Dealing with Dysfunction: The thing beneath the thing

I do a lot of work with teams that are downright dysfunctional. The team members as individuals are often really great people who do want to do good in their organization, and a lot of times it’s confusing to the leaders who are trying to figure out exactly where it’s going wrong. 

As I help diagnose the dysfunction, I almost always find that the thing they call me for – communication problems, lack of goal accomplishment, unclear strategies, etc. – is rarely ever the actual thing that’s causing the problem. They think they have a communication problem when it’s actually a connection problem. They think they have siloing going on between divisions, and actually what they have is a lack of trust and willingness to collaborate. They think they have the wrong individuals on the team, when often they have management structures that are missing to support the work they are trying to accomplish. They think that the new wave of workers coming into the workplace simply lack work ethic, when what’s happening is organizational rigidity and an unwillingness to prioritize generational integration and innovate new ways of doing things. 

I have a similar experience in my 1:1 coaching work. 

People inquire about coaching because they think something is wrong with them when it’s often the organization that’s a problem. They think they lack confidence when the truth is they’re in environments that are wholly unsupportive. They think they’re not being heard, but they’re often not communicating in a way that someone will hear them. They think they aren’t prepared for promotions and growth opportunities, but the truth is they’re not being recognized. 

See? It’s not usually the thing you think it might be. It’s the thing beneath the thing that’s causing the real problem. And getting to that takes curiosity, inquiry, a willingness to be reflective, and often a whole lot of courage. When we stop at face value or maybe just that initial layer down, I think we rob ourselves – and our organizations – of a whole lot. We reduce momentum, waste time, and can even move in the wrong direction. 

When I find myself looking for a quick fix or moving quickly towards resolution and action, it’s always a reminder to myself to slow down and check again. To dig deeper. Try out some of these questions as a journaling practice or as the basis of the conversation with a trusted friend or advisor: 

  • What else might be going on besides your initial assumption? Really challenge yourself to come up with other scenarios. They don’t even necessarily have to be believable or make sense, the goal here is to get your brain thinking about other possibilities.  
  • How can you be more specific in articulating what the challenge is? What clear examples (not just general, vague feelings/impressions) do you have that illustrate the problem? I always say “no fuzzy meanings allowed” here. If you find yourself saying something like “It’s a communication problem,” what specifically is the issue? That’s a broad word with a lot of potential nuance. Get into the grit of it.
  • What does all your data actually tell you? When you truly look at the totality of the situation and all of the factors, possibilities, and specific examples, what conclusions can be drawn from this if you were to review it as an objective third party? 
  • Lastly – what are you truly trying to resolve or accomplish? If you had to articulate one (or a few!) specific outcomes, what would you say? This helps uncover the true desire underlying the frustration around the situation. 

Next time discomfort or dysfunction shows up in your space, try getting a few levels beneath the surface. And when you bump into your own “thing beneath the thing” I’m ready to support you as you work to overcome it. 

- Nicole



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