Dealing with Bad Behavior and Broken Communication in Teams


Have you ever found yourself working with people who make getting anything done a real pain? Or have you worked on teams where disagreements and personalities make progress difficult?

In technology professions, we often focus our continued professional development on emerging technologies, better process, or new tools related to our discipline. We bring our knowledge and intellect to bear during collaborative problem solving situations but usually allow interpersonal communication dynamics to unfold naturally.

I suspect many others, like me, avoid addressing team members that make collaboration difficult. We believe it’s impossible to bring up subjects like: “I think you don’t care,” or “You seem to have a hidden agenda,” or “Why don’t you trust me?” without causing a meltdown. We silently bear our burden and try to push through with our work. We might occasionally complain to a sympathetic ear who nods in agreement with our story of suffering a “jerk” or “moron.”

I believe many toxic team situations carry on for a significant time without resolution. Sometimes the prolonged silence culminates in an outburst that leaves feelings bruised.

It’s interesting to consider how much cognitive stress we could relieve if we had a magic wand that could resolve behavioral or interpersonal issues that plague our creative endeavors. We could apply the surplus energy to solving the problems at hand.

I believe that magic wand is actually a communication framework described in the book Crucial Conversations.

Crucial Conversations was recommended to me by Darrell Crawford who is a Managing Partner at The Vantage Group. Darrell is a trusted advisor, and I generally find that I strongly benefit from pursuing his recommendations.

Crucial Conversations breaks the conflict of the Fool’s Choice we often believe. The Fool’s Choice is that we believe we have to pick between two bad options when dealing with interpersonal conflict:

  1. Causing a Blow Up
  2. Suffering in Silence

The framework outlined in Crucial Conversations identifies that the Fool’s Choice is false and outlines a process for cultivating dialog where we can be both honest and respectful.

The book includes a self assessment and directed chapter reading based on your results. VitalSmarts, the company behind Crucial Conversations, also offers resources and training on their website.

After reading Crucial Conversations I can’t help but see team dynamics and client interactions from a different perspective. I feel more confident and centered when talking gets tough. I can replay my past conversations and clearly see where I was in the wrong.

If you are looking for a book to read that will impact your career, I strongly recommend taking a break from your technical reading to learn the Crucial Conversations framework and take your personal interactions to a new level.

Please share your stories of difficult team interactions or what you are doing to improve dialog within your team.

  • Not getting defensive and trying to “seek first to understand” from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People has worked well for me when things get heated. I’ve found that it’s not interpersonal drama but having opposite approaches and opinions on what to do and how to do it that causes the most friction. It’s extremely unfulfilling and frustrating if my team leader, client, or boss thinks everything should be solved by adding more buttons, adding more complexity, adding more configurations, and in general adding more ways things could go wrong without any actual benefit. Discussing UX, design, agile or lean practices, or trying to discuss anything doesn’t seem to accomplish much. It must be equally frustrating when I focus on automated tests or user stories rather than adding a bunch of features that sort of work. I think it’s just incompatible values and there is no “fix” – but I’ll check out Crucial Conversations.

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