When Strong Teams Struggle: Navigating Evolving Team Dynamics

A few years ago, I experienced a strange paradox. Despite our rich expertise as MEDI Leadership coaches, our internal team dynamics were suffering. To be clear, each team member was wonderful. And yet, our internal dynamics… not so much. Seeking a solution, I had to recognize we needed an external perspective — our own executive coach — to get unstuck. It’s tough to pull yourself out of quicksand without an outside lever.

Since then, we’ve gained critical knowledge we now share with our clients. Today, MEDI has a model team culture that healthcare leaders strive to emulate as they navigate head-scratching dilemmas. To get there, we use a proven team development framework that helps leaders make sense of ambiguity and chart a path forward. You’ll learn the basics of that framework today.

Teams as Moving Targets

Teams aren’t static. Rather, they go through specific stages, and the challenges you’re facing today may indicate you’re entering a new phase. The good news is that challenging dynamics are normal, predictable and, thankfully, manageable stages of evolution that all teams go through in some degree or fashion. The key is to recognize the stage your team is in and lead accordingly.

How do you do that? The following team formation and development model will help you (a) identify where your team is now, (b) where it’s headed, and (c) how you can steer it toward your desired outcomes. 

Your ability to make a positive impact as a leader depends on it.

 

 

 

Dependence

Traits: Learning, open to direction, patient, “honeymoon” disposition

The Dependence phase happens when teams are forming for the first time or when a new leader, roles or participants enter the team. This often feels like the “Honeymoon” phase. Team members may not love how things are done but they’ll keep quiet for the time being. They have a few pebbles in their shoes but prioritize harmony and compliance, waiting to see how things go.

► Counter-Dependence

Traits: Settled in, willing to push back, impatient, fed up, storming

Those pebbles in their shoes are now causing blisters and team members are ready to protest. Often you hear things like “I need role clarity” or “What are my decision rights?” This typically means “I stepped over the line and someone smacked me. What do I own?” 

In Counter-Dependence, team members get irritated with one another, whether in a light fashion or in ways that get them stuck in opposition. In some cases, Counter-Dependence is so strong it feels like they’re in mortal combat. Leaders sometimes can’t get their teams unstuck on their own. Back to my personal example, it’s important to recognize when to call a trusted guide to steer you out of the wilderness when you can’t see past the trees blocking your path.

► Independence

Traits: Siloed, fair-to-good communications, harmonious, good boundaries

In the Independence stage, team members operate in silos but in close coordination. They’ve learned boundaries and communicate fairly well. After butting heads in the previous stage, they’ve hashed out what each owns and now understand their role.

In this phase, you have people floating around in bubbles, each focused on their area of responsibility. Once in a while those bubbles connect, but they’re operating independently most of the time.

When leaders define their teams as high-performing, this is typically where they are. But there’s a higher performing stage ahead: Interdependence.

Interdependence

Traits: Strong commitment, accountability, and results. Responsibilities, decisions, and wins are shared by all.

Interdependence in teams looks a lot like backyards without fences. This is how I grew up: As children, we’d go over to someone’s backyard and play would flow. Parents were aligned enough that if you misbehaved in Johnny’s backyard, his parents could correct you and your mom would nod in approval.

Interdependent teams share such trust and interconnectedness that if someone else’s subordinates came to you with a question, you’d likely have an answer and sound pretty close to their own supervisor. If you stepped over the line, your peers would come to you productively and work it out.

It takes work and intentionality to get to this stage, but is incredibly valuable and fun when you do. It’s where maximum performance lies.

Moving Through Team Stages

Every time change is introduced into your team — new leader, roles, participants, structures — your team will return to Dependence in some degree and start this process again. You can’t skip stages, just like you can’t get to adulthood without experiencing adolescence. This is because the lessons learned and culture formed in one stage set up the learning and growth in the next stage.

Leaders of teams experiencing Counter-Dependence aren’t bad leaders. Allow me to say it again: These dynamics are normal, predictable, and manageable. That’s good news! Again, the key is recognizing the stage your team is in, and leading accordingly. Sometimes the dynamics are such that you need outside help to get through this stage.

It’s worth noting that after a successful transformation, a team that’s operating Interdependently can revert back to Dependence if certain conditions change. To maintain Interdependence, teams need ongoing tune-ups, reminding seasoned members of the tools and principles they’ve learned, and teaching the same to new members.

Taking the Next Step

If you’re looking to move your team to Interdependence today, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel and make mistakes that could be prevented with the guidance of a seasoned guide who’s been down that road before. Coaching pulls teams through these stages so they don’t remain stuck.

Knowing there’s a way through it can accelerate this process. Teams I’ve coached were able to get very close to Interdependence in as little as two days! 

If you need a sounding board, MEDI Leadership coaches are happy to take your call and help you clarify next steps. Drop us a note; let’s have a conversation. 

Lee Angus
About the author

Lee Angus is the president of MEDI Leadership, an executive coaching firm which focuses solely on leadership development in the healthcare industry. Lee has nearly twenty-five years of consulting and coaching experience, with sixteen of those years being work with Healthcare Administrative and Physician Executives.
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