Getting Your Team Through the Groan Zone

You have just had a great brainstorming session with your team. The discussion generated a good list of ideas. Now it is time to get down to business and select a few ideas to move forward. As you begin talking through the various perspectives, the team takes a sudden turn into the Groan Zone.

The Groan Zone

What are the signs that your team has entered the Groan Zone?

  • Misunderstandings
  • Impatience
  • Repeating thoughts
  • Interrupting speakers
  • Dismissing or discounting other people’s ideas

Setting ground rules at the beginning of the meeting can help curb bad behaviors. But what do you do when the topic becomes emotionally charged and difficulties push you to abort the meeting? Or the team becomes so uncomfortable with the emerging conflict that they agree to anything just so the meeting will end?

Being prepared for the Groan Zone is important if you want the team to craft a sustainable agreement. In the book “The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making,” the authors describe a sustainable agreement as one that “can be effectively implemented and supported by key stakeholders.” In other words, we want the team to create a solution that they can support and champion. This will only happen if you can effectively lead your team through the Groan Zone.

Learning about the Groan Zone changed the way that I supported teams with problem-solving meetings. I came to realize that the signs listed above were a part of the process – not something to be avoided. But I also learned that leading the team through this zone would require patience, persistence, and perseverance on my part. In other words, I had to learn how to navigate this uncomfortable zone to bring the team to a collaborative agreement.

Getting Through the Groan Zone

Here are a few strategies I have adapted from the book “The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making”:

  • Look at the other side of the equation. Most people start with their own opinion and familiarity with a problem. Often the initial ideas or perspectives offered come from their individual vantage point. Ask the team or individual team members to consider an alternative perspective or look at the problem through the eyes of the customer. I usually start my meeting with an exercise called “Voice of the Customer.”  Depending on your problem, you could also frame the perspective from the perspective of a specific key stakeholder.
  • Pull in case studies or other related examples. It is difficult for everyone on the team to keep abreast of the latest trends and technological advances. Using case studies in your meeting to provoke thoughts around best practices or new ways of working can help the team break out of their own familiar zones. Asking a key stakeholder to present their perspective and challenges to the team is also a great way to help the team see different sides of the issues.
  • Pull in the history related to the problem. If you sense that you are dealing with legacy issues, it may be helpful to understand the history of the problem. I have found that people are often passionate about a particular view because of something that happened in the past. Bringing that information forward can generate a great discussion on “how we arrived here” and open the discussion to consider change opportunities.
  • Use structured team activities with clear goals. It is important to remember that discussions can be difficult in the Groan Zone. It is important to structure activities that help the team think with a goal. Instead of having rambling conversations that degenerate into unproductive conflict, structured activities can help the team focus and channel their thoughts.  A great source of activities can be found at https://gamestorming.com
  • Take frequent breaks. This may seem simple but a meeting in the Groan Zone should not be a marathon session. I have had the displeasure of sitting in a meeting that lasts for two or more hours with no real break. We shouldn’t forget that life in the Groan Zone can be mentally and emotionally draining.  Taking frequent breaks helps the team maintain better focus.

Getting through the Groan Zone is not an impossible feat. But to get through the zone without losing the engagement of your team will take patience, planning, and persistence.  Structuring the meetings to be more effective is a place to start.

What strategies have you used to help your team get through difficult discussions?

Rebecca Mott is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is a self-proclaimed change agent and continuous improvement leader with over 20 years of utility industry experience leading technical teams to solve problems. She currently coaches leaders and teams to apply Lean Six Sigma methodologies and engage by focusing on the power of “we.”

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Maddie Willis

This was a great read! I think it’s very important to accept that things like the Groan Zone are real rather than just ignore it. I really like the point of look at the other side of the equation. It can be so easy to just view things from your side.

Rebecca H Mott

So many people believe that conflict is a problem. What they don’t understand is that conflict is an opportunity to help the two sides reflect on what they cannot see (productive conflict). I use “gamestorming” activities to help the team document their thoughts. When people make their thinking visible, it is a lot easier for them to relax and try to see things from a different viewpoint. I also teach the team “Let’s do ‘both and’ rather than ‘either-or’ thinking.” Either-or can easily turn into “us versus them” and “winners versus losers.”