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Navigating irrational team behavior

Some useful questions to ponder if you feel like the people in your meeting are acting irrationally:

1. To which group does the person want to belong (in this moment)?

The desire to belong is a deeply rooted human need. So strong, in fact, that it can overpower logic and rational decision making. The range of possible groups people want to belong to is vast. People might want to consider themselves as being innovative. Or one of the cool kids. Perhaps they want to belong to the rich. Or consider themselves pragmatic problem solvers who just get sh*t done. Maybe they value loyalty. Or are seeking connection to a group of “friends” … As I said, the list is practically limitless and can be very personal.

2. Who does the person want to be seen by (in this moment)?

Similar but distinct from the previous aspect. It might be related to career or competition. Romance or friendship. It can lead to people remaining silent when you’d expect them to speak up. Or it can lead them to do silly things when that hasn’t been their mode of operation up until this moment. It can lead them to change loyalty or neglect facts. And again, it’s a very personal list that’s not easy to see when we’re not walking in their shoes.

3. With whom is the person negotiating their status (in this moment)?

It’s a useful shortcut to assume that we’re basically negotiating status in any exchange. It leads people to thinking they can’t give in. Or need to please the boss. That they need to fight back or appease the opponent. Establish that they are the senior person. Or the smarter one. Or sometimes simply that they’re the boss.

The bitter truth is that these social dynamics can lead people to act very differently than we would in the same situation, even when looking at the exact same facts. Sometimes, it can be very hard for us to even understand why anyone would be acting that way. And yet, they do.

What’s sometimes hard to swallow is that these human needs can dominate something like logic. When a strong desire like “belonging” (let alone “love”) takes the driver’s seat, logic isn’t the most important thing anymore.

The good news is that you can learn to see these dynamics. Understanding which group a person wants to belong to or how they’re negotiating status allows us to see their behavior in a different light. And when we do we can work with what we see and adapt how we communicate with them.

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