The reflective team - understanding feelings and behaviours

In my previous posts I covered the benefit of reflecting on our feelings at work and about our role and how this affects all the interactions we have with others. Today I want to briefly touch on how reflection can help teams and groups in the workplace. If we are able to become more aware of our organisations as dynamic systems, with group feelings and behaviours playing a major role, I believe we can run and participate in vastly better organisations.

Last week everyone at Notting Hill Housing – our tenants, staff and board members – was affected by the West London fire. We had 12 tenants living in Grenfell Tower, but despite ongoing efforts, we have so far only been able to contact four, all from the same household. They were tenants of our temporary housing team and they have been supporting the four known survivors with accommodation, food and money. In addition, many of our staff, tenants and Board members are Notting Hill locals.  We have provided practical advice, aid and housing options for those affected. Based locally, our teams have been doing all they possibly can to help both at work and through voluntary efforts that go beyond this. The whole organisation is feeling hurt, angry, bereaved, guilty, helpless, grief-stricken, responsible, anxious –we are not separate from the community and, as a group, we feel the same range of emotions.

As we come together to organise practical responses we also take great care to consider how people are feeling and how we can help them deal with the raw emotions released by this terrible incident. This is because our leaders, the Executive Board and the Group Board, care about the emotional well-being of the organisation and the people that make it up. Taking account of feelings and emotions is essential day-to-day, but especially when an outside event or an internal one involves loss or change.

We make a habit of asking how our people are feeling. We are curious about what lies behind questions that are being asked. When staff are "grumpy" or "moaning", we try to put ourselves in their shoes. In other words we try to listen to understand what is going on, sometimes beneath the surface, in our own teams, and in the groups, teams and organisations we work with.

The senior team at Notting Hill always tries to address both the logical/rational/technical issues, but also to focus on the emotional issues and to reflect together as a team on the interaction between the two. We know that the way people feel, and how they interact together will affect our performance and our effectiveness as an organisation.

Some questions we ask are:

  • Why did she get so angry?
  • Was he simply saying what everyone else was thinking?
  • Why did everyone just sit there when Sue and Mary were sparring?
  • Why did that meeting not go anywhere?

We realise that we all exist in a social system, and understanding our company means understanding relationships and feelings as much as data, finance and IT. 

The day after the Brexit decision, for example, we discussed what it would mean for our business – sales risk, currency risk, uncertainty, skills shortages, political instability etc. But we also discussed the impact of the decision on our customers and staff. We thought that there might be fear and a sense of being unwelcome. And then, despite the fact that the board are all "remainers" we considered how the staff who had voted to leave might feel, and how we could ensure they didn’t feel attacked.

Let me give another example: I was part of an organisation that was crudely "dysfunctional". Long meetings agreed many things and then hardly anything actually got done.

There was an obvious answer. Blame the leader. At one level the leader is always to blame because we are where the buck stops. It is always easy to say the Chief Executive (or Chairman) is "useless". They lacked skills/didn’t listen/were lazy and a waste of space, etc. Labelling an individual is such a tempting and easy answer.

Now that I have become more reflective I can see that there was a group dynamic at play. Although being part of that organisation was deeply frustrating, I now realise that something much more interesting was happening.  Why was the Chief Exec ineffective? Why was the Chairman unable to ensure that decisions were implemented? How was the whole system working and what roles were the Chief Exec and Chairman playing on behalf of the group?

Once I started asking myself “why” they and I behaved as we did, the more I began to understand that we were looking at an intricate system rather than flawed or poor quality individuals. This was essential to understand what needed to change. The obvious answer – to sack/discipline/replace the Chief Exec or Chairman would not have been effective.

The truth was that board members and senior staff all felt trapped in an impossible situation. One Board member said to me "I am not like this in other organisations I work with". This rang true. I knew I had lost my cool head and was thinking or saying emotive and extreme things in response to the frustration I felt. My own ability to analyse rationally was undermined by my strong feelings. There were forces in the organisation which I somehow needed to give expression to, whether I understood them rationally or not. I found myself becoming rather childish and bad tempered. Reflecting as a team would have been a helpful way forward. It would have been very helpful to ask ourselves why these things were happening. Then, as a team, we could take responsibility for sorting it out.

Are the teams you lead, or are part of, willing to consider the emotional impact of your decisions? Comment below or tweet me @KateDaviesNHHT.

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Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.