Painting Your Team Out of its Corners

The other day I watched as a leadership team wrestled with a tough dilemma—whether to prioritize a focus on profits or people. Facing a growth-induced cash flow shortfall, they were asking what’s more important—and what comes first—healthy finances or happy employees.

Predictably, battle lines were initially drawn around their areas of responsibility—picture CFO vs. HR or Sales vs. Customer Service.

After going around the room to hear each person’s view, the facilitator asked: “What did you like about ideas that weren’t yours?” Thus began an unusual conversation in which all the leaders bent over backwards to try on each other’s perspectives. Turns out people aren’t nearly the black and white thinkers we sometimes imagine them to be.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It’s easy for your department leaders to get painted into the corner of their titles, defending their territory with the skills for which they were hired. But leaders on a great team learn to come out of their department corners and engage with their peers to find solutions that work for the whole organization.

Group dynamics often make things worse. The primal parts of our brain quickly categorize people and project the stereotype of what position an accountant or an engineer will take. And it often gets worse over time, as we reinforce the wall around them every time they say something that confirms our beliefs about what they think (something called “confirmation bias”). Absent a conscious effort to override this age-old piece of human nature, we often devolve into fights over priorities and limited resources. We fall into an either/or mindset of us vs. them.

Often, the best answers lie in a both/and understanding reflecting the whole of the dilemma, not just its constituent parts. This outcome requires an openness to listen to one another, to hang out for a while together in the discomfort of not knowing, and to try on the points of view of others. It’s easier than it may sound, because once “permission” is given, most of us have perspectives that are more complex and nuanced than the stereotype of what’s been projected onto us.

How does a group reach better decisions that go beyond black and white into color? 

Open-ended questions can be a powerful way to start, creating a pause for reflection. It’s also helpful to ensure everyone speaks, perhaps by going around the room, one person at a time. Encourage everyone to listen curiously and speak courageously. Allow enough time for the dialogue to play out, even though some participants may wish for quick resolution (to avoid discomfort). Lastly, test that there is full commitment to the group decision, that each person feels good about moving forward together.

Here are some questions to try out the next time you find yourself in a potentially polarizing conversation about an issue that has team members heading for their corners:

  • What is the ultimate goal of what we want to achieve (or solve) here?
  • What do you appreciate about ideas you've heard that weren't yours?
  • What have we done well in similar situations before that we might learn from?
  • What might a both/ and solution look like that acknowledges all of our concerns?
  • Is this "good enough for now" so we can try it out and re-evaluate in a month?

Anyone can ask questions like these, but it’s often most impactful coming from the CEO or team leader, who is sometimes caught in her own box of needing to give answers and providing direction quickly. Instead, if the leader steps out of the box to ask powerful questions, it can not only change the course of the meeting, but result in a larger understanding and team commitment to an approach that no one in the room would have come up with on their own.

* * * * * * * * * * *

What happened with the leadership team I was watching? In the end, they settled on “Financial Fitness” as their top-level goal, with supporting objectives that included people-focused ones like “World Class Team” and “Involvement and Commitment.” In short, Profits AND People! Cash Flow AND Culture! And along the way, team members recalled a pivotal past meeting when the CEO asked questions like the ones above.

Here are two principles that can help your team members move from battling one another from their corners to jointly tackling the problem at hand:

  1. Open-ended questions help everyone step out of their boxes and provide insight that reflects rather than deflects each other, and

  2. Listening to and appreciating each other’s perspective leads to better groups solutions that everyone can really commit to.


As a leader, your strategic choice to use open-ended questions that encourage reflection and building on each other’s ideas will result in a more effective team and better solutions.