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  • Writer's pictureMichael Barton

Don't Let Team Trauma Sneak Up On You

There are Laws of Leadership that are constant and immutable, like the Laws of Nature, You know the stuff I’m talking about; gravity; an object continues in motion along a straight line until acted on by an outside force, etc. Like the Laws of Nature, the Laws of Leadership are things that will happen with absolute certainty. Some of the Laws of Leadership are obvious, such as if more than one person owns a project, something will fall through the cracks. One of the Laws of Leadership that may not be so obvious is this:

Whenever a new team member joins an existing team, the whole team experiences trauma.

I use the word “trauma” for a reason. The words “stress”, “shock” or “upheaval” could work here, but they just don’t give the best description of what really happens. Yes, “trauma” is a little dramatic and there is certainly no threat to life, but in this case, our emotional and subconscious selves act as if real trauma has happened. Your team is cruising along, just like that object continuing in a straight line, and an external force comes along out of nowhere and smashes into them. Suddenly, the entire team is on a different path.

In general, real-life trauma is something that we don’t usually adequately acknowledged and discuss. When we experience trauma, it sits just below our awareness surface and causes unconscious behavior until we are ready and able to pull that trauma up to the surface and deal with it. Again, Team Trauma is not life threatening and we’re not talking about disastrous events, but this is a very good description of how Team Trauma usually plays out. It can also happen when a long-term beloved member of the team leaves.

We all know that when a new person joins a team, it takes some time for them to find their way, to build rapport with the rest of the team, to learn the systems and to deliver fully on their potential. Any of us who have joined a pre-existing team know how uncomfortable and stressful it is for the first few weeks or even months. We use language like “learning curve” and “trying to get up to speed” and “hitting my stride”.

Most executives guiding this process do a good job of working with the new team member. But most executives don’t realize that the existing team members go through their version of this challenge. The stress of adding a new team member doesn’t just impact the new person, it impacts everyone on the team. Artfully guiding your whole team through this experience requires as much attention to the existing team members as to the new person.

The New Rower

When you have a high functioning team that has been working together for a while, they have a rhythm, a flow about them. They are familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of all members and individual quirks are known and needs are met. The team is cohesive, communication is smooth and conflict is addressed and resolved. Tasks are assigned in a way that sets the team up for success and everyone trusts each other. No one is really thinking about their team relationships and dynamics. Everything just works.

Think about an Olympic rowing team. It’s a beautiful thing to see the boat lined with rowers moving perfectly in unison, listening to and trusting the voice of the coxswain calling out commands, oars rising together and dipping perfectly back into the water, the narrow boat cutting across the surface of the water like a knife. It’s obvious that this team has spent weeks, even months together developing a rhythm, feeling the movement of the boat and the flex of the oars, learning the strengths and weaknesses of each rower and how they fit into the team.

Now imagine what would happen if all of a sudden, one of the rowers jumped up and leapt off the boat. The rest of the team pulled their oars out of the water and a new rower, who doesn’t know anyone on the team and has never practiced with them and has a very different training background, swam up and climbed into that empty seat and took up the oars and they all go back to rowing. Some of the rowers are confused by the new team member’s style. Some are trying to figure out who just jumped in their boat. Some are obsessing over their good friend who unexpectedly jumped out of the boat. The coxswain can’t understand why everything is falling apart and is now barking at the team to get back in sync. How do you think that team would fare in this race? The next 10 races?

How Team Trauma Shows Up

This is not too different from what happens when even the most experienced pro joins even a high-functioning team of professionals. In addition to the obvious task of getting a new team member up to speed, you’re upsetting the security, expectations and equilibrium of your existing people and introducing significant unknown. And none of your existing team members will know this is happening to them. Of course, this is not the fault of the newbie, or the existing team, or the leader. It just is.

Once your new person is on board, what are the signs of Team Trauma? Basically, when your new team member joins, human nature rises to the surface and your existing team will dance with insecurity, fear, stress, and feeling disrespected. There are lots of ways this can show up.

Outsidering – You’ll notice some team members questioning assignments and asking if something is still their job, even though it’s always been their job and still is their job. Or they may argue that a new task given to them is not their responsibility. They may complain that they are suddenly being left out of important discussions.

Experting - Team members may “mansplain” the way things are "done around here" to the new team member or will spend lots of time defending current processes. Team members may withhold information in order the retain their “expert” status.

Stonewalling – Existing team members will just not work with or acknowledge the new team member. People sit silent in meetings and don’t contribute the way they have in the past. Team members will not work directly with the new person, but will go over their head.

Victiming – Existing team members may feel that the new person has done something egregious to them or another team member. This usually comes out as a late-in-the-evening complaining session with a team member in the parking lot after work because the new guy said something demeaning.

Comparing – You will hear things from existing team members like: The new person is not the wonderful collaborator that our friend who left was. I will work with them but I don’t have to like them. They are just not as competent as the one who left.

There are countless manifestations of these normal human fears.

Factors That Impact Team Trauma

Not all Team Trauma is the same. Some teams will have a little blip of discomfort and keep plowing along taking the change in stride. Other teams will behave like the wheels are coming off and the whole team needs to be restructured. A few factors determine the intensity of Team Trauma.

Team size: If you’re a team of 500 sales people and you have a mature recruiting network for continually bringing in new people and training them and getting them selling, someone new joining the team will hardly be noticed. If you’re a team of five, a new addition will have huge impact on the entire team. If two team members leave and two new members join within a short time frame, it just further cranks up the Team Trauma dial.

Uniqueness of the role: If you lost your part-time data entry clerk and replaced them with a new part-time contract data entry clerk, the impact on the team may not be huge because, well, not to be demeaning, but the task is fairly routinized. On the other hand, if you lose your Editor at an online news publication and bring in a new hot-shot Editor from your competitor, the impact on the team and the entire organization will be huge. The new person will actually shift and evolve the job and strategic approach based on the skills they bring with them, and this is big change for your existing team.

Your team’s experience with change: If you have a team that has been working in highly fluid and dynamic organizations for years (i.e. tech startups) and they are mature and have lots of experience with team members coming and going, everyone will deal with Team Trauma with ease and speed. On the other hand, if you have a team that has been working together for 20 years (i.e. in a small family-owned company), adding a new team member could result in intense Team Trauma that takes a very long time to resolve. These cases with entrenched teams usually result in follow-on resignations by additional team members. It's just too hard for some to adjust.

Again, if you recognize your team makeup in the above scenarios, it can help you as the leader to determine how much strife you are likely to experience, and how much attention this may demand from you. And remember, Team Trauma happens when beloved team members leave as well.

But don't get discouraged. If you are in tune with your team and paying attention, you can absolutely create a "win" from Team Trauma.

Convert Team Trauma into Team Transformation

A skillful leader can manage Team Trauma in a way that not only takes away the emotion and stress of the changes, but actually builds team performance and cohesion. Here are the tactics for making team member changes a time of growth and learning.

Name it: This may be the most important thing a leader/executive can do. Team Trauma is one of those things where by talking about it, naming it and recognizing it, you’ve already made significant progress towards managing it.

Have your team read this article, or talk about how the exit of former team members or the addition of new members will affect everyone. Ask everyone to put their fears and concerns on the table and allow them to do so without recourse. Make it a defined “thing” that can be brought up and discussed at any time.

Talk through the above list of ways Team Trauma can manifest and ask them to brainstorm other ways it may arise. Basically you can “deputize” your team to watch it in themselves, and call it out when they see it. This also asks your team to self-manage their interactions with the new team members.

Normalize it: Make sure everyone knows this happens in all businesses with all teams and it doesn’t mean the death of any team. It’s a phase of discomfort that can be recognized and brought to the surface and managed. It’s human nature.

Re-align ownership as a team: It's very normal when a new person joins for individual responsibilities to get re-aligned to take advantage of the new person's expertise. Talk through any shifts in job responsibilities/ownership with the entire team so that everyone sees the way the pieces fit together. Make sure everyone gets the same message on these changes and knows who is impacted.

Give it a time frame: Let your team know that this is something that happens during the first 30 to 60 days after a new team member comes on board. You’re basically telling your team that they have a finite and not-too-long time frame to work through their discomfort, then it’s time to get back to optimal performance.

Celebrate the differences between old team members and new team members: It’s helpful for everyone to know that the new team member is not a replacement for the old team member. Everyone does a job in their own way. Actually, if we are replacing a team member who has been around a while and we are in a dynamic, evolving organization, we will NOT hire the same profile we had before. Leaders should always look forward to what the organization will need over the next five years and hire for that need.

Assume high competency, and encourage curiosity: Curiosity is a great trait for all team members to have always, but it’s especially helpful around Team Trauma. Ask your existing team members to assume the person joining the team is very good at what they do, and encourage them to get curious about what they can learn from the new team member. Curiosity is the antidote to fear.

Yes, I know, Team Trauma sounds overly dramatic, but it really can have a devastating effect on your team's performance. And, it doesn’t have to if you guide you team through it. Even working with highly experienced world-class executives, when a new member joins the team, you’re going to see some level of Team Trauma. There’s no getting around it. It’s human nature. It’s a Law of Leadership.


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