You’re developing as a leader, so why aren’t your team engaged?

Have you ever tried to introduce a new way of working, only to experience a strong resistance from your team? During the last few leadership development programmes I’ve facilitated, this problem has shown up as a common theme.

All fired up with their new learning, the leaders enthusiastically dove into their new questioning style with their team members, only to receive a less-than-enthusiastic response!

Expecting their reports to respond positively to a leader who doesn’t just tell them what to do, they were surprised and puzzled when met with a negative reaction. Some team members shut down completely, meeting the open questions with silence, avoiding eye contact and defensively folding their arms.

Luckily, when staff are not sharing the enthusiasm, there’s normally something a leader can do! This usually involves reflecting on their leadership practice, so in the development programmes, we dug a little deeper, and discovered the leaders weren’t the only ones experiencing learning and change.

Except the leaders were prepared

During the programme, the leaders were introduced to a new way of engaging staff by asking questions instead of simply telling them what to do. It made sense to them; they could see the benefits of using this technique, and how it could help them get different outcomes with their team, and they were keen to give it a go. They practised within the learning environment, received some feedback from other participants and were ready to go live.

Learning the new technique during the programme had pushed them outside their comfort zone. They had challenged their thinking, reflected on their behaviours, and adapted their leadership style.

But what they realised was that while they had actively chosen to do this, their team members hadn’t even been prepared. Having a new way of working ‘sprung’ on them out of the blue had pushed the team beyond their comfort zone. Instead of being open, engaged and reflective (as a questioning style invites them to be) they shut down and refused to engage.

As we talked, the leaders could see that their new learning, albeit positive, was having a negative impact on some of their team. They realised they might need to rein in their enthusiasm and ‘try out’ the new technique one step at a time.

What the leaders experienced is reflected in Karl Rohnke’s Comfort, Stretch, Panic model. This model shows how we step out of our comfort zone into the stretch zone when learning and having new experiences. However, during unwelcome change, we can find ourselves shrinking back and staying in our comfort zone, or even going into the panic zone if we feel we’ve been pushed too far.

An important part of this model is that the three zones vary for different people and in different situations. We each have our unique comfort, stretch and panic zones. That’s why we’re sometimes confused when people respond differently to what appears to be the same situation. What’s easy for you may push someone else into their panic zone.

Before the programme started, leaders and team members were in the comfort zone, carrying out their daily activities in the way that was normal to them.

During the programme, the leaders had actively stepped into the stretch zone, challenging their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Although they may have found this slightly uncomfy, it brought feelings of excitement and enthusiasm and they were keen to put their new skills to work.

Easy does it

When the leaders enthusiastically tried out their rehearsed techniques, the team members were experiencing something different. In their world, nothing had changed, they were still in their comfort zones. They didn’t understand what was happening and couldn’t relate to the new behaviour, leading to feelings of anxiety and panic, moving them to freeze and shut down their thoughts.

The leaders hadn’t invited their team into the stretch zone; they had pushed them into the panic zone!

In the workshop, we discussed the impact introducing new learning can have on a team, particularly how important it is to adapt the introduction to individual needs in order that the learning can be a positive experience for all.

Unfortunately, we can’t assess where individual comfort and stretch zones end and where a person’s panic zone starts, but we can at least create a learning environment where team members are curious to learn and feel safe to leave their comfort zone. We can invite them into the stretch zone by slowing introducing the new technique whilst respecting their boundaries and remembering to be clear that the learning is in their interest as well as our own. It’s important to sequence the learning, starting off with one smaller / easier activity at a time and building up to larger / more challenging activities on a frequent basis.

Slowly ‘having a go’ at your new techniques invites your team members to join you in the stretch zone without having to be pushed, taking you from a hostile response to a joint learning experience that engages your teams.

So, now it’s your turn to ‘have a go’ — share your examples in the comments of how you’ve engaged your teams in the stretch zone, when using a new technique.

About Andrea Goodridge

Andrea Goodridge is the founder of Ad Florem, a leadership development consultancy that challenges leaders to improve their engagement with their teams and understand how their leadership impacts on their performance and that of their team. Andrea believes empowering staff to take initiative and solve issues, improves workplace relationships, creativity and motivation within the team.

With nearly twenty years’ experience working across private, public and not for profit sectors in the UK, Andrea is skilled at helping leaders embed new learning and new ways of thinking as a basis for a high-performance culture based on collaboration and trust. Positive and energetic, she challenges complacent thinking and habitual behaviour to create space for alignment and change.