How Our Personality And Team Dynamics Make Us Behave In Ways We Never Intended
If you have ever wondered why on Earth you seem to contribute negatively to your team’s dysfunction, this article is for you. How is it that you go in with the best of intentions, yet end up like a wrecking ball within your team’s dynamic? It turns out psychology might have the answer.
Confessions Of A Troublemaker
Years ago I was part of an organization within which I felt I really did not fit, and to which I did not make a contribution I was proud of. I was constantly running into disputes and conflicting with colleagues.
For the longest time, I could not figure out what made me behave in such a way. It felt like I was playing a part written for someone else; like I was participating in a drama where only the role of the villain was available to me. Accordingly, I defaulted to exactly that role, whether I was comfortable with it or not. I came to realize I was holding onto some notion of how I should behave, rather than serving the organization’s mission and its members.
Observing my own behavior and wondering how I strayed so far from my own ideals of being a conscious leader was one of the reasons that led me to work with a coach, and ultimately to become a coach myself.
Why We Act Out In Teams
Three years of research and inner work later, I want to share with you a little of what I've learned about situations like these. I’ve included two mental models from psychology research that I have applied in my coaching practice after working through them myself. I’ll also share two exercises for you to explore in your own time and at your own pace.
But first please remember: if you have ever suffered from mental health issues or believe you are at risk of suffering from mental health issues, please consult a professional. These exercises should not be viewed as a substitute for professional counselling or for other mental health services.
The Many Roles We Inhabit
I play many roles: As the leader of my team, I am the decision maker and I take responsibility. I mentor, and sometimes I coach team members. As a husband, I am sometimes the playful co-explorer of our lives, sometimes an insecure, stubborn little boy and sometimes the shoulder to lean on. Every single one of these roles comes with signature behaviors; every single role is part of my personality.
You can apply the same thinking to the roles you assume in your team, at different levels. These might be:
- Formal, organizational roles (“marketing” or “finance”),
- Functional roles (“the analytical genius” or “the relationship builder”), and
- Behavioral roles: the “heart of the team”, “the challenger” or “the bold decision-maker”.
This isn’t something I came up with: the Internal Family Systems model was developed through evidence-based psychological research led by American psychologist Dr. Richard Schwartz over the last 40 years. IFS assumes that, “the mind is naturally multiple (...) and our inner parts contain valuable qualities.”
Roles are conditioned behaviors; ways of being that you unconsciously default to and that have been previously shaped. Much of that shaping happened as we were growing up: in our families, in educational institutions and in our early careers. For me, school was a major factor and determined how I ended up behaving between the ages 20 and 30. As a startup executive, some of this behavior was triggered in my new environment. The problem: 20 years later, it was completely out of place.
I had to unlearn some of that the hard way.
How A Relationship Can Outlast Its Members
Relationships can develop their own dynamics that outlast their individual members. Psychologists have been able to identify recurring relationship behavior in families that emerged many generations ago*. This research has shown that as soon as you have more than two people in the mix, you have built a relationship transmission engine that can last for generations.
This becomes especially relevant when we are talking about a relationship between more than two people. Let’s imagine a relationship between three cofounders: over time, these three individuals cultivate their triangle relationship. They unconsciously develop behaviors towards one another to the point where they become habit. At times, two of them might move closer together, and at other times they drift apart.
Now imagine the relationship triangle staying constant while one of the individuals is replaced. The remaining two cofounders still behave the same way—after all, they are not aware of the unconscious habits they have built throughout this relationship. The relationship as a separate entity has stayed intact, even though one of the cofounders has left the company and someone else has joined in their place.
If you joined this team tomorrow, you might be unconsciously drawn into behaving just like your predecessor. The behavior of your two new colleagues will be geared to perpetuating the same relationship dynamics. As the newcomer, you are part of that same triangle, which is charged with behavior that has nothing to do with you. Your behavior will be informed by conditioning that went on in the original formation. You will of course bring your own flavor to the relationship. However, given that your two counterparts are caught in a very established pattern of behavior, you are very likely to default to a specific role within that pattern.
Fast forward 10 years: both the other cofounders have left and a new trio has emerged. Left to their own devices, this “new” triangle may still replay the relationship dynamics of the initial trio. The transmission engine of this relationship system is in full swing and has just outlasted a full generation of its members.
Exercises For You To Try
I know, this is quite abstract to think through … so to better illustrate them here are two exercises for you to take home or into the workplace. I have applied both with my own clients, but you should be able to make them work on your own.
#1 - Name It
The purpose of this exercise is to create awareness of the patterns of the relationship, take a step back and talk about them without assigning blame.
Try giving the relationship a name and allowing it to have its own personality—for example, Auntie Trudie.
- Ask yourself: how does this person behave? What are their patterns?
- How did the person grow up? What were the formative moments and individuals in their life?
- What does he or she need to thrive? What makes him or her annoyed?
This will not only help you understand the patterns of a relationship and your own behavior better, it will also allow you to recognize more easily when you are engaging in your default behavior without noticing.
#2 - Exploring My Roles
You cannot make choices if you don’t know they exist. This second exercise is about creating awareness of the roles you are living in and how they influence you.
A bit of background: last year, I worked with the CEO of a scale-up on this. During our sessions, we noticed how her leadership style came across as way more aggressive than intended. We used her communications with a particular colleague as an example. The CEO observed her choice of consciously adopting the “company owner” character, “the CEO”, “the friend” or “the coach” roles—and many more. Ultimately, we identified nine different roles that were at play.
Here is a full set of questions, some of which we worked through in our sessions, each of which you could ask yourself about the roles you play:
- Which roles do I inhabit? What is my relationship to those roles? Which of them feel second nature to me and with which do I have a strained relationship? Some of our roles are well worn-in, some others need some practice.
- How will these roles be triggered in me? Can I manage those triggers? To what degree am I aware of them in the moment?
- How did these various roles come into existence? Have they primarily been imprinted on me from the outside? Which roles have I consciously shaped myself?
- How do I want to behave in my various roles? What needs to happen so that I can make that change? What is the reason I want to change?
Finally, a note of caution: the theories outlined in this article show why we need to be careful when using personality tests. Our behavior is much more dynamic and interdependent than it at first might seem. The more conscious we become about how we show up in the world, the more authentic we can feel with our behavior.
Please never, ever use these concepts to blame others for manipulating you into a role. This model should be used only to help you to become aware of relationship dynamics as a group, and empower you to work through them consciously.
If these concepts create more awareness and help you to change your own behavior, then I have done my job well. All our personalities have many facets. Become more aware of how those character traits can shape the person you want to be. Personality is not constant, and if we put in the inner work, we can bring our best self forward.
My episode years ago has helped me become aware of many of my triggers and change my behavior: Today, I know that it was a mixture of a role (in which I was socially and professionally insecure and trying to validate myself) and the relationship system. It inspired my personal development journey and ultimately my becoming a coach. Without this learning experience - uncomfortable as it was - I would not be the person I am today.
Personality Isn’t Permanent, Benjamin Hardy, 2020
Family Evaluation, Michael E. Kerr and Murray Bowen, 1988