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Sticking points and team tension

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

When you're working within a team, you're bound to have some tensions that arise from time to time. Maybe the tensions are small and fleeting. Maybe they're much more than tensions and have escalated to rifts.

Maybe you're too busy - overloaded with tasks and priorities. Maybe it's underperformance and the flow on effects of it not being dealt with. Maybe there's interpersonal tension in the team.

Anyone worth their salt will tell you that all of these issues need to be addressed. Directly - head on. The metaphorical elephant never silently slinks back to its cage - you need to confront the elephant and have a conversation.

Here are three conversations that may help - proactively before tensions arise or retrospectively to try to diffuse them when they do. Want to hear more? Join my free-Tea & Toast-webinar at the end of this month: Building stronger teams.

1. Always start with expectations

Our brains are constantly creating expectations and then comparing our experiences with them. When our expectations are met - we get a shot of dopamine. If they aren't met, we get cortisol, the stress hormone.

In other words, every person on the team has created expectations about their ways of working, organisation, team, each other personally. As a team, discuss these and making sure everyone's expectations are realistic and shared. What if someone expects to be able to WFH everyday and someone else wants the team to be in the office?

Setting and managing expectations from the start is key. How?

As much as you can, and via different communication channels, make it clear what people can expect from you, from each other, and from the work. Also, be very transparent on what your expectations of them are. Refer to expectations at the start of the work - build this into your agreed ways of working.

My opinion? You can never be too explicit or discuss and clarify expectations too much.

As a team:

  1. Brainstorm out the expectations you have. It might help to think about them in specific areas:

    • Ways of working - channels, meetings, tools, processes

    • Boundaries - where can we work? when? work / life boundaries?

    • Roles & responsibilities - what are we expected to do?

    • Success metrics - How is our performance measured? What does good look like? (include behavioural expectations here!)

Then clarify and agree your shared expectations. What are we doing, how will we do it and why.

Agile saw the rise of the team charters - and honestly it's a great activity for every team. Not only should you discuss what these are but physically draft it out - and have everyone sign it! That signature is a psychological connector to the agreements everyone has made.

2. Discuss your sticking points

Recognise people's expectations, preferences and ways of working might differ. We've talked about sticking points before. Sticking points happen when two people have different preferences and expectations around how something should be done.

Haydn Shaw, a generational researcher, developed this concept to help explain how age, stage and generational diversity within a team might lead to different natural ways to do things. These differences can lead to tensions, or sticking points, if not addressed.

Shaw has identified common areas where generational sticking points arise at work. He took a generational lens - but I think this can be widened to focus on all sorts of diversity. Here's the areas he identified (where the answers to these questions might greatly differ):

  • Communication: What is the best way to interact with my coworkers? How casual can I be?

  • Decision making: How do we decide what to do? Who's involved in these decisions?

  • Dress code: How casually can I dress? Does dress code at work matter?

  • Feedback: How often do I want input? How do I want the feedback provided?

  • Fun at work: How much fun is allowed at work? How social should we get as coworkers?

  • Knowledge transfer and training: How do we pass on critical knowledge? What does on-boarding and training look like?

  • Loyalty: When is it ok to move on from an organisation?

  • Meetings: What should happen in our meetings?

  • Policies: Are policies rules or just guidelines?

  • Respect: How do I get others to respect me? What does respect at work look like?

  • Work ethic: How many hours are required? When must I work them?

  • Location - Where can I complete my work from?

As a team:

  1. Openly discuss the different expectations people have around these areas.

  2. Ask people to think about where their own expectations or preferences might come from.

  3. Make sure people are listening to each other - hopefully gaining a deeper understand of what's shaped the other people in the team.

Then we move into rigid flexibility. Knowing what can - and cannot - be flexed.

3. Business necessity or flexibility?

Rigid flexibility. It's an oxymoron. There are certain things that you can't be flexible on. It's important to define these things that cannot be changed (or can, but in the long-run with a full change management process). What cannot be flexed are your business necessities.

What are your business necessities? A business necessity is anything involving health & safety, legality/regulations or privacy and security. Your business necessities are also the things you must do (or not do) so that you don't lose your customers, profit or funding. Your business necessities are often set in stone.

Examples: you might have rules around what types of footwear can be worn (health & safety), what devices you can dial in from (privacy), your store hours and workdays (customers and profit). There likely isn't a lot of wiggle room around these things.

These are your team anchors. Your anchors ground you. Alongside your business necessities, your team anchors should also include your organisational values. Are you living these within how you work and what you're working on?

Be transparent about what these anchors are. Clearly and explicitly define them. Everything else, largely, is a preference. And preferences are flexible. Often the rules and ways of working was just the leader-of-the-times'-preference. And that becomes the status quo. Take a step back and think about why you feel things need to be done a certain way?

Remember, everyone has a need for autonomy. When our autonomy is stifled, our brains go into threat mode. At work - we want flexibility and choices. We need to have a say in how things operate. This activity makes sure the ways of working are clearly identified and understood.

As a team:

  1. Define your business necessities - what must we do or what do we have no ability to change

  2. Then reflect on what wasn't listed as a business necessity, and therefore has the opportunity to be flexed.

  3. Challenge the status quo. Check out the actions at the bottom of this article. In short - identify problems with the current way of doing things. Often we just accept these. Be open to trying new ways of working that might be the preference for people in the team. Have a clear way to decide (after a trial period) which style you'll continue with.

These three conversations are just a few of the ones healthy, high performing teams have. Join us at the end of this month to hear more and share some of your own team-building tricks and techniques


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