Counter-intuitive truths about working with people

Simon Black – 

Working with people often involves bumping into ‘counter-intuitive truths’ (Seddon, 2003): ideas that contradict everything which we have been taught about managing people.

Leaders therefore need to think seriously about the people they are leading and their needs (i.e to enable those people to get on with the work) far more than thinking about the ‘principles of good leadership’. In other words, think about ‘followers’ more than yourself as ‘leader’.

In conservation, this allows us to avoid problems of working in remote sites (often in close proximity), having multicultural (or at least cross-cultural) teams, working in second languages (or with translation), having multi-disciplinary teams or mixes of unskilled and technical workers, and so on.  Here are some of the realities and things to watch out for:

• Don’t ‘do it to people’: understand the system of work first – how work should be purposeful and how the flow of work (the order of tasks) can be made helpful

trend line•   Don’t chase things that don’t
exist (like supposed ‘trends’ in data) or arbitrary targets

•   Build knowledge, not opinion

•   Culture change is not something that you 'do' to peopleDon’t rely on top down change; take a lead yourself and start small if necessary.

•   Teamwork is about Purpose, Goals & Process more than about Behaviour. A conflict between people may not be a personality clash but actually be about work organisation.

•   Decision-making can involve people in many different ways. Participation and input from others will only help if they have insight and useful knowledge. It will also be really unhelpful if knowledgeable and insightful people  in the team (or local community) are ignored.

•  Change can be quick & painless at the right point of intervention (especially if you don’t ‘do it’ to people)

•  Doing things that are ‘nice’ to people (appraisals, recognition, involvement), might not be nice for those people – especially if the obvious problems of work are not addressed.


Beckhard, R. (1972) Optimizing Team Building Effort, J. Contemporary Business.  1:3,  pp.23-32

Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.

How to reinvigorate your conservation team

Simon Black – 

  • Are the same old issues arising in your team?
  • Is the team stuck in its ways?
  • Are the team’s current work challenges seen as intimidating?
  • Have you ever felt “we’ve been here before“?
  •  Are the moaners still moaning?
  • Might the team admit to being stagnant, uninspired, or cruising?

What would make a difference; how can things change; are people the problem or is it something else? These issues are important in operational conservation field teams as much as in more complex interdisciplinary project teams (Black and Copsey 2014).

All teams go through various stages of development, from confidence to crisis, from challenge to success, from discomfort to familiarity, from suspicion to support. These cycles can occur in any order, sometimes a positive progression forwards but occasionally involving backsliding and disillusionment. A third common state is to have  absolutely no change at all – being stuck in a rut – for months, or even years.

The classic observation on team development was made by Bruce Tuckman and his memorable ‘Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing’ model. This model is helpful because it sets out some of things to address which will help to oil the wheels of more positive team development.

Clear goals, clear ground-rules (i.e. the ways we work together, talk to each other and use the time and space that we share), clear roles. These are the simple building blocks of effective teams. These things give space for individuals to get on with the work that they do alone and to interact effectively in the things that they need to do together. Clarifying these things as a team should also give space for people to raise questions or challenge things which don’t work well or appear to have little purpose.

So change the way the team works without meddling with the people in it. This gives everyone the choice to make progress alongside their colleagues – which, frankly, most people are quite happy to do.


Black, S.A. & Copsey, J.A. (2014). Purpose, Process, Knowledge and Dignity in Interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology. 28 (5): 1139-1141. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Tuckman, B.W. (1965) Developmental sequence in small groups.Psychological Bulletin 65, no.6: 384–99.

Tuckman, B.W. and Jensen M.A. (1977) Stages of small-group development revisited. Group and Organization Studies 2, no. 4: 419–27.