The Power of Weakness

Many years ago I was in class learning about the fascinating topic of team dynamics. The class was divided into teams and assigned to create a project to present to the whole class.  Each team presented their projects with creativity and enthusiasm except one.  Apparently this team had significant struggles with their dynamics and were unable to complete the assignment; therefore they chose to simply present on why they were unable to produce an outcome. After all, they thought, the class was on team dynamics and  it would be great learning for everyone!

The non-productive team proceeded to share how their struggles started with the first task of determining what their project topic would be.  Four of the five members quickly agreed what the topic might be; the fifth disagreed. The four team members wanted her to feel included, so they asked what her ideas were. She did not really have any, she just wasn’t comfortable with the one they generated and did not feel they had spent enough time exploring options. She hoped they could talk more about different ideas. They agreed.  

After extensive conversation all five agreed on the original idea, although the group made concessions to adapt the idea to meet the needs of the fifth person. This conversation took a good part of the allotted time. The next step was to assign tasks to team members and get to work! Apparently this proved to be quite the challenge! The member whom had stepped into a leadership role, given the limited amount of time, began to delegate tasks. Three members readily agreed to the assignment allocation. Again, the same fifth person resisted. She felt there should be discussion about who got what tasks. She also explained that she overall was not feeling heard or understood on the team and that the team did not value her as a team member. She was feeling a little run over by the others.

Well, this is a class on team dynamics! So the team stepped back and decided to listen to her feelings and thoughts, ask her what she would like to do and what would help her feel valued.

Needless to say the team was not very productive, as by the end of the discussion, time was nearly up. 

In the discussion with the whole class the team discussed the leadership and power dynamics. The team discussed how one of the men in the group had stepped up and taken a leadership role from the beginning and he had done a great job in his role. They felt there was great collaboration and equal power as each person was heard and valued. The greatest challenge on this team, obviously, was just low productivity. Had there been more time, however, this team believed they would have been successful. Their conclusion was that some teams take longer to build relationships (forming) than others. What they were proud of is that they did not rush through this very important stage.

The instructor asked some simple questions; “who did the team allow to impede progress? Who was able to change the dynamics in the moment? Who continued to change the team’s mind?” Unequivocally the answers came back –from the whole class, not the presenting team-team member number five. Confirming for the class that the power rested with the perceived weakest member!

This is when the discussion got really interesting! The person who had stepped into the leadership role quickly disagreed. He went on to explain that he held a leadership position in his job and therefore it was natural to take on the leadership role on this team. Everyone knows the leader has the power. He felt the team allowed her to feel a part of the process, even when she was not on board with the rest of them; but she certainly was not the powerful one in the group. In fact, she was at risk for being run over, as she stated, and it was his leadership, as discussed, that ensured she was not left behind. One of the fellow team members now offered, “she even broke down in tears at one point.”

The instructor asked one simple question; “who did the team allow to impede progress? Who was able to change the dynamics in the moment? Who continued to change the team’s mind?” Unequivocally the answer came back –from the whole class, not the presenting team-that the power rested with the perceived weakest member!

How often does this happen on teams, in families, within social groups and in classrooms? Often the belief is the power rests with the aggressive/strong person in the group and/or with the person holding the formal power. In reality, subtle psychological power plays can be delivered through all kinds of interesting ways. Power plays can include the use of tears, silence, sulking, sarcastic humor, gossip, acts of vulnerability and other passive means.

Healthy personal power is most potent when it includes empowerment of others, respecting their choices and considering their needs; while still knowing, articulating and promoting one’s own personal purpose.

Recognizing power plays and not getting caught in the trap of low power behavior is a crucial skill for navigating the waters of social interactions; particularly for those seeking to develop political savvy in the waters they swim in!

How might the team have handled this differently to achieve both productivity and a healthy team dynamic?