How Do You Keep Team Members from Resembling Oil and Water?

If you consider the elements with which you work as analogies to describe the people you lead and serve, it might sound familiar. Some team members may remind you of people with sonar-like senses, some may act as if they’ve left their brain at home and are dumb as dirt, while others may light up because they believe their ideas are electric. Still more may try to tell you their thoughts are indeed connected to your question like one big, long pipe on your latest project.

Monica Wofford, CSP
Monica Wofford, CSP

No matter their behaviors or perspectives, you’ll still want to manage each of them differently. The biggest difference of all that will need your attention is when the members of the team you lead collaborate – and mix as well as oil and water. But how do you prevent it? How do you get oil and water to mix and avoid the sluggish, pervasive results that can happen in cases where they don’t? These five steps will work wonders and make for a much better, higher performing, well-mixed, team effort.

Identify the Mix-Up

In many cases, what has resulted in a lack of collaboration, a stalemate, or a lack of trust among team members started with one much smaller misunderstanding. Where was the disconnect? What did he or she say or do and how was it taken versus how was it intended? Leaders seeking to mend broken team relationships go back to the beginning to see just who put how much oil in what used to be a pure, smooth, flowing water mixture. Begin with the belief that people make rapid assumptions and interpretations of what another’s actions or words really mean. Based on that belief, be the leader who seeks to uncover the truth of the matter and talks with each person in private about what may be behind their unwillingness to work with one or more of their team members.

Give Guidelines

Some of that groundwork comes in the form of guidelines and expectations. Before, during, or after team members have less than desired teamwork, create and deliver guidelines of minimal standards. How are they to work together? Do they have to hang out and be besties or do they simply need to meet “x” quality standard or timeline? What are your expectations for how they will handle disagreements or conflicts? In your absence, whose vote is the tie breaker or whose opinion carries the most authority?

Meet Together

If the breakdown or mix-up has already happened, this is not an advisable method. But, if prevention is your desire, head off any potential problems by meeting with the team all together at regular intervals. Have planned questions to which you expect answers and, most importantly, conversations. What is working well? What are your struggles? What do you need from leadership to make more progress or fix a problem? These three standard questions will open doors to others. These three questions will also give you, the leader, a great many clues as to what all they might not be ready to share.

Know the Phases

Even the highest performing teams go through phases of development and maturity. If you see a team slip-up, tiff or argument, it could be nothing more than the team going through the storming phase of their development. The phases all teams go through include: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning. Do you know the phase of the team you have the privilege of leading? Are they simply trying to figure out who does what, how well and with access to what tools and you’re seeing their efforts as disorganized as oil and water? Perhaps what is needed is simply a bit more time. Observe. Avoid being completely hands-off and avoid the temptation, equally so, to micromanage what is truly an organic process. Most importantly, take note that only in phase 4 does a team truly start performing.

Pick Your Values

This step is not unlike the age-old adage of pick your battles, except it’s more important. If you know what you value in a team member and their quality of output, you’ll much more quickly spot behaviors that fall short of that valued standard. Do you value the underdog so much that you’re willing to sacrifice the team’s output for the sake of keeping the least developed team member on it in the hopes that you’ll rescue him or her? Do you value maximizing each person’s gifts, skills, and talents? If so, then you’ll be less likely to panic when the team appears to be getting along like oil and water. Pick what you value and stick with it and act according to it. What do you value? Go look at what you spend money on and put on your calendar, two clear clues for what you really value.

The key factor over all five of these steps when it comes to keeping team members from resembling oil and water, is to value them getting along at a minimal standard that keeps business moving. Your ability to lead the collaborative effort of teams and the relationships formed and guidelines followed by the employees you have the privilege of leading affects vendors, customers, and future employees. That sounds like something each leader might value and a good reason to start using the five steps to keep teams from resembling oil and water.


Monica Wof ford, CSP is a leadership development specialist and keynote speaker. For more information on her books and training company, call 1-866-382-0121, or go to www.ContagiousCompanies.com.


THIS COLUMN EXPLORES TIPS AND TECHNIQUES TO IMPROVE YOUR ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE WITH CO-WORKERS, CUSTOMERS AND INDUSTRY STAKEHOLDERS.

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