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The Sabotage Exercise – How to Self Identify Dysfunctional Team Behaviours

We’ve all seen dysfunctional teams, and most of us will have been part of one at some point in our careers. They can have a negative impact both personally and professionally.

When I was working at Peer1, there was obvious dysfunction within some of the team, so I asked a leadership coach, Nikki Watkins, to run a session with the leadership team and the sales team combined. I wanted to address performance issues and flesh out the cause of the dysfunction. I was so impressed by the outcome of Nikki’s session that I use the exercise with my own clients today.

It works. (Thanks, Nikki!)

First, let’s begin the meeting (and this can be incorporated into all meetings) with some deep sharing. 

I tend to get clients to tell me where they were born, how many siblings they have, wherein the order they come, and the biggest challenge they overcame as a child by age 12.

Pick someone to start who you know will share something personal because then it sets the tone and everybody else will feel compelled to go to the same level. If I run this session with a CEO and their team, I start with them.

    Once that is out of the way, we can move on to the saboteur exercise, which I’ve done with many clients and teams in my own organisations. What’s the point? Well, we know this team has some self-destructive or counter-productive behaviours. Maybe it’s gossip; maybe backbiting, it could be a lack of support for one another. Whatever it is, something about this team has led to them forming a pattern of behaviour that is stopping them from being as good as they could be. The sum of the parts is less than the whole. This exercise will spotlight the behaviours that are holding them back.

    Then, I want the team to realise that these behaviours might be counter-productive and agree that they should change them.

    So, the first thing to ask is — “who do you hate?” 

    Here, I want them to give me their competitor. It’s interesting because sometimes, even this can throw up issues. 

    I often find organisations don’t know their competitor, which means they don’t have a clear position in the market. 

    Food for thought even before the actual exercise begins!

    Sometimes, it’s easy to pick a competitor, and sometimes it isn’t, but we settle on somebody that we hate.

    Next, I get them to imagine this competitor has hired them to stay within their current job and sabotage the company from within. It is their job to undermine their current employer in many small ways. In small groups, they get a pen and a flip chart to brainstorm how they would sabotage the company. Everything. 

    The answers often include:

    • Make promises we don’t keep
    • Sell things below cost
    • Lie to clients
    • Ship faulty products
    • Hire terrible people
    • Promote the wrong people
    • Steal things to make the company less profitable, and so on.

    People have no problem coming up with these ideas. They fill their flip chart in minutes. What I love about this exercise is how much fun it is for those taking part and how excited they get. 

    There’s always high energy in the room and lots of activity and engagement. It’s fun, but there’s a compelling outcome to it.

    Once they’ve finished all their ideas, they put them on the wall and tick all the behaviours they’ve seen in their own team. Some of them might get ticked, and all of them might get ticked.

    Then they realise that they don’t need their competitor to hire saboteurs to work in the business. In fact, they don’t need the competition at all because they are quite capable of destroying their own business from the inside out in a mindless way. 

    It’s a big “wow” moment when they say, “look at what we’re doing to ourselves.”

    So, I ask — “what should we do?” Somebody will always say they should stop doing some of these things, and of course, everybody agrees because that seems to be the completely normal rational thing to do!

    We then go through each behaviour, turning it from a negative into a positive that can become part of a team charter or manifesto. We want around ten rules that this team are now going to live by. And because it’s their words, they can hold each other accountable to their new behavioural standards.

    This is all about creating a list of positive things because there will be a spectrum of skills, abilities, and attitudes in any team, and we want to get everyone on the same page, heading in the same direction. To turn the team around. Every game has rules and white lines. This allows the team to write the new game rules and agree on the white lines and out-of-bounds. 

    “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organisational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” 

    Andrew Carnegie

    From now on, people will make sure everyone on the team sticks to the charter, and if they don’t, they’ll call them out for that. They’ll feel that the team can be as successful as it can be if they live by their new team rules. 

    I’ve had people say that it’s changed their lives as well as the team. 

    Certainly, at Peer1, when we took part in the exercise, we lost a couple of employees, so very quickly, we went from having a dysfunctional team to having a cohesive team on the mend. The activity had highlighted that some of the people had a really fractured relationship and, as a direct result of this they ended up leaving the business. In fact, the catalyst was that one of the team members called them out on their behaviour because it didn’t fit with the charter.

    So, that’s it. It’s simple but, as ever, not easy. It can get messy. 

    You have to have enough trust in the room for people to participate. 

    Not only does this work for broken teams, but I’ve also used it with new teams, helping them create a charter that can be used as a catalyst going forward from the beginning. It’s helpful to conduct the exercise at the executive level too, so the team isn’t broken necessarily but it might be stuck in a cycle of learned unproductive behaviours holding it back from high performance.

    I know we can feel bogged down doing everyday tasks and not look at this stuff. Sometimes, as business owners or managers or execs, we don’t want to acknowledge our problems because we think it’ll be too tough to sort out. It doesn’t have to be that way. 

    In fact, it can be fun!

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    Written by business coach and CEO mentor Dominic Monkhouse. Read his new book, Mind Your F**king Business here.

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