Reading the Room
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Reading the Room

Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders

David Kantor

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eBook - ePub

Reading the Room

Group Dynamics for Coaches and Leaders

David Kantor

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About This Book

In Reading the Room, renowned systems psychologist and family therapist David Kantor applies his theory of structural dynamics to help leaders and coaches understand and improve communication within their teams. He helps readers understand how and why they and their teams communicate differently when faced with low-stakes or high-stakes situations, and he provides a framework to help improve leadership behavior in high-stakes situations.

Acknowledging that early personal history and adult relationships have an impact on individual leadership and communication, the author discusses how leaders' awareness of their personal histories can help them become more effective in their leadership teams.

Armed with the information outlined in this groundbreaking book, coaches and leaders will be able to: intervene effectively to produce positive change in both the group's dynamics and its outcomes, help people in the room alter their behavior to better reach their aspirations, identify the recurring sequences of behavior taking place in a group, understand why differing individual preferences for boundaries and rules affect their conversation, and much more.

Written to help readers understand the reasons why leaders and teams get along—or don't—when they communicate in a group, this book will serve as the leader's "go-to" resource for insight and perspective in leading their team.

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chapter ONE
Reading the Room
Introduction and Framework
In the past decade, significant progress has been made in describing and finding good-to-great leaders and coaching them toward greater success, but both experts and high-placed leaders themselves still overlook this fundamental:
A leader falls short of greatness without great skill in face-to-face talk.
This is as true in the corporate world as it is in government, communities, and families. On some level, we “know” that effective talk in face-to-face relations and small group conversations lies at the heart of leading, but by and large, when we lead, we do not examine closely what dynamics are at work in a conversation, nor find ways to improve them.
The title of this book refers to a priceless leadership skill: the ability to read the room to understand what’s going on as people communicate in small groups, including how the leader himself or herself is participating, when the conversation is moving forward, when it may be just about to leave the rails, and possibly even how to guide it back on course.
First, the leader is able to read the room; second, the leader knows how to contribute in the moment to keep the team talking on track.
What do you know right now about your own skills at reading the room? These skills can be learned at any age and any point in a coach’s or leader’s career. From penthouse to White House, no matter how high a leader has risen, becoming truly skilled at reading the room will elevate one’s game.


Throughout this book I will trace the story of a CEO called Ralph Waterman, “the room” of the leadership team he directed, the members of his team, and a leadership coach called Duncan Travis. As the story begins, Ralph has already achieved much in his corporate leadership career.
At age forty-eight, Ralph was not the stereotypical CEO, but he had a glowing and well-earned reputation for turning around companies that had stalled or declined. In fact, he’d just done that before coming to ClearFacts. People joked about his love of quixotic slogans like “Think and ye shall find. Create and ye shall be given!” but they also considered him brilliant, visionary. Did they also notice how restless he was at how much his current company continued to rely on the status quo and how far it fell short of any great sense of moral purpose? Perhaps Martha Curtis, director of HR, could tell. Of the leadership team, she was closest to Ralph. He appreciated her warm and engaging way, the fact that she spoke out a lot, and her high emotional intelligence despite being only thirty-four. A short eight years before, right after college, she’d gone into management training and from there into human resources.
Of course, Ralph and Martha had personal lives as well. Ralph was married to Sonia Waterman, and for him the barometer of their relationship was the quality of lovemaking. By that standard, despite his working late many nights, he thought of his home life as “better than ever.” Sonia, of a different nature, also loved Ralph and was committed to their marriage, but came at it from a different perspective. Martha Curtis’s marriage was passionate, but also stormy at times. One tension was that her husband, Lance Curtis, was an artist, which made her the primary breadwinner. They had no children at this point.
At the outset of our story, Ralph had just left a company to take over the reins at ClearFacts, a fast-growing green tech company. The move was something of a pattern for him—tearing free of one organizational yoke whenever it got too tight, in favor of a new and looser one. His vision now was of “an organization every one of whose members would be treated with dignity, given meaningful work, and a place they could voice complaints and be heard.” With that in mind, he convinced Martha to accompany him to ClearFacts, where she could head up a strong HR department “with a reach to every satellite office in the firm.”
In addition to the dignity theme and Martha’s coming with him, Ralph had made other stipulations to the ClearFacts board of directors about his entrance as CEO. One was that he would go about creating “a management team with a model.” He’d been introduced to this “models” concept at a training program in Cambridge, where he’d also met his new leadership coach, Duncan Travis.1 Ralph had taken keen interest when Duncan said that if a company needed a model to achieve its profit-making and larger purposes, it also needed some sort of model of a strong leadership team with imaginative strategy and a willingness to change and grow individually.
A skilled sixty-year-old executive coach, Duncan Travis had spent much of his career in organizational consulting with a prominent firm, where he started at age thirty-five. Over time, the rewards of being paid as a star performer grew thin; troubled by the lack of fit between, as he put it, “who I am and what I’m asked to do,” he’d searched out practices with a closer fit. At fifty, he’d gone his own way. In the course of his transition to independent consultant, Duncan became familiar with an approach called structural dynamics, and proficient with its methods. In this period, presenting at a conference Ralph attended, he and Ralph instantly clicked. Ralph, himself about to take a new position, hired Duncan as coach.
Ralph had made and been granted two last, large stipulations. One was that he be free to create and personally lead an R&D team to explore new green technologies that he knew ClearFacts needed and about which he was passionate. (I won’t say much more about the actual business ClearFacts was in. For our purposes, as you will see, it matters fairly little.) The other was the creation within ClearFacts of a leadership training program, to be overseen by persons other than himself.
So far, our main characters are three newcomers to ClearFacts: CEO Ralph, coach Duncan, and HR director Martha. When Ralph arrived, he found three more who were to be part of his leadership team. The foremost, naturally, was the CFO and COO, Ian Maxwell, age fifty, a man admired for his clarity of purpose and unfailing precision, although many also called him “rule-fanatic” and “Sheriff Max” behind his back. At work, most subordinates kept a distance from him. Divorced, Ian hadn’t a clue why he almost never saw his two grown children. Evenings, he exercised, ate lightly, and read military history and theory in honor of his high-ranking, career-soldier father.
Duncan got a clear sense of Ian right away at the first weekly meeting Duncan attended of the ClearFacts leadership team, which Ralph had asked Duncan to attend “to see me and our team in action.”
“You know, Dr. Travis—” Ian began.
“I prefer Duncan,” said Duncan.
“Okay … Duncan,” Ian conceded. “Under Ralph’s style of leading, our meetings are at times too freewheeling for my taste. As CEO it is his prerogative. Yet we follow rules. Enforcing them here and throughout ClearFacts helps me, as chief financial officer, to keep things financially and culturally on track.”
Also there at the table as Ian spoke were the final two members of the leadership team. Whereas Martha now reported directly to CEO Ralph, director of sales Howard Green, thirty-six and unmarried (except to the organization—he barely slept, and took his computer on Club Med vacations), and director of marketing Arthur Saunders, forty and married with children, both continued to report to Ian.
Ralph had already recognized Howard as a model worker in terms of quality and output, with a keen ambition (to become a CEO before age forty), and had mentioned these qualities to Duncan. What Duncan noticed now was Howard’s nodding support of nearly everything Ian or Ralph might say. Colleagues at ClearFacts described Howard as a “must-win” guy, and Howard stayed closer to Ian than did Ian’s other subordinates. Recent circumstances at ClearFacts had catapulted him and his sales crew into fierce competition with Art and marketing, and their sharing reports to Ian probably amplified the personal competition between them.
That is not to say that Howard and Art were equally competitive by nature, though Art’s colleagues sometimes said he worked harder than he had to, and he and his marketing team consistently turned out great materials. At the same time, Art’s subordinates loved and respected him and knew him as a great listener. In high gear at work, Art wrote sparkling prose, and his leadership bore fruit. He got more work done in less time because he knew when to break for walks and, until recently, when to call it a day. On the home front, Art felt deprived by his working late night after night. In two weeks, he hadn’t once been home in time to put his three-year old, elder daughter to bed. She cried. His wife was furious and telling him, “I will save this marriage or bust.” Her biological clock was ticking, and she wanted another child. Art was not so sure he agreed. He was also beginning to wonder whether he belonged in his ClearFacts job.
After the team meeting, the CEO and coach reconvened to debrief—a routine they would keep up every week from that point on. Part of it went like this:
RALPH: I imagine as a coach you got a pretty quick intuitive “read” on Ian, my redoubtable COO.
DUNCAN: A “read” yes. Intuitive? No. I’m using what I observe of him to begin to build a behavioral profile of Ian, and everyone else in the room.
RALPH: “Behavioral profile”?
DUNCAN: A systematic profile of how each of you communicate in the room.
RALPH: Some better than others.
DUNCAN: Yes. The behavioral profile isn’t a value judgment; it comprises three objective characteristics. It’s part of the model or theory of group communications that I’ve mentioned to you earlier, called structural dynamics. The behavioral profile lies at the core of what structural dynamics calls a leader’s personal model, and the personal model lies at the core of his leadership model. The endpoint of the work we do together is your developing a leadership model.
(Duncan sits back in his seat and eyes Ralph.) But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; the best times to begin to understand a person’s basic profile are when the stakes are generally low.
RALPH: “Low.” As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing low stakes about ClearFacts. This company can do great things.
DUNCAN: That’s not what I mean by low stakes or high. In structural dynamics, the stakes are low or high depending on how high they feel, right at that moment, in a personal way, to the people who are communicating.
RALPH: Well, the meeting was fairly relaxed, even if Howard opposed my idea that you would facilitate our meetings.
DUNCAN: But overall, this is a fairly routine moment as your weekly meetings go, isn’t it? Low stakes in that sense.
RALPH: Agreed.
So this book and the ClearFacts story begin in low-stakes situations, when “plain talk” seems easy. What makes that ease of communication evaporate when people feel stakes rising? How can we still make communication work in that future meeting, when everyone is “sick of talking” yet no decision has been reached? What is talk’s connection not only to productivity but even to—dare I say it?—personal fulfillment?
As coaches and leaders inevitably learn, climbing higher in an organization does not mean that the conversation gets easier. As stakes rise, so do pressures. As this happens, every member of a team, no matter how experienced, falls back more and more on deeply ingrained behaviors and life patterns of action and defense. When stakes are really high, people also often act in ways that truly surprise them. This book does not leave off where matters grow truly complex, where formulas collapse, where talk degrades or flies out of hand, where tempers explode. Although it begins in the relatively “normal” atmosphere of a high-powered team, it continues beyond the point at which members are really at their best, even from their own perspectives.


Structural dynamics is the broad term for a body of research that colleagues and I began in the 1970s in an effort to understand the nature of face-to-face human communication. As noted in the Preface, we first studied families and couples. Since then, for many years my own work has focused on corporate leaders and teams.
Structural dynamics is also a basic theory and model or tool, if you will, for reading the room. Structural connotes the idea that...

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