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Brain circuits

An exercise to get your team to open up

Published 30 August 2022 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

The real work that shifts the dynamics in a group happens when you take time to talk about what’s really going on in the team. If you simply ask people, “What’s really going on?”, they often feign ignorance, or look away, or become fearful of what might be said if the team talks about what’s really going on. But they all do have a view on what’s really going on. So how can you draw that out and discuss it?

Dynamics are present in every human group team, family, or organization. Yet, surprisingly, the dynamics of management teams can be similar to other groups and teams or even families. For example, people take up roles in a team, and start to fall into predictable behaviors just as family members tend to do. They form coalitions or cliques with the same people, who will then protect and defend each other, just like a political party. They resent some people being more authorized or favored than others. And, like teenagers, they learn that expressing yourself can make you feel worse.

These unspoken things that really drive a group’s dynamics can make groups feel very stuck. There is a metaphorical device known as the “Crossing the Ocean” exercise. It is a useful tool to get people talking about what’s really going on in a playful but serious way. Try using this with your team today:

Have everyone draw a boat or ship that can carry this team across an ocean. Put the members of the team somewhere in the picture.

The results can reveal a lot about your group dynamics. The pictures will illuminate discussions about power, authority, coalitions, roles. It can show who feels alienated from the team as well. Are some folks drawing themselves in the ocean, or standing on the wharf? It can show who is close to whom by where people are located. And the boat itself says something about the team – an oil tanker, a cargo ship, a passenger liner, a yacht, a motor cruiser.

Artistic prowess is not a requirement, although many people do get anxious about drawing. What matters is the conversation that follows. Drawing allows team members to put things on the table for discussion, sometimes even unintentionally: is the same person next to the CEO in every picture? How does that affect everyone else’s dynamics? Is someone constantly sitting alone below deck? Why is that? What did that individual’s picture look like?

This device, although it can feel a little awkward at first, is an extremely useful tool to get people to talk about real issues that underlie the group’s interactions. This doesn’t eliminate conflict, but it creates some relief in teams, especially when anxiety and stress have been high. After the past 18 months, as people return to face-to-face groups, it’s a good time to explore how your team’s dynamics have shifted, and how they have become stuck.




Ben Bryant

Ben Bryant

Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD

Ben Bryant is a is a highly skilled educator, executive team coach, and speaker. He is Professor of Leadership and Organization at IMD in Lausanne and Director of the IMD CEO Learning Center and the Transformational Leader program. He holds the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Chair for Responsible Leadership.


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