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083 | Destructive team dynamics – how to spot them & get things back on track, with Gabriella Braun
Episode 835th May 2023 • HR Coffee Time • Fay Wallis
00:00:00 00:33:14

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Whether you’re working in a tiny organisation or a huge one, you will have to interact with teams. And because people and relationships are complicated, those teams won’t always be working together as well as they could be. This can have a negative impact on the people in that team, other people around them and ultimately on the success of the organisation or business you all work for.

In this episode of HR Coffee Time, Fay Wallis is joined by Gabriella Braun, who shares fascinating insights into groups and teams, explaining three of the unconscious ways teams behave destructively when they’re under pressure.

Gabriella is the author of, “All That We Are” and the Director of Working Well, a specialist consultancy firm using psychoanalytic and systemic thinking to help leaders and teams to understand the hidden truths of their behaviour at work. Listen to the episode or read the transcript on the Bright Sky Career Coaching website to learn all about destructive team dynamics – how to spot them & get things back on track.  

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Fay Wallis: Welcome to HR Coffee Time. It's great to have you here. I'm your host, Fay Wallis, a career and executive coach with a background in HR, and I'm also the founder of Bright Sky Career Coaching. I've made HR Coffee Time especially for you to help you have a successful and fulfilling HR and People career without working yourself into the ground.

Whether you are working in a tiny organization or a huge one in your HR or people role, you will have to interact with teams. And because people and relationships are complicated, those teams won't always be working together as well as they could be, which can have a really negative impact. Not only on the people in that team and people around them, but ultimately on the success of the organization you all work for.

I came across Gabriela Braun's work with teams recently when I read her book, "All That We Are". The book gives some fascinating insights into groups and teams that I had never come across before. As soon as I read about them, I was really keen to share with you and see what you think. So I was excited when Gabriela agreed to come on the show to talk to us about destructive team dynamics, how to spot them and get things back on track.

I hope you're going to enjoy learning from her. Let's go ahead and meet her now.

Gabriella, we met after you published your book, "All That We Are", I've never come across anything like it before, so it would be great if we could start off with me asking you if you could explain it. Could you just let everyone know exactly what it covers so they get a feel for the book?

Gabriella Braun: Well, thank you for that lovely introduction, Fay. Thank you. So, yes, I can explain it. Basically, "All That We Are" covers human nature at work, and it's got three parts. The first is the fundamentals of human nature and how that plays out at work. The second is losing ourselves, so that's about our destructive side.

And the third is finding ourselves, which is about our potential as human beings. And we all have both. And what I do in the book, I use what I do in my work, which is I apply psychoanalysis and systemic thinking to working with leaders, with teams across a whole range of organizations. So maybe it's helpful, certainly with psychoanalysis to say a little bit about what I mean by that, what I do and what I don't do.

I think people often find it a bit of a scary term. Um, I'm trained not to see people, you know, as patients, but to apply the thinking and some of the ways of working to the workplace the biggest thing really is thinking about the unconscious.

And that's what psychoanalysis does and psychoanalytic therapy does, which is different from other forms of therapy. It really takes on board that as well as our conscious mind. We have an unconscious mind that is affecting us all the time. And it's affecting us at work as well as at home because we have this kind of myth that we, we leave parts of ourselves behind when we go to work, whether going to our virtual office or going to an actual office.

And we can't, we can't leave anything behind. We are all that we are and we bring all that we are to work with us. And the unconscious part affects us as much as the conscious part, and that's part of us.

Fay Wallis: That's a brilliant explanation, and thank you for going into that detail because I know I, I, I was a little bit hazy about what psychoanalysis actually was, so I'm sure that lots of other people will be too.

So you just explained that as part of the book, you look at destructive behaviors. There was so much in there that was really, really interesting. But one thing that did leap out at me is destructive teams. So when teams have started behaving in a way that isn't helpful and isn't going to actually produce the best results for the organization.

One of the things that really struck me when I was reading the the book and reading about these destructive behaviors is that, as you just said, it's unconscious. So the team aren't aware at all that that's what they're doing. And actually, I think that people around them won't necessarily spot that that's what's happening.

So in the book, you talk about three particular ways, three particular patterns that teams can often fall into that are not productive and not great. Could you possibly share with us what those three things are?

Gabriella Braun: Yes. By all means, they're not generally known about, yet I think they're, they're pretty prevalent and extremely helpful to understand.

So it was a psychoanalyst, decades ago, Wilfred Bion that came up with these. , but all of us working in this field know just how much they apply throughout time. They weren't just relevant to a particular point in time. And what he discovered was that under pressure, under a lot of stress, teams or groups, go into what he called basic assumption modes.

And the three he identified were fight-flight, dependency and pairing. So, shall I just explain the three of them?

Fay Wallis: It would be great to hear a little bit more about them.

Gabriella Braun: Basically, when a team, and they don't need any rehearsal for doing this, it just seems to be what we do in a team under pressure, we go into one of these modes of being.

And if we go into fight-flight, it's as if our basic assumption now, that's why he called them basic assumptions, is that actually we haven't really come to work to do whatever it is we're meant to do. Really, we've come to work to fight or flee from an enemy. And I'll, I'll explain each one in turn. So, fight-flight, you can often see it where teams are.

There might be a, for instance, the bosses versus the union, one department versus another, the organization versus a competing organization. You know, there's an enemy and you are fighting them, or you are fleeing like hell from them. And that's in your mind actually really what you are all about. It's not at all conscious and the team might be extremely busy, but they're not really on task.

Because their energy is all geared into having this fight or fleeing from the enemy. It's a very common one I would imagine some of your listeners will immediately start, this will start ringing bells. And I've certainly been into organizations where teams have said to me, yes, but they this and they that, and they the other, the minute you start hearing they, they, they in rather accusatory tones of voice.

You think, oh, hang on, there's something going on here and it might be that they're in fight-flight.

Fay Wallis: I completely agree. I'm sure that everyone listening is suddenly having a little bell go off in their mind of thinking, oh gosh, that's what was going on.

You know what I instantly pictured while you were talking, I don't know if you've seen it, but there was, a, Richard Branson documentary on recently that went through his entire life and career. It was really interesting and at one point it talked about how British Airways tried to completely bring down Virgin Airways, and the tactics they went to were incredibly extreme.

And actually it all ended up backfiring and there was a huge court case and Virgin won. When you see the people at the time, cuz they've got interview footage, and news footage talking about it, it absolutely seemed like they had just chosen Richard Branson and Virgin as the enemy and they were doing everything that they could at the time.

To take him down. I was really taken aback by it. So that's what immediately sprung to mind when you were describing that. But of course there are lots of situations where it won't be quite that extreme and it all ends up in court.

Gabriella Braun: No, absolutely. Actually, it's a great example because what you bring, what you make me think about with that example, Fay, is that there is also a healthy side of all of these things.

So you can argue and maybe they started quite healthily dealing with competition. But then it went to a very unhealthy place if they were doing something and it became all about the enemy, the chosen specific enemy, and they ended up in a court case. They will have lost a ton of money. They will have lost a ton of time.

They will have produced an enemy now, you know, obviously very destructive. Even if it started from, Something that was about, okay, we've got a serious competitor, how are we gonna handle this? What, what's our best approach? Where do we collaborate with Virgin? Where don't we, what can we do? But that obviously wasn't where it ended up.

Fay Wallis: No, not at all. And I should say for anyone listening, this was decades ago, so I'm sure BA behaving much, much better now. And this is long history. I don't want anyone thinking badly of BA in the moment after I've just shared that story. So having taken a little bit of a look at fight-flight, could you talk us through the other two, please?

Gabriella Braun: Yeah. So let me tell you something about dependency. So in dependency, it's as if the team are now just dependent on the leader. Usually the leader. One person that's usually the boss might not, might be somebody else. And they in that state, they seem to lose all their thinking, all their competence. So again, people, listeners will probably recognize this when teams are asking them every fine detail of what to do.

And as HR for instance, you are thinking, "Really, you really need to ask me that?" And maybe, and it seems so, you know, I can't believe that they're asking me that when it's so completely obvious what to do and, and we've been through this a hundred thousand times, why are they asking? And it might be that they're in this state of mind that is, "I'm just dependent on the boss, on somebody else. I don't have any of my own thoughts". It's a very unhealthy, they're all unhealthy places to be because in dependency you do kind of give up all your own competence and you hand it to your, whoever it is, you've, you are unconsciously agreeing to be dependent on. In chapter 15, in the book Losing Agency, a team it's in a university. And I've worked with them several times and on this occasion they seem to hang on my every word. And I say something really banal and they say, "Oh yes, we must think about that. What was it you said again?"

They asked me to repeat something very ordinary, not magnificent at all. And for a moment, I feel very, um, I feel taller and bigger because they're treating me as if I'm super intelligent and of course I'm not. And they're treating themselves as if they're , super stupid. And of course they're not.

But they're in that state of mind where I've now become the only one that can have any thought, and they're totally dependent on me. We get them out of it it, the work I do with them works. In fact, with them, it was so physical. I found myself saying to them, "What's happened to your muscles?"

Because it almost felt like that they were a, a heap, you know, with no muscles. And somehow that seemed to put some oxygen back into them and somehow they came back to life and we got past it. So that's dependency that will probably get recognized by people as well.

Fay Wallis: It's great to hear that example of how you talk about it in the book. And this is probably a good point to tell everyone that the way the book is structured is that Gabriella brings all of these concepts to life by sharing stories. So they're made up stories because of confidentiality, but there are sort of amalgamation of lots of different clients' experiences that you've had, aren't they, Gabriella?

Gabriella Braun: Exactly that they're, some of them are composite, some of them just are very well disguised. There's ton of fact. But it's done in a way to protect client confidentiality. And what I don't do is start spouting theory. What I do, do exactly as you've just said, is tell stories that bring this to life, and then I'll say a couple of words, a couple of sentences that does refer to the theory.

Fay Wallis: And it would be great if I could move you along to the third example. Are you happy to talk us through that as well?

Gabriella Braun: Yes. Pairing basic assumption pairing. That one is where a team or a whole organization has in their mind that something is gonna happen in the future whereby they will be rescued and everything will magically be okay and they're quite happy cause they think, "Oh, we don't need to worry. It's all gonna be fine in the future". Now it's a real problem because the future never arrives. So you spend all your time never addressing the issues you need to address in the present because you are fixated on "It will be fine when this person joins the company" or "When these two people join and where we put this idea with this new person".

Everything. Everything will be fine. And there's a chapter in the book called Losing the Plot where I talk about the board of a company who actually in this case, so this was quite extreme, they almost brought the company down. T hey were getting a new chief exec and they had this idea unconsciously that the chair of the board joining the new chief exec would make this brilliant pair. That would resolve everything. The chair wanted to make an impression, close to retirement.

Wanted to leave a good mark before she retired. The new chief exec wanted to make his mark before he went on to be chief exec of a bigger organization. So they were an ideal pair and the rest of the board, and probably a lot of the staff saw them as a magical solution.

And it turned out that a lot of the staff and all the board were very frustrated with the very slow pace of change. So here was this idea of, oh, you know, suddenly everything will be transformed tomorrow. It all be all right. And the chief exec basically says, we're gonna do everything tomorrow. We're restructuring.

I want to start the consultation process. Now. They were making something like putting 50% of jobs at risk. And really a lot of the board members knew that they were nowhere near ready to go out for consultation, and yet they went along with it. So they put the organization through hell. They got grievances.

They got resignations, and then before they'd really gone that very far in this whole process, they get an email from the chief of exec who says, I've left and actually I've gone back to New York where I came from, and they're completely all over the place. So that's what I was working with and they were able to come out of that. They were able to recognize what they'd done and come out of it, and I, I think they were able to turn the company round again

Fay Wallis: From hearing you talk through all of those examples, it's making me think two questions.

The first one is, Why do teams tend to fall into these destructive modes? And then the other one is going to be around? Well, for anyone listening today who works in HR or the People function and they spot that this is happening within a team, how on earth do they actually go about helping and addressing what's happening?

But I won't hit you with both questions at once. Shall we start with the first one, which is, why does this happen? Why do teams fall into these destructive modes?

Gabriella Braun: It happens when teams are overwhelmed with anxiety. So it's a, it's a protective mode. It's like a defense, but it doesn't work very well. But they're trying to defend themselves against anxiety and different teams in different organizations will be drawn at different moments to different kinds of these basic assumptions.

So they might have a tendency if there's often a lot of sparring between departments, for instance, fight-flight might be quite a natural one for them to go into. It'll just be a further, an unhealthy thing of the sparring. If they tend towards dependency beause they're i n an education setting or a health setting where you need healthy dependency, you know, when we go into hospital as a patient, we're totally dependent, we need to be dependent. And in education as students, we need to be dependent enough to be able to learn from our tutors. So it's then easy for that to flip from healthy to unhealthy dependency. So the setting will often dictate the kind of basic assumption groups will go into, but they might go from one to another within minutes, or stay in one for a year or whatever it is, but it'll be when anxiety is overwhelming them.

That's why it happens.

Fay Wallis: So then the follow up question of course as well, what on earth do we do about it? So working within HR or the People team, let's say that you've spotted a team that's been in this destructive and unhelpful way of behaving for a little while. What can you do to go and support them?

Gabriella Braun: I think it's a great question and really helpful for HR and People function. To understand this. So you might spot it for a little while. You might spot it quite quickly. It might take a bit to spot. Um, I think the first thing to do is to join with the team leader, cuz obviously you don't want to undermine the leader. But you'll be thinking now is what's made this team so anxious that they've fallen unconsciously into this state of mind?. If you think of it as a state of mind, I think that's a very helpful way of looking at it. Cause also you can help groups change their state of mind. So I think the starting place for the HR or People function is to think with the team leader, try and work out with the team leader.

What might they be anxious about? So for me that's a very important starting place because it might be that the team leader is not managing their own anxiety and the team is getting flooded with the leader's anxiety. It might, or even going back a step, HR and People function, perhaps even before talking to the team leader, need to think about, hang on, what are we doing as an organization?

Are we doing something that means that we are flooding this team, or several teams with anxiety?

That's the first step, perhaps - thinking about what are you doing organizationally that might be causing too much anxiety to spiral around? And then think with the team leader, why has the team gone into this state? What are you seeing as the team leader?

How can we help them to get out it? And how you help them is first of all creating a safe enough space for their anxiety to reduce and then, helping them think about what they might be doing. So that if they're in fight-flight, and they start talking about, "they", you can intervene and say, "Hang on, who's 'they'?" Get them to think about, oh, hang on.

Why? Why is that? Why are we insisting they're a. An invisible. They just a homogenous they. When we know very well, there are lots of different people in that group that we've now identified as "they", and we might even like them. So that's a good thing. Who are they? Why have they become this homogenous group of they. Or pairing -

"Hang on a minute, but you are just deciding. It's as if magic's going to be formed. By this joint pair who will do everything, but they're not gonna be able to do everything. And also you keep seem to wait for them to do something in the future. What about now?" So that's another one. And the dependency would be challenging, gently challenging the team about, "But you know, I, I experience you normally as bright, thoughtful people.

And yet now, You seem to not have a thought between you. I don't understand it". And it's doing it in a way of curiosity. Not blame.

And then perhaps if the leader wants you to joining with the team to be curious about what this state of mind is that they've gone into. That in its own right will help them come out of it.

Fay Wallis: There's a couple of things there that you've instantly got me thinking about. The first one is around actually being able to make that initial approach. So the team or someone within the team may have come to you for support and then that sort of opens a door for you to be able to go in and address it.

But if you can see something going on and actually you don't think the team are aware of it or they've not voiced it with you, it's how you do sensitively approach them in the first place, so you're not seen as a bull in the china shop or, overstepping the mark or being really interfering.

Have you got any tips about that initial approach?

Gabriella Braun: That's such a good question. Cause it might be that you're not being approached because the team think everything's fine. They don't know. They're in this state of mind. They might be quite enjoying it, whichever state of mind it is, but you are observing that there, there's something unhelpful and destructive going on.

I think what you could do is then go to the leader and actually say, I'm noticing, I've been noticing this, this, and this. And I'm wondering, you know, is everything right or right, what might be going on? So start by again putting to the leader your observations and joining with the leader in thinking what this might be about or, and doing the same with the team.

"I've noticed this can you help me understand this?"

Fay Wallis: You also talked about the anxiety and how that is what tends to tip teams into these destructive behaviors.

So are there times when actually it's not because of the leader's anxiety, and it could be other team members? I'm thinking particularly of your dependency example. If people are slipping into dependency mode, I wonder again, I mean, Obviously I've got no psychoanalytic training at all. Uh, this is complete armchair perspective, Gabriela, but if you have someone who is maybe very dependent in their home life, could they then just be carrying that behavior into work?

Is it their anxiety rather than the leader's anxiety?

Gabriella Braun: It won't always be the leader's. That's a very good point. It, I wouldn't want people to think it is always the leader flooding them with anxiety. That's absolutely not the case. So I'll come back to what you just said about dependency, but just for a moment.

It could be that they're in, I mean, one organization that I talk about in one of the chapters in the book are being closed down. Well, of course they're gonna be highly anxious about that. They're potentially all losing their jobs. That is not about the leader flooding them with anxiety, you know?

The thing about that, you mentioned about, for instance, if someone's very dependent at home, could they bring that into work?

What often happens in this is that the team unconsciously will choose an alternative leader. So, you know, you'll see people in teams who seem to have huge amount of power, they're not the official team manager or team leader, but they have a lot of power and sometimes they may seem to have more power than the official person, and that's often because the team have chosen them unconsciously to be the leader of whatever basic assumption state of mind they want, the team wants to be in.

So if it's dependency and there is someone with a natural proclivity to dependency, the team might, oh, unconscious is brilliant at choosing the right person for the right thing. It's somehow spots it in someone and thinks, ah, they're exactly the right leader. We need now to be completely dependent so it'll gravitate to that person and let that person infect them all with dependency, but they're all joining that agreement for dependency. And if the team then moves unconsciously from dependency to fight-flight, they will ruthlessly depose that leader and they'll find another one. And again, it won't be conscious, but you know how sometimes teams can rather ruthlessly just diminish the influence of someone like they don't want it anymore.

And that person gets knocked off their pedestal and someone else gets set on one.

Fay Wallis: Again. I can imagine lots of people listening are instantly thinking, oh gosh, yes, I've seen that happen before. So the key takeaways that I'm picking up here then are about reducing the anxiety levels, whether that's within the organization or the team as much as you can. And then the other one is about approaching the team leader to start a discussion with them.

Is there a final tip that you'd like to share with us?

Gabriella Braun: I suppose the final tip is also not to be scared of these states of mind and not to think that they're just bad cause they can provide a lot of energy for and really, fast track learning and development. If a team has been in these states of mind or one of them and you can get them out of it and then help them reflect on what they were like and what was going on for them. It can fast track their learning and development in what kinds of things, dynamics they can get into and how to avoid it.

So the team I mentioned who had got very dependent, they used to after that. They had a wonderful expression where they, someone would realize they're going a bit into that state of mind, and someone would just say, "Muscles" and that became the shortcut. And then they'd think, "Oh God, yeah, we're doing it again", and they'd immediately stop themselves doing it.

It was great, but it really galvanized their learning about themselves and how they had a bit of a tendency to just want to lie down and let someone boss them around.

Fay Wallis: From that then, it sounds as if it's about approaching the leader initially, but then opening up a wider conversation with the team so that everyone can be aware of it.

Gabriella Braun: Yeah, and it might be that the leader opens up that conversation, or the leader wants People or HR with them. However it's done, but it's really, it can be very helpful learning for the team to think about what happened to them. And how they can maybe, you know, they will do that in the future and they needn't worry about it, but they don't wanna stay there for too long and they can come out of it more easily.

Fay Wallis: I just have this vision now, Gabriella, of people who are listening today, going into their offices, walking around going, "Ooh, is that team in in that state at the moment? Is that one in that one?" I think, um, it will be fascinating for people having listened to you today

and having talked about all of this, I'm intrigued as to what your book recommendation is going to be because as you know, I tend to ask nearly every single guest who comes on the show for their top non-fiction book recommendation. Can I ask you what yours is?

Gabriella Braun: Well, mine is "The Examined Life" by Stephen Grosz.

And Steven is a psychoanalyst and he wrote, and it really inspired me for my book. He wrote stories from the couch, from patients in analysis and it really is a wonderful book about learning more about human nature again, like, like I did, and I really followed some of what he'd done. He doesn't start spouting theory.

In fact, I think I use theory more than he does, but he tells stories about patients and you learn so much about human nature. And it, it's very easy to read as well. So that's my one.

Fay Wallis: Brilliant. Well thank you so much for that recommendation. My mum is fascinated by psychoanalysis, so I'm going to ask her to listen to this episode and get that book.

Maybe I'll get it for her for her birthday. Thank you, Gabriela.

Gabriella Braun: You are very welcome. Thank you.

Fay Wallis: That brings us to my very final question for today, which is for anyone listening who's interested in learning more about your work, Gabriella, or getting in touch with you, what is the best way for them to do that?

Gabriella Braun: Well, you'll find me on LinkedIn and very happy for people to contact me through LinkedIn. And there are two websites actually. One is working, and that's my consultancy.

And the other is Gabriella Braun, b r a u And that's the book, that's the writing, website.

Fay Wallis: Fantastic. Well, I will make sure that I pop links to those websites and your LinkedIn profile in the show notes along of course, with your book recommendation and a link to your fabulous book. All that leaves me to say is a huge thank you for coming on the show today.

Gabriella Braun: Thank you very much for inviting me, and it's been a very enjoyable conversation, Fay. Thank you.

Fay Wallis: That's wonderful to hear and you are very welcome.

If you've enjoyed today's episode, please can I ask you for a small favour? I'd be hugely grateful if you could do two things for me. Firstly, if you could share the podcast with a friend who you think will find it interesting and useful.

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Thank you so much, and I look forward to being back again next Friday with the next episode.