ATD Blog

Troubled Team? Consider Granting Amnesty

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Creating a high-performance team doesn’t happen overnight, especially if you have inherited a troubled team, demoralized and fractured by strife. People on a troubled team have pent-up grievances and frustrations. These teams can’t move forward until those issues are addressed.

This blog suggests a way to make a breakthrough for a troubled team: a “ventilation-amnesty meeting.” Such a session can be a huge step forward in removing the blocks your employees have to moving forward.

Here’s the process:

  • Assemble the team around a table in a closed-door room for privacy
  • Say you truly want to hear all their work-related issues--everything that troubles them from the trivial to the titanic, even if it is about you or senior management
  • Promise that there will be no retribution against anyone—and follow up on that commitment
  • Go around the table, having each person state an issue briefly (no long diatribes); note that it is okay for participants to pass until they are ready to speak
  • Write the issues on a flip chart without comment (except to ask for clarifications)
  • Hang the flip chart pages visibly around the room for everyone to see
  • Keep going around the table until everyone has passed three times consecutively (some breaks may be necessary)

This cathartic process gets everything out into the open. It is emotionally exhausting. Be prepared for some surprises that may be hurtful to you and others. Those issues are their perceptions, true or false, and you need to know them.
Then collectively put priorities on the issues (A, B, C is fine). Put the C’s on hold and ask for volunteers to work on the A’s. B’s will be dealt with after the A’s (unless they are easy to fix). Volunteer yourself to attack some of the issues with a promise to report back on progress at defined dates. Ask the other volunteers who are working on problems for their plans to report back to the team on progress until the issue is resolved. This step shows that you are deadly serious about addressing and resolving their issues. It will go a long way to defuse their concerns and open them up to move forward. Make sure you follow up on the issues all the way through to resolution.

Now comes the start of building the high-performance team. Indicate it is imperative that the team collectively define a set of shared values to guide their behavior. Values like: Fairness, Accountability, Integrity, or Respect. (See our website for a list of values:


An ideal set of shared values numbers four to six words (with phrases or brief sentences clarifying them) that can be remembered by all with an acronym (e.g., FAIR for Fairness, Accountability, Integrity, and Respect).

As a group, brainstorm a draft list of shared values. Indicate it will be circulated to others and refined over time.


Now the critical step to move forward: Indicate they need to grant each other (and you) amnesty for all past transgressions, and you will do the same. The team can’t move forward until they stop holding grudges and looking to settle scores.

They need to all agree to operate by these shared values going forward, holding each other—and you—accountable for doing so. When they do hold you accountable to the values, publicly thank them to reinforce the commitment to living and leading by the values. The worst thing is for breaches in values to go unaddressed, as that will cause mistrust and cynicism.

If someone can’t agree, then they should see you afterwards. You will explain why this is so important until they agree, or you will arrange to have them work elsewhere because all members of your team will operate by these shared values.

Core Concept: A ventilation meeting, generating shared values and granting amnesty, is a great start to turning a troubled team around.

About the Author

Bob has served as CEO of New York Stock Exchange companies during his thirty-year business career. As the former CEO, Bob guided Sensormatic (a $1 billion security company) and Recognition Equipment (a $250 million high-tech company) through successful turnarounds. Bob is co-author of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (McGraw-Hill), a 2013 International Book Awards winner. Bob has served as Group Vice President and Division President of two major divisions of Pitney Bowes and Vice President, General Manager of two divisions of Avery International. Bob has led businesses and teams that have won numerous local, state, and national awards, including a state-level Malcolm Baldrige Quality Prize and the Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Excellence (shortly after Bob left). Bob is co-author of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (McGraw-Hill), a 2012 USA Best Book Awards finalist. His writing has been featured in or reviewed by Fast Company, American Management Association, Center for Creative Leadership, Leader to Leader, Leadership Excellence, CNBC Bullish on Books, Investor’s Business Daily, and more. Bob has taught leadership at the University of Denver and Colorado Mountain College and is Chairman Emeritus of the Vail Leadership Institute. Bob has served on the boards of and consults with numerous businesses and community organizations. He is a Baker Scholar graduate of the Harvard Business School, a magna cum laude graduate of Princeton University, and served as an officer in the U.S. Army.

About the Author

Gregg Vanourek teaches at the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship and the Royal Institute of Technology. Previously, he taught at the Euromed School of Management, University of Denver, and Colorado Mountain College. Vanourek is founder of Far Horizon, a training enterprise that connects the realms of leadership, entrepreneurship, and personal development. Before that, he co-founded New Mountain Ventures (an entrepreneurial leadership development company) and served as Senior Vice President of School Development for K12 (an online education company) during its startup years. While at K12, his team launched a number of innovative virtual schools all over the U.S., helping the company become the market leader in the space. Previously, Vanourek helped to launch and served as Vice President for Programs at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation (an influential education reform foundation) and research fellow at the Hudson Institute (a think tank). Vanourek is coauthor of three influential books: Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (published by McGraw-Hill and a 2012 USA Best Book Awards finalist), Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Jossey-Bass), and Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education (Princeton University Press). He has written several book chapters and reports, as well as numerous articles for leading journals and media outlets, including Harvard Business Review blogs and Washington Times columns. His writing has been featured in or reviewed by Fast Company, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report, New York Times, Leader to Leader, Publishers Weekly, Entrepreneur, American Management Association, Center for Creative Leadership, and more. Gregg is a featured speaker and trainer on the topics of leadership, entrepreneurship, and personal development. He is a graduate of the Yale School of Management (M.B.A.), London School of Economics and Political Science (M.Sc.), and Claremont McKenna College (B.A.). He serves on the board of the Vail Leadership Institute.

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