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Team Dynamics, Leadership and the ‘Eeyore Effect’

You know those funny moments in life when you suddenly create mental analogies between team dynamics in complex software development circles and your favorite childhood cartoon?

Team Dynamics, Leadership and the ‘Eeyore Effect’

C’mon, you know that happens all the time, right? Anyone?!

Well…Have you ever worked on or with this team? Based on the character descriptions on disney.wikia.com you have ‘Winnie the Pooh’, of course, “who is generally kind and friendly towards everyone; He can be very courageous in tough times, and is consulted when trouble occurs”.

You have ‘Tigger’, “who is very confident and has quite an ego. He often thinks of himself as being handsome and some of his other comments suggest that he has a high opinion of himself. Also, he often undertakes tasks with gusto, only to later realize that they weren't as easy as he had originally imagined.”

You have ‘Piglet’, who is “an incredibly timid, fragile, and insecure animal. He apparently suffers from anxiety, and is often seen cowering in fear in even the most tame moments.”

‘Rabbit’ is “a complex character. He is shown to value organization and order. Rabbit is often shown to be the one to take charge of a situation, but he can often be a control freak, needing every last detail to be to his liking.”

‘Roo’ “takes great joy in discovering the small wonders in life. He often expresses thoughts and feelings that make him seem wiser than his years.”

And then we have poor ‘Eeyore’. “Eeyore is hardly ever happy, and even when he is, he's still sardonic and a bit cynical. Ironically, he actually seems to enjoy being gloomy to an extent and sees it as the essence of his very being.”

Now does it sound like a team you may have worked with or on?

What do you do when you come across that one team who seems to be stacked with Eeyore types? While shambling through Agile frameworks, they still simply want to be told what to do. ‘Point me in a direction and that’s where I’ll go. Because, at the end of the day, if it’s wrong, we have you to blame, not me. Besides, I don’t really trust the people around me either.’

It’s what I affectionately refer to as “The Eeyore Effect”.

How do you quickly identify this situation, this mindset and what can possibly be done to overcome it? Because, if not held in check, you can quickly have a team full of “Eeyores”!

In a workshop I run called Agile Team Leadership and Facilitation, we play a game called Hidden Leader. This game is designed to have one or two people pay close attention to the group as a whole and identify, through the teams subtle actions, who the hidden leader is.

The reason this exercise is so useful is for problems just like we’re discussing. Often we see simply one or two people on an Eeyore team that drive the overall team culture. You know who they are. They are the ‘Cube Whisperers’, the ‘Eye Rollers’, the disengaged meeting attenders who criticize every decision without offering constructive options. The ones going from desk to desk speaking low and softly about how bad the Product Owner is or how the Scrum Master can’t get anything done, or perhaps how management just never trusts and supports us. To them, Agile will never work here. "Might as well just keep things as they were," they whisper in a low Eeyore voice.

This can easily turn into negative hidden leadership on the team and it’s infectious. The next thing you know other team members start talking the exact same way. Everyone becomes fearful they are working on the wrong thing, aren’t delivering quick enough, lack trust or open communication, and the team dynamics suffer.

Suddenly, retrospectives are bland and offer no use. Planning sessions are more like mini project kickoffs over and over again with people trying to figure out what exactly we’re really doing. Any slight change in direction is forbidden and the only communication that takes place is through the ALM software we’re catering our workflow to.

All is not lost.

The primary weapon against such a negative influence starts with a great team facilitator (i.e. Scrum Master, Team Steward, etc.). This person is ideally placed to identify, from both a higher and localized view, who this person (or persons) might be and should have the skillset (which is not available in CSM certification training) to successfully ward off the negative views with the positive. The end result is a more positive team culture that simply doesn’t allow for the negative influence to permeate the team dynamics. He\she doesn’t ignore the issue, but instead has the courage to tackle it head on and help the team embrace what they can do as opposed to what they can’t.

The other highly effective weapon against this scenario is by quickly identifying the positive leadership and nurturing it.

We can’t overlook the A+ folks simply because they don’t need babysitting. Not only should they be recognized for the great attitude and work ethic they bring, they should be groomed as either vocal or non-vocal leaders for their teams. This tactic has a threefold benefit:

  • It ensures the overall message isn’t coming solely from someone the team perceives as an outside cheerleader paid to create a “Rah-Rah” organization.
  • It grooms additional servant-leaders within the team and organization, and often is considered professional growth for those we’re helping.
  • They get greater visibility to their hard work and leadership while becoming another voice in overall team improvement.

Eeyore thrives on the negative, and teams who have taken on this personality do the same. It very rarely starts with an entire team looking at life this way. It generally starts with one person who ultimately spreads this dynamic from person to person over time like a bad stomach flu. The next thing you know, no amount of positive facilitation will help. The perception will be that this positive person just doesn’t get it and they too eventually become discouraged.

Get out in front of the issue before it becomes chronic. Identify those who need help, and emphasize those who can help. The unique cast of characters will still experience ups and downs, but will have a much greater chance for a happy ending.

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