Reframing the Stories We Tell

How to successfully navigate team dynamics

Sigmund Freud discovered many years ago that it is part of normal human life to project our innermost fears, judgments, hopes and dreams onto others. There are many management books, intervention tools, and thoughts on what to do about this when it happens in a work setting. When we load another person up by projecting our reality onto them at work it can lead to problems by creating self-reinforcing negative feedback loops. This occurs when one person projects a moral story onto a colleague causing their colleague (or the person projected upon) to do the same thing back to them. As this goes on it gets worse and worse leading to number of unproductive and damaging effects.

I have seen this phenomena many times in working with teams of highly innovative creators including scientists, engineers, and software development teams. When faced with making a decision about a project, team members need time analyze the underlying technical issues of the proposed plan of action. Understanding why they are doing the project is just as important to them as how they will do it. Managers, though they care about the why, may want to focus more on how they will get to an end goal. This can be due to promises they have made to the customer.  But this is a classic clash that leads to a dynamic tension and if that tension becomes overwhelming – each side – the tech side and the management side – start to clash in an unhealthy way. They start to tell moral stories about each other (in the form of unconscious  assumptions or worse, spoken aloud) that paint the technical experts as unable to make decisions and in analysis paralysis and the leaders as cold hearted capitalists who don’t care about the product quality. There’s not healthy resolution the minute you go down that road. 

At Holonix we teach our clients a model of interpersonal communication, called Structural Dynamics, to help them navigate these all too common conflicts. In this model the technical team members want to discuss the project in the language of Meaning. The managers want to discuss it in the language of power. Both languages are needed – one is not better than the other. Instead of telling a moral story that damages relationships, you can tell a structural story that gives insight into behavior and a path forward. In reframing the moral story to a structural story of the tech team and the manager we can see that they are speaking different languages and therefore not able to hear or appreciate what each other needs or is trying to communicate. The structural story is much more useful. The team needs to spend time in Meaning because it’s the only way they can get to an accurate decision. And the manager needs to use the language of Power in order to keep the team and project on track. When both parties know these languages they can then transparently and with understanding change the nature of the discourse from unproductive to a productive collaborative dialogue. Knowing the structural story makes it much harder to come to unproductive and often inaccurate moral conclusions.

Structural Dynamics was discovered by Drs. David Kantor and William Lehr in their seminal research detailed in their book Inside the Family. David then went on to use the model on corporate teams when he was with Monitor Group. His self-assessment is given to leaders in Harvard Business School’s executive management programs and used globally for leadership development. He describes the model and how to use it in his book, Reading the Room: Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders. I was lucky to get to learn the model from David and conduct a research study on it with an executive team. It really does work! Personally, learning to see interpersonal behavior and my own responses to others through the structural dynamics lens has been life changing. I am happy to get to share it with our Holonix clients. If you’d like to learn more about it, contact me at