by Steve Adubato, PhD

Great teams require a lot of things to go right in order to succeed, yet many are beyond our control. Intangibles include weather, illness and technical snafus. But one of the most important elements of a team’s success is chemistry. This requires every team member to take responsibility for what they say and how they say it. It requires people to think about the impact of their communication on others.

Consider the case of New York Yankee Gary Sheffield, who was recently quoted in NY Magazine saying, “I know who the leader is on the team…I know who the team feeds off. I know who the opposing team comes in knowing they have to defend to stop the Yankees. The people don’t know. Why? The media don’t want them to know. They want to promote two players in a positive light, and everyone else is garbage.” Clearly the two players Sheffield referred to were Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

This is not about baseball, but rather a lesson on what happens when a team member communicates indiscriminately. It’s also about being accountable for our communication, which is a critical leadership trait. (Sheffield later said the magazine “made up” his comments to “juice the story” even though his comments were on tape.)

So what can we as team members learn from the Gary Sheffield incident? Here are some questions and answers to consider:

Q—What is the best strategy to use when someone on your team says something in public that is really offensive to others?

A—Get it out in the open as quickly as possible. Nothing is worse for a team than letting the rumor mill or water cooler conversation pass as reliable information. The key is to confront the person and the comments directly. As team leader, sit down face-to-face with the offending party and ask exactly what he meant when he said XYZ. Don’t raise your voice and don’t characterize his comments, just ask him to elaborate. Then, ask the team member if he would like the opportunity to talk directly to the entire team or to individual team members who were targeted by his comments and then facilitate that process.

Q—What if a team member denies he ever made the statements as was the case with Gary Sheffield?

A—It depends. Is there any history of the person talking like this? What is his relationship with other members of the team? The point is, even if he denies saying what he might have actually said, use the situation as an opportunity to clear the air and bring people together. Don’t obsess over the alleged comments but rather the need to support each other and communicate in a constructive and candid fashion.

Q—How should a team leader handle colleagues who feel offended or wronged?

A—Again, confront it directly. Sit down with them both individually and as a group and ask them to articulate their concerns. Ask what would make them feel better about the situation and then, again, facilitate making that happen.

Q—Why not force the offending team member to apologize?

A—Forcing someone to apologize has little value. Apologies must be heartfelt and sincere. Those on the other end must believe that the person apologizing actually means it. A leader could, however, ask the offending party how he thinks the situation should be handled and what specifically he would like to say to his colleagues. In the course of that conversation, the possibility of apologizing is likely to come up.