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How Reactive Conversations Impact Team Functionality

I was sitting with a member of an executive team of a large organisation not long ago, and he shared his experience of his team in a way that stayed with me.

He was chatting about the other members of the team, one by one, when he paused and interrupted his own talking. He then said,

It’s not that anybody has genuine bad intent, it’s just that together, we become a team that doesn’t function well!”

What he was talking about was beyond personal reactivity. It was a reactivity that the group had created, together. It’s plausible these individuals were less reactive in other contexts, but in the collective that was their own executive team, the reactivity had become a repeatable set of behaviours that all or most members of the team were contributing, in one way or the other.

The team had developed various “routines” in the way they engaged each other, and these routines were sabotaging their performance. And poor performance at the executive level has far reaching implications across the whole organisation.

So how would you know if your team had become a “reactive team”? What might be the signs that could tell you that the team was operating in a reactive way?

In my experience, it’s not what is said, but more often what is NOT said that can tell you if your team has become reactive. Most reactive teams don’t engage in all out brawls or repeated heated exchanges. Rather, the reactivity is found in the awkward pauses, nervous laughs or silences.

Here’s how a “reactive team” tends to work

It usually begins with someone who has more “rank” than some or all of the rest of the team.

That person behaves “reactively”, and their reactive behaviour is not discussed or acknowledged. Instead, the team “reacts” to them in various ways and in doing so create the collective “routines” that get enacted over and over. And those routines hurt team effectiveness.

But first, it should be acknowledged that rank can come from various sources. Some examples might be:

  • having hierarchical seniority, that is, being the boss (e.g. CEO)
  • having tenure in the team that is significantly longer than others, especially the “newbies”
  • having expertise in some important area that others do not (e.g. Chief Financial Officer, Chief Investment Officer or Chief Medical Officer)
  • being responsible for a significant part of the organisation revenue (e.g. Director of Sales or Marketing)
  • being very extroverted, being very verbally fluent, and feeling more free to speak than others.

How does the person with rank begin the “routine”?

It can happen in various ways, but in each case the person with rank will use power provided by that rank to do or say something that others in the team would find very difficult to do.

But here is the kicker. They do so without acknowledging they are using their rank to behave in the way they are.

Below, I explain two main ways those with rank unwittingly initiate reactive conversational patterns within their team.

In each case what follows is a repeating pattern of avoidance in the remainder of the team, and a reactive pattern of conversation that follows which begins to define the team itself.

Pattern #1 – “This conversation is over”

The Initiations

  1. A CEO might shut down a conversation on a particular agenda item, despite their team considering the topic to be of importance.
  2. A Chief Financial Officer shutting down a conversation on an alternate means of reporting, despite others considering it to be of potential value.
  3. A Director of Sales dismissing an alternate sales process, even though others consider it to have potential.

In each case, the person with rank uses that rank to prematurely close the team conversation, and importantly, does not acknowledge that they are exercising significant power to do so.

They simply do it, and move on.

They may not be especially angry or frustrated, they are simply doing something they probably tell themselves is required of them as someone with rank.

They usually have secretly experienced frustration or anxiety of some kind in relation to the topic they are closing down, but that frustration or anxiety is not being expressed directly by them.

Rather, they are simply making a power move to shut down the topic, and in doing so, reduce their anxiety.

The Reactive Pattern of Conversation Which Follows

What follows is often (but not always) frustration or irritation in at least some of the remainder of the team. Where that frustration is voiced, the reactive pattern within the team is minimised! There exists a far greater chance the team will engage in the difficult but necessary dialogue required to operate as a functional team.

In other words, resistance to the “rankful” person is voiced, and via that voice, power is exercised, in a helpful way, by the remainder of the team in response to the initial reactivity demonstrated by the person with rank.

Where the frustration is not voiced, what follows is an awkward pause, nervous laughs, or silence. The team just moves on. That is, with no discussion, the remainder of the team somehow agree it’s better just to avoid the potential conflict. The conversation is over and a new topic, or agenda item is addressed.

The problem here is that unexpressed frustration, according to Professor Chris Argyris, is that team energy drops, innovation is eroded and even apathy can emerge. Where frustration does get expressed, it does so in connection to topics unrelated to that causing the original angst.

The routine gets played out, over and over, the dance continues, and team effectiveness erodes.

Pattern # 2. “Don’t make me even madder!”

The Initiations

  1. How long does it take to get an accurate answer here?
  2. What? The report has not been finished yet?
  3. They just can’t do it. They’re imbeciles.
  4. Why can’t you just get this done?

In these examples, some person with rank in the meeting, is demonstrating a liberal expression of anger or frustration. The tonation is usually conveying a combination of aggression, impatience, irritation or exasperation.

The “rankful person” is appropriating the privilege, through their rank, of not needing to exercise self discipline in relation to the expression of their frustration.

Importantly, the remainder of the team, or those in the meeting, are likely to be aware that they do not share the same privilege of being able to freely express their anger, especially toward the boss, and often even toward each other. And they especially can’t express their frustration about the boss losing their cool.

The Reactive Pattern of Conversation Which Follows

What usually follows is an awkward pause, nervous laughs, or silence.

Real conversation about the problem is bypassed as the conversation tends to orientate itself around “fixing” the cause of the boss’s frustration. This routine usually results, as in the first example, with team members leaving the meeting with unexpressed frustrations or anxieties not just about the topic, but about the behaviour of the boss, or whichever person is using their rank to liberally express their frustrations.

What’s the problem with that? Plenty. The drop in psychological safety associated with this pattern causes a lessening of spontaneity within the team, innovation to reduce and overall effectiveness to drop.


So, the bottom line is reactiveness is not just personal.  It can a be a team phenomenon. A collective dance. Therefore, it helps enormously to become aware of the problematic conversational patterns in your team.

Just watch your business results grow as you first notice, then slow down as a team, to reflect upon these challenging dynamics.

What about you? Have you noticed similar displays of rank in your meetings? And what reactive patterns of conversation have you witnessed as a result? Let us know in the comments!


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