Gathering people from very different cultures (countries, groups, even companies) can be a tough leadership challenge. Turning your customer service team into that smooth wave of productivity that just flows around problems and gets things done no matter what can be really hard. No one solution or answer is always right with any team. But there are general trends and pitfalls which often recur and understanding group process is one way to work with them.

General Group Dynamics

A good place to begin understanding how groups of people interact is gathering a basic understanding of one of the modular models of group development (such as IMGD, Tuckman or Tubbs, there are others as well) I would suggest you begin to familiarise yourself with one. I prefer IMGD due to its clarity and significant support in research so this article will work off that as one of its foundations, but if you have previous knowledge of any of the others the insights transfer relatively well across.  

Very shortly one can summarize it in that organisational developers and organisational psychologists have found it useful to break down the lifecycle of any group into a number of stages which each have generic strengths, weaknesses and challenges regardless of which group it is. The earlier stages have more challenges and the later stages have more strengths which is why developing a group through the early stages as rapidly as possible can have great value (for both business and wellbeing) and is often generally considered desirable. The tough insight in this is that all groups are somewhat doomed to commit similar mistakes and face the same challenges. The upside is that we can successfully learn from others and as leaders be ready for what is to come.

The Integrated Model of Group Development

Summary of IMGD

There is a general view in management and organisational development that moving toward the 4th stage, productivity, is always the goal. I disagree with this standpoint and would like to propose a more realistic view. Let’s begin with posing a clarifying question of great importance for your job as the leader: Do you have the chance of working with the same people, and have them work during (mostly) the same hours together, in the team for the foreseeable future?

No

If you do not have the chance of developing your team as a group with stable, regular, members over time my best bet would be to find a leadership and management strategy that works in alignment with maintaining the team in Dependency and Inclusion (stage 1). This may very well serve the purpose of the organisation in a good way since people have a tendency to remain polite and refrain from conflicts in the first stage, both with each other as well as with customers. You would then do well to develop a culture and leadership style where people have a lot of trust for you (or their team lead) as a leader and consider that the primary relationship in the workplace.  This can mean, among other things, clear division of tasks, clear role descriptions, easily, individually, measurable targets. Help the team to set clear rules of engagement in terms of dividing the work between them and be a significant part of the daily operations. Do not expect the team to work flawlessly, or potentially even particularly well, without an active leader.  

Yes

If you do have the opportunity of actually working your team as a long term unit you have more options to bring your team down the path toward the great, less leader dependent, stage of Work & Productivity. This would require you to adapt your leadership to each of the stages and provides, if you wish to be ambitious, the chance to design a process through which your team can move as fast as possible through the rough patches.

What is the impact of diverse teams on the above?

The more similar people are, the more you can consider them as already being parts of similar subgroups. This allows for less friction and more rapid alignment in the first stage. The more diverse the group is the longer the first stages may linger without any significant leadership or interventions. Working actively with exercises and activities where your team gets a chance (and are expected) to get to know each other will speed things up. When considering what activities or exercises to choose you should be paying close attention to the cultural constitution of your group to avoid any unnecessary alienation.

1. Give feedback individually

A crucial part of leading any team is providing feedback on behaviour and performance. The experience of walking out of a feedback meeting with a team member not knowing if the message you wanted to broadcast was understood or not is not uncommon, in particularly when leading a diverse team. Workplace cultures vary greatly between countries, as well as industries, and the managerial role perhaps doubly so. Some may expect the manager to be almost yelling at them, visibly angry before they begin to take to heart that something is wrong whereas for others a neutral word or lack of positive enthusiasm may be enough to make them feel unsure of their performance in the eyes of the manager.

2. Calibrate your feedback to the receiver

This leads to an obvious challenge as the manager for a diverse team. To manage this situation you need to develop a range of behaviours to match the custom and experience of the individual team members. At least short term. Taking the long view you may very well be able to cultivate a more unified culture and experience of working in the team allowing yourself a less taxing narrower range of leadership and still reach the whole team.  Ideally this process kicks off in the recruitment process where you have the chance of asking questions such as “can you give a specific example of when you have been given feedback that impacted you from a manager?” and use their responses to gauge an idea on what they are used to. To calibrate with existing (and continuously with new as they join) team members I would suggest to sit down with them individually and talk to them about feedback, both positive and developing.  

  • When I think you have done a really good job, how do I reward you in a way that you truly appreciate?
  • If I think something is not quite right or up to the standard I expect, what is a good way for me to bring that to you in a way that helps you learn from it?
  • How do I motivate you in a way that really engages you? What kind of targets or process really makes you really want to achieve them?

Getting real answers to these questions may sometimes be more of a challenge that it seems at first glance. You need to establish a trusting relationship to your team members, the good thing is that doing this can be a part of that process. Once you have started to gather methods and tools to work with feedback to your team members, make sure to try them out and then loop back to see how it landed. When you act as you have agreed in your meeting with the team member their trust for you is likely to increase. When you then proceed to ask “I tried giving you feedback more in accordance with what we had agreed on last week. How do you think it went? Did my message come across in a useful way?”, chances are you will be rewarded with a more sincere response helping you to bring the cycle forward through iterations. How to manage the whole team at onceOnce you have established these individual relationships with your team members and begun to learn how they each perceive rewards and feedback the gain is double. Not only do you know more about how to manage them, so do they. Allowing them to articulate and think about these questions in the same terminology also gives them a joint thought pattern in terms of feedback and rewards. With this in place you can begin to gather the whole team at once and ask them as a group what type of targets they would like to work toward and what the collective rewards should be.  

3. Conflicts are not as bad as you might think

In terms of organisational development conflicts are generally observed with interest rather than dread. It doesn’t mean that everything is going disastrously and that you are doing a terrible job as the leader. It means things are happening in the team and that chances are the team might be moving from the first to the second stage of group development. For a conflict to arise at least two team members must have felt simultaneously comfortable enough to stand for something important to them as well as committed enough to the group to not just walk away. Dealing with conflicts is one of the main tasks of any leader for a group and how you decide to do it sets the direction for the group.  

If you treat the group as a stage 1 group: Enter the conflict, resolve the issue with a decision and clearly state what you expect each party to do going forward to keep the peace. Chances are the group will regress to or remain in the first stage for some more time. If you have as a strategy to keep a group in this stage, this is the inevitable time when you need to begin making some changes (change shifts, blend teams, mix things up) to make that work.  If you on the other hand choose to treat the group as a stage 2 group: Facilitate the parties to genuinely resolve the conflict. This can be achieved in a number of ways often including helping each of the sides to clarify what and why that upset them. Help them see the points of the other side and ask all involved to try talking it through. Ensure they find common ground and agree on acceptable solutions together.

It can be taxing and will most certainly take time, focus and energy to get there which is why the productivity of a group can be illustrated with this pattern:  

Remaining in the second, conflict ridden, stage for too long is a drain on both the organisation in terms of results as well as the team. As the manager you need to accept responsibility for this, understand that the group is not yet ready for self-management and actively work with either facilitation or directly solving the problem. If you do not chances are that either another person will emerge as the informal leader, beginning to work things out or that people begin to leave because its too messy and uncomfortable to remain. A more diverse group may in this sense be prone to deep, personal, significant conflicts rather than the more superficial easily agreeable issues of very homogenous groups.

This raises the stakes of leadership and makes it harder, as well as more important, to work out the differences in a successful way. Acceptance may take longer and be harder to achieve. Laying a good foundation to give yourself the capacity to deal with this can be done through actively bringing the team together and building trust between the team members during stage 1. If you take steps to make sure the team members know each other as persons, not just roles, this will help you and them to resolve conflicts further down the line.

Reset

Another truth in terms of group development which is threatening your progression toward the final stages is that whenever someone leaves or enters the group it resets from stage 1. Not all is lost though, the smaller portion of the group that is replaced the faster it will manage, and want to, grow back to where in the process it was before the interruption.

Final words

Viewing the customer service team through the lens of group processes may help understanding some of the dynamics and clarify the reason for certain events or conflicts. It can also be helpful to actively calibrate the leadership toward a group based on where in the process they are, and explain why some previously very successful leadership behaviours are suddenly met with frustration and resistance.