The Sabotage Exercise — How to Self Identify Dysfunctional Team Behaviours

Dysfunctional teams, we’ve all seen them, and most of us will have been part of one at some point in our careers. They can have a negative impact both personally and professionally.

When I was working at Peer1 it was obvious there was dysfunction within some of the team, so I asked a leadership coach, Nikki Watkins, to run a session with the leadership team and the sales team combined. I wanted to address performance issues and also flesh out the cause of the dysfunction. I was so impressed by the outcome of Nikki’s session that I use the exercise with my own clients today. It works. (Thanks Nikki!)

“Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” — Henry Ford

First, let’s begin the meeting (and this can be incorporated into all meetings) with some deep sharing. Google identified this as a way of building psychological safety, which is essential in driving team performance and allows people to say what they really need to say. What I tend to do with clients is get them to tell me where they were born, how many siblings they have, where in the order they come, and what the biggest challenge was that they overcame as a child by age 12. Pick someone to start who you know will share something really personal because then it sets the tone and everybody else will feel compelled to go to the same level. If I am running this session with a CEO and his or her team I start with them.

Once that is out the way we can move onto the saboteur exercise, which I’ve now done with many clients and teams in my own organisations. What’s the point? Well, we know this team has some behaviours which are self-destructive or counter-productive. Maybe it’s gossip, maybe backbiting, it could be a lack of support for one another, whatever it is there’s something about this team that’s led to them forming a pattern of behaviour that is stopping them being as good as they could be. The sum of the parts is less than the whole. This exercise will shine a spotlight on the behaviours that are holding them back. Then I want the team to realise that these behaviours might be counterproductive and agree themselves that they should change them.

So, the first thing to ask is — “who do you hate?” Here I want them to give me their competitor. It’s interesting because sometimes even this can throw up issues. I often find organisations don’t know who their competitor is and that means they don’t have a really clear position in the market. Food for thought even before the real exercise begins!

Sometimes it’s easy to pick a competitor and sometimes it isn’t, but we settle on somebody that we hate. Oh, I know at this point some of you are complaining hate is a such a negative word. Use whatever word sums up strong negative emotion. I think Newcastle vs Sunderland, Liverpool vs Man Utd or Man United and everyone else. Next I get them to imagine this competitor has hired them to stay within their current job and sabotage the company from within. It is their job to undermine their current employer in lots of small ways.

In small groups, they get a pen and a flip chart so they can brainstorm all the ways in which they would sabotage the company. Everything. The answers often include:

  • Make promises we don’t keep
  • Sell things below cost
  • Lie to clients
  • Ship faulty products
  • Hire terrible people
  • Promote the wrong people
  • Steal things to make the company less profitable… and so on….

People have no problem coming up with these ideas, they fill their flip chart in minutes. What I love about this exercise is how much fun it is for those taking part, how excited they get. These are grown-ups that get so excited in a way that somehow they don’t seem to get so excited about some of the other exercises I get people to do! There’s always high energy in the room and lots of activity and engagement. It’s fun, but there’s a really powerful outcome to it.

Once they’ve finished all their ideas they put them on the wall and tick all the behaviours they’ve seen in their own team. Some of them might get ticked, all of them might get ticked. Then they get this realisation that they don’t actually need their competitor to hire saboteurs to work in the business, in fact they don’t need the competition at all because they are quite capable of destroying their own business from the inside out in a mindless way. It’s a big “wow” moment when they say, “look at what we’re doing to ourselves.”

So, I ask — “what should we do?” Somebody will always say they should stop doing some of these things and of course everybody agrees because that seems to be the completely normal rational thing to do!

We then go through each behaviour, turning it from a negative into a positive that can become part of a team charter or manifesto. We want around ten rules that this team are now going to live by. And because it’s their words they are more able to hold each other accountable to their new behavioural standards.

They could include — make a promise, keep a promise. Practice radical candour. They might bring in a new recruitment plan, or set a rule to give one-on-one feedback every week. There might be something about supporting other employees to be successful. This is all about creating a list of positive things because in any team there will be a spectrum of skills, ability and attitude and we want to get everyone on the same page, heading in the same direction. To turn the team around. Every game has rules and white lines. This allows the team to write the rules of the new game and they clearly agree on the white lines and out of bounds.

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.” — Andrew Carnegie

What happens going forward is that people will make sure everyone on the team sticks to the charter, and if they don’t they’ll call them out for that. They’ll feel that the team can be as successful as it can be if they live by their new team rules.

I’ve had people say that it’s changed their lives as well as the team. Certainly, at Peer1 when we took part in the exercise, we did then lose a couple of employees, so very quickly we went from having a dysfunctional team to having a cohesive team on the mend. The activity had highlighted that some of the people had a really fractured relationship and as a direct result of this day ended up leaving the business. In fact, the catalyst was that one of the people on the team called them out on their behaviour because it didn’t fit with with charter.

So, that’s it. It’s simple but as ever not easy. It can get messy. You have to have enough trust in the room for people to participate. And not only does this work for teams that are broken, but I’ve also used it with new teams, helping them to create a charter that can be used as a catalyst going forward from the beginning. It’s useful to conduct the exercise at the executive level too, so, the team isn’t broken necessarily but it might be stuck in a cycle of learned unproductive behaviours holding it back from high performance.

I know we can feel bogged down doing everyday tasks and not look at this stuff. Sometimes, as business owners or managers or execs, we don’t want to acknowledge the problems we’re having because we think it’ll be too tough to sort out. It really doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it can be fun!


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