CIO Leadership

How CIOs Identify What Really Holds Their Team Back And What They Do About It

CIOs aren’t usually trained in organizational psychology, but they live in its reality everyday. The dysfunction is real. If you think of it as a people problem, you have a bigger problem. Here is how to spot what really holds your team back and what to do about it.

Scott Smeester


September 7, 2022

“I want you to consider this: Every decision you make, every action you undertake, is a product of conditioning - of which you are mostly unaware.” Rainier Wylde
“Fear rooted in shame drives separation.” Joe Woodruff

You lead an IT organization. You are responsible for a team. You are aware that each member you lead brings strengths. As an effective leader, you see the best in them and seek the best for them.

You also know that each member brings baggage. Personal issues, pasts, pressures and problems - they are all part of the package. Each has fears. Each shoulder shame. Each behaves in ways that create distance. It’s the stuff of being human.

It’s also the stuff of being an organization.

You were likely not trained in organizational psychology. Few of your peers have been. But if you have wondered:

  • Why does my team feel undervalued or disrespected or controlled or disconnected or powerless or inadequate?
  • Why is my team so concerned with failure, blame, rumor, mistrust, and looking bad?
  • Why does my team make excuses, hide problems, question everything, avoid conflict and challenge aggressively?

Then you are navigating uncharted waters.

What CIOs and their peers often overlook is that what is true of an individual can be true of an organization:

  • Your organization feels shame.
  • Your organization fears.
  • Your organization creates distance in critical relationships.

Understanding Your Organization’s Dysfunction

Remember 5 Dysfunctions Of A Team by Patrick Lencione?

  • Absence of trust
  • Fear of conflict
  • Lack of commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results

Those are separation-behaviors (fear of conflict is actually conflict avoidance in this case). It’s a good book. 

But if you have tried to instill trust, confidence, commitment, accountability and attention to results without success, you haven’t probed enough into the real issue behind behavioral dysfunction.

As a company (or department), not just as individuals, you work against fear that is rooted in shame and drives separation.

Shame is a belief that one’s worth, competence and belonging is defective. Shame tells us we are not enough or too much…Fear interferes. Fear is the expectation that I will experience the opposite of what I desire. Fear is immediate and underlying; we are frightened in a moment and we dread something over time…Separation is hiding; you separate yourself from unwanted exposure (Joe Woodruff).

Your IT department and team operate under a corporate shame. They believe they are never ____enough. Never good enough. Never on-time enough. Never under-budget enough. Never simple enough. Never unified enough. Never business-minded enough. Fill in the blank.

They also operate under an umbrella of fears: judgment, blame, being unappreciated, looking bad, failure, repercussions.

In turn, they behave in ways that are self-protective: partial disclosures, excuses, anger, control, conflict-assertive or conflict avoidant, denial, isolation.

You know it’s a reality; you haven’t known how to define it. You know it’s a problem, you haven’t known how to call it out.

Three Keys To Overcoming Your Team’s Dysfunction

  1. Transforming dysfunction into healthy function requires both power and process.
  • You embrace the process because you understand the value of time. Time is required because shame is an interweave of lies that need to be discovered and countered by truth. Your company didn’t adopt shame overnight. You are a product of unrecognized conditioning.
  • You embrace the process because you understand the value of progress and regress. The goal isn’t to mandate different behavior; the goal is new behavior that flows from insight, embracing truth, and a genuine desire to be free of fear.
  • You look for power moments, those times where truth/correction bring a momentary but necessary burst of momentum. Hope results and fuels the process.
  1. Name, claim and call out the shame, fears and behaviors. None of this is hard to understand; it is difficult to wrestle with. But half the battle is knowing the enemy and naming the enemy. Engage your team in identifying the lies, fears and behaviors that underlie the work and workplace.
  2. Counter fear, shame and separation with intentional connection and edification.
  • Affirm the team, not just individuals on the team. You affirm when you both compliment AND tie meaning to the compliment: not only what they are good at but what it means to the company, etc.
  • Accept the team. All teams have quirks and fears. Remind them that being imperfect is not a disqualification. Celebrate the quirks, contextualize and normalize the fears (while overcoming them in the process).
  • Advocate for your team. Provide what they need; champion their cause to your peers; shoulder the loads and crises with them.
  • Align the team. They need to be continually aware of their fit, value and contribution.

No matter the type of business you lead, it has its own personality, culture and dysfunction. Too often, we try to change it by addressing the individuals in it. It turns out, the best first step is to address the environment those individuals are in and influenced by. 

You don’t need a degree in organizational psychology to transform dysfunction. You just need courage (and maybe some help from me). You have both.

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