Credit and Blame at Work

Exploring the psychological forces at play while you work.

How Teams Develop Dysfunctional Habits

Your team can overcome them.

OK- here is a game that an old friend's young kids recently shared with me. Say "white" 5 times fast. Now say it 2 times fast. Now 3 times fast. Now that you've said "white" 10 times, what do cows drink? Most people answer "milk" even though upon reflection the correct answer is "water". Kids love these kinds of tricks, including the same structure of game but with "top" instead of "white" and "what do you do at a green traffic light?" instead of "what do cows drink?" because they illustrate habitual thinking and automatic, predictable, but incorrect responses.

Unfortunately, in the workplace, teams can exhibit the same kind of dominant, automatic, and inaccurate responses to events and situations, sometimes with tragic consequences. Teams have a tendency to develop habitual routines as a way to ensure social cohesion and to speed responses. While habits can often be beneficial, if a team goes on "auto pilot" and develops "groupthink", habits can be highly problematic. One famous example is the Air Florida plane crash in the 1980's in Washington DC, where on a freezing night, the pilots went through their pre-flight check list and didn't realize that the usual "de-icer, off" which they were accustomed to was in fact the wrong setting.

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Almost every team develops some kind of habits in terms of how the team goes about doing its work, and/or in terms of norms of interaction. Some habits or norms, like "truth speaks to power" or "we separate the person from the problem", can be very helpful. Other habits, or norms, like "senior members of the team speak first even if they don't understand the issues that well" or "we shoot the messenger" can be very harmful.

In order to understand its own group habits, a team can either stop itself for periodic self-assessments and process checks to discuss and debate habits and norms, or can bring in an outsider to observe them team's interactions and to provide feedback to the team. If a team chooses to engage an outside consultant or facilitator, it's important to specify what his or her role will be, and what kind of feedback the team wants. Either with or without a facilitator, a team should critically examine itself and should always consider when and how a habitual response might lead to problems or even tragedy.

For more information about how teams develop, and can overcome, dysfunctional habits, see this presentation.

I'll be interested in hearing from all of you-

1. Have you ever been on a team that developed, and then perhaps overcame, dysfunctional habits?

And on a lighter note:  

2. Do you know of any alternatives to "what do cows drink?" and "what do you do at a green traffic light?" that can keep kids entertained?

Ben Dattner, Ph.D., is a workplace consultant, an industrial and organizational psychologist, and an adjunct professor at New York University.

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