Burying the Dead Dogs: A Team Coaching Technique

28th January by John Leary-Joyce

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Burying the Dead Dogs: A Team Coaching Technique

Teams and groups can be paralysed by secrets and unexpressed resentments. 

The energy tied up in holding back from expressing these thoughts and feeling can leave you feeling drained, uncreative and distant. But it can also be scary to share these views, perhaps there is a team culture of being humiliated or marginalised when someone has spoken out. There may have been stories of ‘whistle blowers’ being dismissed for exposing bad behaviour. Some of those fears will be a reality and others will be an exaggerated fantasy stemming from personal anxiety and the concern there may be repercussions in voicing the unspoken.

The team coach will first need to clarify if it is likely there will be an unproductive reaction for the team if it surfaces and confronts the ‘dead dogs’ lurking in the system. This can come from getting to know the team, the personalities and how they deal with minor disagreements. Also, by going through conflict resolution processes on less provocative issues, the team learns that there can be a safe route through the difficulties and achieving a positive outcome.

Once this process is established and conflict is acknowledged as not terminal, the team is ready to address the deeper more personal resentments that have hung around generating underhand comments, sniffy reactions and rank humour.

One exercise I have found very powerful and productive in dealing with this is what I call ‘Burying the Dead Dogs’. It involves acknowledging the Dead Dogs (Elephants in the Room, Dirt under the Carpet etc.) and then talking through the issues involved and finding a way forward.

However, the key to this being a successful exercise lies in how it’s positioned. It must be stressed that:

  • None of the unsavoury issues are the prerogative of one or two people.
  • They are team creations for which everyone is responsible in one way or another.
  • There are no scapegoats and no blame.
  • There is only shared accountability and commitment to a resolution.

The process is simple, but beware, it can bring out the ghouls and you have to be a skilled facilitator to manage the team’s reactions.

The Dead Dog Exercise

  1. Everyone in the team is given a piece of paper and asked to write down one aspect of the team dynamics (the ‘dead dog’) that they are unwilling or afraid to share. It is then folded and put it in a bowl.

    It is important that the coach emphasises that this is not an underhand way of criticising another team member. The ground rule is set that it should be an interpersonal dynamic and no individual can be named.
    This is all done anonymously so you need to provide similar pens, they write in capitals on the same sort of paper which is folded in the same way.

    In a small group of 4 – 7 they need to write down two items to provide more anonymity – less than 4 won’t work.

  2. Each person then draws out a piece of paper from the bowl and reads it quietly.

  3. Taking it in turns each team member reads out the issue on the paper as if it is their own issue. They are encouraged to embellish it from their own experience.

    Eg on the paper is written “there is so much competition in this team it’s debilitating”
    The person reading it would say. “There is so much competition in this team it’s debilitating….. and it seems to be only a few that are regularly the winners, the rest of us feel a failure

  4. This topic is written up on the flip chart and anyone else with a similar subject on their paper is invited to voice it so the topic is expanded. This is identified as a theme and a number of people with a similar item indicate that it’s a major theme.

  5. Once everyone has spoken and the topics have been collated on the flipchart the coach invites the team to choose a topic to explore further. Again emphasising that the topic is a Team issue not an individual one. This keeps the topics systemic and impersonal so it can be dealt with collectively.

  6. The topic is addressed and the coach guides the team to express the feelings in the room – this is where good facilitation skills are needed as emotions will be charged. Some people will feel offended and others try to blame. But there is no-one to shoot down as the person voicing the item is not the owner – just the messenger.

  7. It is important that the team coach then gently steers the team to resolution and constructive action but it also needs careful timing as the voicing of the issue and the accompanying feelings need to be aired*

  8. Finally, the team will have raised and then buried the Dead Dog and very useful learning will have ensued both about the topic and the process of dealing with it.

We use this exercise on the Systemic Team Coaching 3 day certificate and Diploma programmes to allow participants to experience it, address some of the group dynamics that are happening live in group and discuss how they might use it in their work.

John Leary-Joyce

*My book Fertile Void, Gestalt Coaching at Work covers how to handle strong emotions in individual and team coaching.