When I’m working with a dysfunctional organization, more often than not, the core issue has to do with multiple breakdowns in communication that derail teams, erode trust, and poison morale. 

To address the problem effectively, I help teams identify and examine the underlying issue because that has to be corrected before anything else. (Put another way, don’t go first for the spine without first addressing the muscles that are pulling the spine out of alignment.) One of the first big questions I ask of teams I work with is this: What’s the problem that we have to solve so we can solve the rest of the problems?

Looking back on 2023, there’s one group coaching session that still stands out to me. It might be the best session I’ve ever had in a group like this. As you know, I do a lot of work with law enforcement, and one of the teams at an area agency was having some big problems with breakdowns in communication and lack of trust.

If you’re not in law enforcement, stick with me. This still applies to you. But here’s a quick primer on the dynamics we were working with in this particular setting.

In law enforcement, rank is a huge deal. And communication issues between ranks can be a big source of conflict and misunderstanding within an agency. That was exactly the case with this team.

The interactions — and reactions to exchanges — between sergeants and the lieutenants that supervise them had gotten problematic. Communication was often inconsistent, unfinished, misinterpreted, or disjointed. And they didn’t know what to trust — they didn’t know what was real. Everyone had gotten caught up in an elaborate guessing game based on incomplete information and assumptions.

Right away, I knew the primary objective in building positive communication, trust, and accountability  for this team: improve the relationship between the sergeants and the lieutenants. All the other problems — morale and everything else — were rooted in that dysfunctional relationship.

Now, for that big breakthrough day I was telling you about.

During this particular meeting, two significant things happened, and I credit the same person with being the catalyst for both. 

Halfway into our group coaching session, one sergeant admitted that she now had an entirely different understanding of lieutenants than she did going into the meeting. She realized she didn’t know what she didn’t know — and that what she thought she knew was inaccurate.

Now, that may not seem like a major revelation to you, but I promise it was. Her ability to speak up from a place of vulnerable communication — and to view her team’s problem from multiple perspectives — was truly eye-opening. Not just for her but also for her peers and every rank in the room. It helped them all understand what part of the problem was the root of their problems. And it was different at each level.

The core problem was twofold:

  1. Sergeants and others didn’t know certain things that were happening in the lieutenants’ sphere because they didn’t witness it with their own eyes. And in the absence of actually witnessing it, they assumed it wasn’t being done. 
  2. Simultaneously, as one lieutenant so perfectly stated, “I agree this is the problem, and I also know that this is what we’re doing. The bigger problem is that the things we’re doing aren’t working. What do we need to do differently?”

Did I say that clearly? They agreed what the problem was and what solution was needed — if the lieutenants would just do it. Since the sergeants didn’t see it, they believed it wasn’t being done, but it was. The lieutenants were doing that very thing, but it clearly was NOT solving the problem. And the lieutenant was able to ask, “Now what?” 

But here’s my favorite takeaway from that session: that same sergeant had the courage to respond to that lieutenant, saying, “I need to say this out loud. And I need you to know I’m not angry or judgmental or frustrated or defensive. I just feel like you aren’t in agreement with us. I feel like you think we’re talking about the wrong thing because you see what the lieutenants are doing, and therefore this isn’t a lieutenant issue. I need to know, are you blaming the sergeants here? Am I right in feeling that you think the lieutenants are flawless in this problem?” 

She approached the conversation with bravery and openness. And she asked for clarification and verification on what she was feeling and thinking and thereby “assuming.” 

And do you know how that lieutenant responded? “WOW. Thank you for that,” he said. “And I promise I’m not defensive either. Because that is not at all how I feel. I don’t feel like we are innocent. I actually feel like we failed in two ways: one, by not communicating earlier about what we were doing and what our intended objectives were, and two, by not recognizing that our efforts failed to work and needed a deeper evaluation. Instead, we acted, moved on and never bothered to see if we hit the target — or to ask the sergeants what they thought. That is clearly a failure to communicate.” 

Had that sergeant not spoken up the way that she did, she would have walked out of the room convinced that’s how the lieutenant felt — defensive and angry and blaming the sergeants. To her peers, that would have reinforced the perception that the lieutenants that supervise them are disconnected and uncaring. 

But with a few courageous and thoughtful exchanges, we converted dysfunction into function and carried on to get to the root of the problem — and a collaborative solution. 

You can do the same thing for your organization, regardless of whether you’re working with lieutenants and sergeants or directors and managers.

Here’s the trifecta of power in change and evolution:

  1. The ability to name the thing that’s pulling your team out of alignment — And if I’m honest, it’s usually hard to name; stick with it.
  2. The ability to check your assumptions AND be explicit but kind — To acquire the understanding you seek, you have to drop your assumptions, engage thoughtfully, and talk about things at a deep and real level. (Ego can sour that process before you even get started.) It’s also important to understand that we assume that others innately and easily recognize our good intentions. We expect people to see the good things we accomplish. But they don’t. You actually need to be explicit about it.
  3. The ability to clarify and verify — Name what it is you think you see and experience in order to verify that that was the other person’s intention.

If this sort of work feels daunting to you, know that all it takes is humility, a commitment to understanding one another, and a willingness to grow — and, sometimes, a “Sherpa.”

That game-changing sergeant had all of the above. And all of the credit goes to her for the strides we made that day. She’s the reason we landed on where the issue is. 

And guess what? She’s the newest member of the team. Amazing.


Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash