me an example?”  If the feedback, however, is manipulative (designed to undercut emotionally), then I need to take a step back and decide exactly how to respond.  I may want to flush the sniper out with the question:  “What do you mean by that remark?”   Or, I may just want to omit reinforcement and let it die on the vine.  I may want to decide if I’m the best one to do battle, or bring in some strategic support – perhaps from higher up.  When dealing with manipulative feedback, we need time to process through to our best response.

There are also a couple of no-no’s when the team is under siege.   First of all, do not share the comments verbatim with the team (or the next level down), when they are in no position to do anything about the comments other than to get all worked up.  You could certainly report in some general way that there was some concern expressed about the team’s ability to meet project deadlines even with additional resources and what would be some proactive ways the team could address those concerns.  In that case, you’ve given the team a problem PLUS permission to work on something to fix the problem.  The problem has been converted into an opportunity that the team can address.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.  It may be beneficial also to uncover “what’s going on under what’s going on.” That may mean, as team leader or sponsor, that you’re initiating some one-on-one conversations behind the scenes with key individuals to determine the source of the aggression.   Is the team perceived as somebody’s “pet?”  Are deadlines actually getting missed?  Is someone higher up commenting negatively about the project, so people are purposefully distancing from the team?  It’s time to do some digging to find out the real story.  By responding, “I’d like to think about it and get back to you,” you’ve given yourself some time to do your homework.

Armed with the true facts of the matter and practiced in terms of your own response, you can now initiate dialogue with the person on your terms and in a way that promotes collaboration and teamwork.

Deborah is the author of three books on teams, including the most recent Team Building Tool Kit, Second Edition published by AMACOM in 2007.

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