How to Stop Leading a Sick Team

unhealthy teamIn December of 2001, I was part of a team finishing up a disaster relief project in Kosovo. Andre, my Dutch colleague, and I were driving one of our Jeeps back to HQ in Switzerland. We drove through the beautiful forgotten country of Montenegro and spent a night in Dubrovnik, an amazing walled city in southern Croatia. Then followed the coast of the Adriatic up to the ancient city of Split where we caught a ferry to Italy. From there, we drove to Mestre, which is the poor man’s city to find a hotel if you are visiting Venice, which was right off the coast.

A sweet gig.

We found a suitable low-end hotel in Mestre (I can’t remember anything about it except it had secure parking). Then we got out to stretch our legs and plan our visit to Venice.

On the street corner, I noticed a large, heavy duty looking, metal container. I recognized it as a bomb-proof garbage can, one that can withstand the blast of most homemade bombs. They had something similar in Jerusalem when I used to live there.
I thought to myself, “Oh, good, they’ve got those here.” I felt safer knowing that the local government was security conscious and proactive in that way.

We continued walking. After some time, the thought slowly wiggled up, “I wonder why they feel the need to defend against bombs?”

We kept walking. Perhaps, I saw another one of those bomb-proof cans on the street.

But this time I noticed the Recycling symbol on it.

Hmm.

It wasn’t until much later that a new thought occurred,

“What does it say about me that when I see a disposal can I think ‘Bombs’ instead of ‘Recycling?’”

Later, this was followed by, “Why was I never bothered by the possibility of bombs?”

Acclimated to Sickness

I had gotten used to being in sick places.

I was so used to being around unhealthy, insecure environments that I no longer saw things the same. I no longer was bothered by bombs, that would be clearly “unhealthy.”

I also could not recognize something like recycling, something that would be “healthy.”

My perspective was skewed. Pretty badly.

As it turns out, my perspective is common.

Many leaders are responsible for organizations that have developed a high degree of tolerance for the unhealthy. They are unable to recognize what is “healthy.” They might even reject it due to unfamiliarity. “Healthy” no longer feels comfortable or recognizable.

Examples of this are workplace cultures that accept, expect or make excuses for any of the following:

• Low productivity.
• Low morale.
• High turnover.
• Unproductive meetings.
• Unengaged meetings.
• Conflicts that are avoided or become toxic.
• Long-running conflicts that are, without exception, tolerated by management.
• Toxic employees.
• Routine avoidance of addressing important issues.
• Bullying or controlling behaviors on the part of leadership.
• Acquiescent, disengaged leadership who prefer to avoid difficult decisions.
• Customer complaints.
• Workplace injuries.
• Vendor complaints.
• Etc.

If any one of the above scenarios is part of your normal experience, it is because leadership has become accustomed to organizational sickness. This sickness now feels normal. Leaders define it as normal. Skills are developed to survive or even benefit in this environment of sickness.

Oddly enough, the following beliefs are very common in these environments.

• “We aren’t sick. This is normal for our industry/geography/economy/etc.”
• “If we are sick, nothing can be done because of (Excuse 1, Excuse 2, Excuse 3)”

How to Get Back to Healthy1?

“Your best thinking is what got you here.” If you no longer want to remain “here” (whatever that means to your organization), this observation can be a bitter pill to swallow. It means a different kind of thinking and approach will probably be needed to change.

This is challenging. Especially if we’ve achieved some success but now find ourselves struggling. It can be difficult to accept the possibility that we are responsible; that the way we do things now isn’t the way to a solution; that we don’t see things accurately enough to fully navigate out of where we are on our own.

That we need help.

For those who are willing to accept it, here is how to pursue help:

Ask For/Look for People to Challenge Our Assumptions: We usually don’t challenge our own assumptions very well. It helps to have exposure to someone else who can do that for us. This can be difficult for leaders who are uncomfortable with being challenged.

Good sources for this might include: Joining mastermind groups, spending time with other high-performers in your industry, attending high-end training, finding mentors, hiring coaches. Essentially, any place where you can find people who have decided the status quo isn’t enough for them and aren’t afraid to challenge your status quo.

Any place where you hear people making excuses for why they are where they are – is the wrong place to be. Healthy leaders own their past and build their futures. Don’t spend time with people who don’t do both.

Listen to What They Say: You might ask for specific feedback on specific issues. You might also listen to how they relate to other topics and issues. You’ll find that leaders of healthy, vibrant, robust organizations see things differently. They make decisions differently. The relate differently. They experience life differently.

As a result, they have different kinds of conversations. Often they are used to being challenged. They often ask questions. They often actively seek to have their assumptions challenged.

Don’t Respond – Thank: A very common experience, after we’ve asked for advice or insight, is to get defensive. That closes us down to the opportunity to be challenged or to grow. If we receive feedback or hear something that challenges an assumption – just thank the person who offered the perspective. Don’t explain how they are wrong. Don’t describe how your situation is unique. Don’t insist that they hear the entire back story and context. Just take what they have to say and allow for room to consider it.

It is entirely possible that the solution isn’t that complicated. It is entirely possible, that as leaders sometimes we are being complicated. Give room for that possibility.

Reflect: Reflect on the feedback you’ve been given. Reflect on how it, or part of it, might be useful. Reflect on any new ideas that feedback helps generate.
Consider why other people are experiencing something different in their lives or organizations. Think about what behaviors they practice that might be different from our own, or what is common in our organization.

Respond: When we let people know how their input has helped us, it can help solidify it in our mind. Sometimes, we also need to let others know the changes we intend to make. It commits us. Sometimes we need to ask for further input or assistance with making those changes. But it is important to respond.

Change: What’s the point of any of the above if you aren’t going to change? Get help, ask for help if you have a hard time knowing where to start, getting going or following through.

Follow-up: Build learning loops. Go back to the people that originally challenged your assumptions and offer them your new assumptions. Allow yourself to be challenged again. Stay accountable. Stay in a growing mode.

This is the process for growth. For becoming healthy. For helping your organization become healthy. It takes work, humility, and vulnerability. It might even require financial investments and time.

The reward is building an organization with a robust “immune system.” A healthy organization and leadership team that is willing and able to perform. One that can recognize and address sickness.

On a practical level, these organizations tend to be more productive, more financially successful, happier and safer places to work.

So, basically, you’ve got nothing to lose. Will you get started?


Would you like to quickly build your leadership impact and influence? Would you like your teams to move faster towards accomplishing goals and working through obstacles? Would you like to experience a year of growth?

I’m offering a fully-guaranteed leadership coaching opportunity. This opportunity closes June 16th and won’t be available again for some time. I’m only making a few spots available. Contact me now to see if this opportunity if right for you.

Email me at Christian@vantageconsulting.org or call me at 907 522-7200.


1Apologies to Frank Wagner, Chris Coffey & Marshall Goldsmith. This is a paraphrase of their Seven Step Process for leadership behavior change.

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