How Has Passivity Crept Into Your Teams?

It’s happened more than I’m willing to admit.

Standing before the team, I’m faced with an issue that I have to address. A company policy we have was not being followed by one of my team members, and I needed to call this person out and make sure it doesn’t continue. Instead, I sat back waiting for someone else on the team to speak up. “If they are a mature, self-organizing team as they claim to be,” I thought, “someone will speak up.” It didn’t happen, and I failed to act.

Of course, it came back to bite me later on down the road. By then, though, it became a much bigger deal than necessary. Why in the world would I let something like that happen when I know better?

In moments like that, I am subject to passive leadership.

We can rationalize and explain moments like that all we want, but as leaders we are expected to step up and keep passivity at bay. In a recent cross-disciplinary meeting at my company, the topic of structure came up. Developers, creatives, and testers were all in unison about what they needed from their project manager: boundaries.

“The best thing we can know is when we are off the rails,” one said. “We need to take things up to the limit, but also know when we need to dial it back.”

Here are some ways passivity can creep into the ranks of your team, and how you can start to combat it:

The People-Pleasing Syndrome. Everyone wants to be admired in the office. There are always going to be rebels that disagree with me, but everyone that walks your halls today would love nothing more than to be everyone’s favorite co-worker. Having been through a 12-step program in the past, I know I am a people-pleaser. There are times it can help me, but often it has the ability to keep me sitting on my hands.

It would be easy if you could just turn that desire off with a switch and not care. Until that’s invented and installed in my brain, though, I have to remember the quote above. The lie I tell myself is that speaking up will hurt my standing with the team, when the truth is much different. Choosing my words carefully, the team respects and appreciates it much more when I’m willing to speak up. I would say that is much more pleasing.

The Blame-Game Syndrome. When trust is low on our team, this particular disorder can spread like wildfire. Blame is not something people actively use, instead we resort to it as a coping mechanism morale has ebbed. As great as that sounds, it’s all too easy to join in. So what do we do?

First off, don’t participate. When I accept responsibility for my part in the predicament to the team, transparently state the problem, and ask for solutions, it’s a start. Blaming will still happen on first pass, because often the solutions suggested are pointed at someone else across the room. To combat this, I would pose the question “what can you do to help solve this problem today?”

It forces everyone to stop throwing the problem over the wall like a grenade or playing hot-potato. It also changes the conversation from problem-based to solution-focused. We could definitely use more of that in our teams today.

Trust is not a prerequisite for teams, it’s an outcome of great work together. Find out where you can increase that metric, and you will see blame take a dip.

The Comfort Gene. At some companies, volatility may be something that comes with the paycheck. I know we are accustomed to it at Bottle Rocket. Even so, there is something we secretly want every day: a smooth, comfortable eight hours. We desire stretches without emails or IMs, no meetings, and a short wait at wherever you go for lunch. While those days are necessary to have regularly, the lie we tell ourselves is it should be the norm.

Au contraire. Discomfort is synonymous with disruption, which is talked about many times as the contributing factor in creativity. That means we must somehow get our teams more comfortable with a little volatility in our days. Marc Burgauer said in his Lean Agile Scotland talk that we, “must find a way to normalize discomfort”.

That doesn’t mean you change meeting times and places every week, or throw a new game at them for retrospectives. As I wrote last week, we need routines. Rather, listen and be aware of moments where the team feels a little uncomfortable. Those are the times where you have to encourage everyone to lean into it rather than back away. If we can look each other in the eye and work through those moments, think of the trust and maturity that will be gained.

Decisionophobia. One of the first lessons I learned at Bottle Rocket with a strategist was this notion of what an app is and isn’t. Some people see the whole app as a single decision, meaning they can’t really give a thumbs up until they see the whole thing on their device. Of course, there are so many small decisions that go into our work, meaning we must teach ourselves to see each piece as a part of a bigger picture.

It’s true for anything that Agile teams are making today, when you think about it. When we can’t focus on the small decision in front of us, we passively allow decisionophobia to take over our thoughts (white paper on the disorder coming, but feel free to use it). If you’re using checklists to help you start your day, one question to add is “are there any decisions my team is waiting on that I can make today”.

Waiting might be needed, so this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Just know every time you put off a decision, you are actively adding a debt your team may not be able to pay off. Just like technical debt, there is decision debt that can be more harmful.

The Not Me Syndrome. Making waves is no fun, especially if everyone is getting along at the moment. When battling the comfort gene and playing the blame game, it can be tempting to just sit back and tell yourself that someone else can handle the problem. “I’ll just forward the email to their manager and let them solve it,” I’ve said to myself before.

Just like decision debt, every time you pass something off there is a potential for something to accrue. It starts with a confrontation you don’t want to have, then your mind starts rationalizing. If the person doesn’t report to you, then why not involve their manager? That’s passivity at it’s worst.

Going above or around someone when you are more than capable of solving the problem yourself is foolish. Yes, sometimes there are office politics to consider, but just like forcing yourself to make decisions there is a need to solve your own problems. Not only does it diminish your standing as a leader, but it brings in unnecessary third parties.

All of these issues have their own points of origin, but the solutions all start the same. If we can ask ourselves what challenges you are putting off instead of actively taking on, you will be headed in the right direction before you know it.


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