Team Trap #5: Withholding Information

I’m not talking about information related to the task and context, here, though that can damage a team. Withholding that sort of information is unacceptable, and probably pathological. I’m talking about a different sort of information: information about your internal state .

Let me tell you a story about a team I coached. They’d asked me to observe them solving a problem, help them see their process and offer advice.  Ten minutes into the task things started to go awry.

The team was standing around a  whiteboard, and had generated a list of possible solutions to the problem. They’d started filtering the options, testing them against the requirements of the assignment, adding notes as they went.  As they eliminated options the guy with the marker, Jon, crossed off the options.  Until he got to Harry’s idea.  The board was getting crowded and when Harry’s idea didn’t pass the tests,  Jon erased it.

Harry tilted his chin down.   Then he crossed his arms over his chest, and took two steps back from the group. Everyone else was focused on the white board and didn’t notice as Harry withdrew.

When he didn’t rejoin the group within a few minutes, I approached him, touched his elbow and asked “What’s happening for you?”

“They rejected my idea,” he said. “Wiped it right off the board, like I’m nothing.”

(Notice that he equated rejecting his idea with rejecting him. Easy for us to say that’s not the case; you have to start where people are, not where you think they should be.)

“You have to tell the team,” I said.

He shook his head.  “No one is even notices that I’m not participating anymore.”

“All the more reason to let them know. They’re engrossed in the task, and they’re missing some important information about what’s happening to the team.”

Harry gave me a blank stare.  “You are withholding information that the team needs to function well,” I explained. “They need to know that one of their members has just checked out.  Will you tell them?”

He nodded, got the attention of the group, said his piece.

He was right, no one had noticed that he’d checked out, and that surprised everyone.  Jon was surprised that his erasure had affected Harry so. But he didn’t try to talk Harry out of his feeling or get defensive.  “Gosh, Harry, ” he said, “I didn’t mean it that way.”

Harry rejoined the group.

This sort of thing happens all the time.  One member of the team feels like he’s not being heard, or isn’t valued and withdraws. The rest of the group goes on, discusses, makes decisions, starts to act. The team is missing out on the intelligence, creativity and participation of that member.  They won’t  have his buy-in for decisions, and won’t have his full-hearted support for action.  When situations like this aren’t handled, relationship fracture and drains away.  When you’re part of team, you need to be willing to say what’s going on for you, so that the team stays healthy and connected.

I anticipate that at least one reader will judge Harry as thin skinned. Someone will assert that people need to “man up” and stop being so sensitive.

What I’ve noticed is that some people talk that way until they feel rejected ….and they they act pretty much the way Harry did (though sometime less grown up).

4 Replies to “Team Trap #5: Withholding Information”

  1. When we do retrospectives, we put sticky notes on the board and at that point they become team ideas, and not an individual’s idea. But if the idea gets rejected, we can’t control how that person is initially going to feel if the idea is rejected. As you say, “you have to start where people are, not where you think they should be”.

    We can at least address how the group dynamics can change and whether someone withdraws suddenly. Good for you for noticing it and encouraging the individual and team to address it. Something for anyone who is facilitating (or even just participating in) a meeting to be mindful of.

    Thanks for the post

  2. Great post. Some team members are insecure and/or often feel under-appreciated. Sometimes teams give less credit where it is due. Withdrawal is one response, but also apathy and even vengefulness are other responses at the more extreme end.

    But I’ve come across team members who insist on directly/indirectly ‘chest-beating’ when their ideas are accepted and conversely get visibly upset and ask the team to re-consider when their ideas get rejected. This is the reverse of withdrawal, and can be annoying to team members who find the attention-grabbing distracting from the task.

    Sometimes things go wrong right from the oft-mentioned ‘storming’ and ‘norming’ stages of team formation itself. Some team members do not get sufficient ‘personality exposure’ at this stage, and this can lead to hiccups later during the performance stage.

    The significance of soft skills and inter-personal team relationships cannot be underestimated!

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