Depth Insights – Executive Team Building

Experience has taught me the following important things about using depth facilitation to building teams at the executive level:

The stakes are high

Executive team members have a lot to lose, ranging from losing a well-paid position, to losing the respect of their colleagues, to losing face in front of a leader. As the facilitator, I need to be aware of the risks they face, and not be driven primarily by my own need to perform, or achieve a certain outcome.

Members carry a large burden of responsibility

Members of executive teams carry significant organisational responsibilities, and so much of their available energy (“headspace”) is already allocated. They may not be receptive to the onerous nature of depth engagements with their fellow executive team members. They will need some convincing about the benefits of devoting emotional energy to deeper conversations with the team, and so the process of building their trust in me as a facilitator is critical. As the facilitator, I need to exercise the metaskill or attitude of being of service to the group, and avoid being critical of their reticence.

Vulnerability is necessary to improve the group dynamics

The dynamics, or more particularly, the psychodynamics of organisational teams can either obstruct or enable their effectiveness. However, psychodynamics only improve when the team members become aware of them, and are able to consider and discuss their own contribution to dysfunctional patterns of engagement. This necessitates individual vulnerability. People can only become vulnerable if they feel emotionally supported and safe. As the facilitator, my role is to create a holding environment of emotional support, never rushing or judging, but rather nudging and encouraging the group to have the deeper and more difficult conversations.

But, the power dynamics can block authenticity

And of course, for executives to be vulnerable, they need to not only feel safe with the facilitator, but also with their fellow team members, as the political stakes are likely to be high. If the power dynamics are unbalanced, or not all the participants are in good faith, then it could be harmful to encourage vulnerability. If there is great resistance to having more authentic and vulnerable conversations, it may be that it is genuinely too risky to open up. Having detailed interviews with team members before the team session may help the facilitator to identify potentially dangerous power dynamics. If these exist, the best course of action is to avoid individual exposure, and settle for a safe, although sadly not transformative, outcome for the session.

Don’t unmask team members

Depth work should always be voluntary. We have masks for good reasons, and those masks are often essential for survival. Whatever the reason for the mask, it is never my job as the facilitator to unmask an individual. Rather, what’s required is the delicate task of gently making someone aware of the nature and impact of their dysfunctional behaviour. The facilitator needs to remember that often destructive behaviours were learnt in an environment where they seemed to be the only functional response. As children, we learn what to do to survive best, and sometimes later, our strategies are inappropriate in a healthier environment. The real work is to help someone feel sufficiently supported and understood so that they will risk showing what lies underneath their defenses.

The leader sets the level of depth

Finally, the leader’s willingness and ability to do depth work sets the example for the rest of the team. If the leader is unable or unwilling to show vulnerability, the rest of the team will likely follow suit. This means that it is necessary for the facilitator to build a good relationship with the leader before the session, and ensure that the leader is fully informed about the requirements of successful depth work. The leader needs some warning about the possible pitfalls of deeper conversations, and needs to know that the facilitator will be equally supportive and neutral to everyone in the team.