You might be surprised to see that the best team I learned from the worst team experience I’ve ever had, in my whole life.
It was August 2014: I was sitting in a room with about 90 bright-eyed and eager A-type personalities, it was the first day of the MBA program I had been accepted to. As I looked around, I was in awe at the diversity in that room: some just out of undergrad, some who looked like they had years of career experiences. A great mix of men and women, Canadian born and international students from Asia, Africa and South America were all buzzing with nervous energy as the program was about to announce the teams we were being placed in, and that the first semester of the program would be largely graded collectively in those teams. Teams that they were about to assign to us. No picking, or selecting your team mates, this had been left up to the admissions panel.
Having quickly assessed people at lunch that day, I knew I wanted to be on a team with an engineer, who had very loudly told people that he was a genius at excel and data analysis, things that I knew were weak about me. My skills laid clearly in creative and people leadership, so thinking strategically, I knew our skills would compliment each other. I vividly remember this, because when his name was called with mine, I remember being full of actual joy, because we were going to learn and help each other so much! I’m pretty sure I high-fived the whole team, which was rounded out by two other men, and an international female team member. Gold Team 5 was in it to win it, and we were not going to be “that team”.
Because, we had been warned extensively that team forming, storming, norming and performing was very real, and that there would be teams who never got out of storming. And when that happened, we were not to go to professors and whine about our team members, because that’s not how it works in the real world, when you had conflict you had to sort it out within the team. They warned us there was always that one team…. Not us, I thought to myself, we’re adults and we’re smart! We can figure this out, I enjoy people dynamics and we’re all so diverse, it’ll be amazing! We were ready, willing and able to head straight to PERFORMING!
Can you sense what’s coming next? I’m sure you can. This man became the actual bane of my existence, and the biggest hurdle to my success that first semester. He flat out refused to help us on projects unless they were done exactly how he wanted because he had “ superior experience” and viewed the rest of us as inferior. “I’ve done this before, and you haven’t, so I’ll let you learn” was his go-to phrase about team exercises, projects and presentations. He’d sit in the room with us and tell us everything we were doing wrong based on his experiences, but wouldn’t articulate beyond critics. It was infuriating, I was trying to learn and grow, and he was standing in my way.
He claimed he only related to the professors, likely due to age, and constantly told us he could teach the courses we were learning, but never brought anything to our projects. So, as a team, we struggled a lot. I tried desperately to rally the rest of the team, we’d spend countless hours in the library together trying to figure out how to make it work. We had two huge projects and two case studies that semester, and it got so bad, that by our company project (where we had to present on a publicly traded company), he had done nothing, hadn’t shown up to a meeting, hadn’t written a single word, or prepared any of the presentation. It was a tense day, and the rest of the semester was filled with frustrations and anger seethed from our team.
Other teams would look at us and say “I’m so glad I’m not gold team 5” or “how are they functioning?” and we honestly didn’t know. But, to our credit — we didn’t complain and never talked about it with professors or administrators. When our final presentation of that term was over, we all shook hands and that was it. Team disbanded, stress over, and I have never again spoken to this man. So, how did this end up being the best team to learn from? Because it taught me so much about resiliency and self awareness.
I can survive any workplace situation and rebound quickly when things don’t go right because of this team situation. After our first presentation, it took me almost a week to not walk into a room with my team and want to scream. I spiralled and overreacted to everything at the beginning. But when talking to a mentor, he said something I’ll never forget: Your team is never going to be a perfect fit, even when you find a great job. So snap out of it and don’t let someone else have so much power over how you react. Stopped me right in my tracks and reframed what I had to do. If a team isn’t great, you have a choice: you can sink down to the depths, and get super bitter, or you can learn, grow and help encourage your team to do the same.
My resiliency grew, and so did my confidence in being able to tackle just about anything that the program (and life outside the program) could throw at me. And as much as I would have loved a super chill and functioning team, this dysfunctional team was a great way to learn to lead people through adversity.
I think the most important lesson and takeaway from this experience was what I learned about myself. I learned that no matter what my situation, I would never work with a person like that again. Because in the real world, when you’re deciding where to work — you also get to decide who you work with. Yes, you want to know that you can handle tough situations and conversations with coworkers, but you should also know your limits when it comes to people. This experience taught me that if I ever came across a person like this in the real world, I didn’t have to work with them — because a company with the values I am looking for wouldn’t reward behaviour like that.
It also taught me the type of leader I wanted to work with. Because during the program, professors and administrators saw what was happening and saw how much I was trying. They would come up to me and acknowledge they saw what was happening, and say things like good job at sticking it out, or worse, you’ll get through it. This actually made it worse, because I wanted to say “then why can’t we do something about it?”…it felt like the four of us were attached to dead weight that everyone could see, but we still had to carry it around.
Do I hope you go through a type of experience I went through? ABSOLUTELY NOT! But I do think it taught me so much about resiliency, communication and self-awareness, that although I’d never wish it on anyone, I wouldn’t change the experience having been through it, but I hope you learn through osmosis and don’t have to experience terrible teaming.