Last month I wrote about Collective Mindfulness, which helps us become aware of the underlying dynamics that arise in groups, and our responses to them. When we have that awareness, we can notice what’s happening without getting hooked by it. I think that’s fundamental to executive presence – the ability to remain calm and steady, regardless of what’s happening around us.

Here’s an example of how Collective Mindfulness can be useful on a team. Years ago, I was brought in to work with a Cardiology practice that was going through a leadership transition. After 30 years the founder was ready to retire. The practice had grown to nearly a dozen doctors, including both general cardiologists and cardiac surgeons. They were very successful.

With the founder’s decision to leave, the group was in turmoil. There were no obvious successors for the leadership role. No one was stepping up to express interest. However, tensions had grown between the general cardiologists and surgeons. It seemed like they were disagreeing about nearly every issue that came to the leadership group. They were all puzzled about how their formerly collegial group had become so contentious – especially since there wasn’t an obvious power struggle for the leadership role.

After observing the group, I was able to help them put their experience into context.

Together, we took a look at patterns that occur in groups, to help them understand their experience.*

Like individuals, groups go through predictable phases of development as they work through fundamental questions:

  • First: Am I safe here?
  • Then: What authority do I have?
  • Next: How can I best contribute to the team?

Once all these questions are resolved, the group shifts into a work phase, with a high degree of autonomy and interdependence, and more energy available for its tasks. During the founder’s 30-year tenure, the Cardiology group had worked through the three questions above and were accustomed to functioning well as a group.

However, a major change can send any group back to an earlier phase. That’s what happened to the Cardiology group. The leader’s retirement announcement sent the group back to the “authority” phase, where members need to work out with the leader and with one another, who has what authority to make decisions and take actions on behalf of the group.

This phase is like the toddler or teen years in human development, where the individual is sorting out their independence and dependence on their parents. Like the teen and toddler years, this phase is often full of conflict: complaining, blaming, arguing, tantrums. Even simple agenda items can turn into major blowouts as members unconsciously wrestle for control – leaving everyone puzzled about how such a small topic could turn into such a big deal.

Seeing the conflict in context can make a world of difference. That’s what happened for the cardiologists.

When I presented this phase-related interpretation of what was happening in their group, they were so relieved. They finally had an explanation for why there had been so much discord. And knowing that it was a natural part of group life helped them take it less personally. They could let go of their guilt and blame and find some compassion for themselves for the changes they were going through. One physician said, “What a relief! It’s like when I figured out that my teenager wasn’t psychotic, she was just being a teenager.”

With this new Collective Mindfulness, members could begin to notice when they were having an outsized reaction to the topics at hand and make a conscious effort to de-escalate. And, more importantly, they could finally talk about the major elephant in the room: how they would manage the leadership succession in their practice.

If you’re curious to know more about the phases of group development, or other underlying team dynamics that might be impacting your career, learn more about our coaching program here. 

*The description of group patterns throughout this blog draws on the work of Yvonne Agazarian, and separately the work of Susan Whelan, which in turn is based on the work of Bion, Tuckman, and Bennis and Shepherd, among others.

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