What’s “Under the Table”? The Effect of Hidden Processes on Groups

A management team discusses whether to move ahead with a major project proposed by the CEO of the company.
The discussion seems devoid of energy. No one acknowledges the flatness. The ultimate decision is a tepid “yes.”
Business as usual?

What is actually going on here? Perhaps:

• The CEO is pushing her agenda again and people are intimidated.
• The sales manager learned before the meeting that a key account is in jeopardy, and he doesn’t have the confidence he might normally possess to oppose the project.
• The production manager feels so insecure about his job that he won’t risk a debate.
• The controller discovered last night that his wife is thinking of leaving him.
• The manager of human resources fears voicing her support because of recent innuendoes that she always sides with the CEO – a “women’s thing,” the rumors say.
• The operations manager stifles his enthusiasm for the project because no one else seems enthused.

Our experience is convincingly clear: dynamics such as these are commonplace. In our consulting, we’ve observed decisions tainted by jealousy, values clashes, old hurts, desire for promotion, and fear of consequences. When such dynamics remain hidden, the bottom-line impact can be devastating: poor choices, wasted energy, lost time, and team disunity. The most astute business leader could at best ferret out a fraction of these dynamics. As a leader, how do you “catch” the ones that genuinely matter at any moment?

Some time ago, I was delighted to spend a week with organizational consultants Bob Marshak and Judith Katz. In their pioneering exploration of hidden processes in groups, they employ simple, but powerful imagery to assist leaders and teams in speaking about the unspeakable.

Marshak and Katz divide what is happening within an executive team at any given time into three clusters:

1. What is on the table? What are the issues, emotions, or reactions that are publicly acknowledged, and therefore considered legitimate, proper, acceptable, and reasonable?

2. What is under the table? What are the issues, emotions, or reactions that are unspoken and considered questionable, illegitimate, or unacceptable? These are purposeful disguises and concealments driven by denial, fear, and/or manipulation.

In allowing under-the-table issues, emotions, and reactions to remain hidden, a leader risks the costs of a pseudo team, a group that operates as if agreement has been reached, only to later engage in behind-closed-doors gossiping and undermining.

3. What is above the clouds? What are the secret hopes, wishes, and desires that remain unarticulated? These are disguised because they seem too good to be true, or because of a fear of ridicule or of being labeled a star gazer, too naive, or unrealistic.

In allowing above-the-clouds issues, emotions, and reactions to remain hidden, a leader risks losing the creativity, energy, freshness, and connectedness that are vital, for example, in strategic planning.

Covert processes exist in any group at any given time. Also, indisputably, not every process belongs on the table. The leader’s challenge is to be perceptive and attuned, to create safety, provide appropriate “air time,” invite risk.., and, as with any other aspect of leadership, to model what is expected through self-awareness and self-disclosure.

If you suspect that a covert process is having an impact…

• Observe.
• Be aware of suspect patterns of behavior or communications. For instance, do people seem to be choosing their words too carefully? Remain curious.
• Ask yourself: what covert process might be happening inside you?
• Take the lead by revealing a covert process you’ve discovered in yourself, one that has some bearing on the discussions.
• State your observations and ask what they might mean.
• Invite others to talk about what might be “hidden” in them.
• If you suspect a particular hidden dynamic, ask if it might be a factor in the discussion.
• Ask what might inhibit people in your group from identifying and discussing a covert issue.
• Ask what people need for safety and assurance before talking openly. For example, do they need an assurance of confidentiality?
• Note how you think the discussion is being affected and what the cost is to the team and the company.

In all circumstances, remember that covert processes serve a positive purpose of protection for the people withholding their reactions. The leader’s strategy, then, is to create SAFETY as the antidote for the fear of speaking up.

Hidden Process: A Team Exercise
1. Explain the concept of covert processes and introduce the “on,” “under,” and “above” imagery. Propose a discussion on covert processes in your organization at a specific future meeting.

2. Give team members a list of provocative questions to focus their reflection prior to that meeting. For example:

• What are some agenda items that are vital to our future, but never receive adequate air time or resolution?
• What emotions and reactions seem notably lacking among us, or seem unacceptable when they do occur?
• What is it that keeps you from raising these items or expressing these reactions?
• What is it in the other team members that you see blocking the expression of these items, reactions, and emotions?
• What hopes, wishes, and desires do you hold for this team or this company that you hesitate to express?
• What is it in you that keeps you from expressing these hopes, wishes, and desires?

3. Have team members openly identify “under” and “above” items, without comments or critique on anyone’s part as this is done.
Note: At this point, no item has actually been resolved. It is a significant step, however, that items have at least been openly identified! This reverses the cycle of denial and repression: at least now you can talk about what you don’t talk about!

4. Through a selection process that fits your team and its circumstances, select one “under-the-table” item and discuss it fully, with a focus on listening versus problem solving. Debrief with the team on the experience of exploring the item. At a subsequent meeting, move to problem solving if needed. You may all be surprised at how easily the resolution is achieved.

5. Through a selection process that fits your team and its circumstances, select one “above-the-clouds” item and discuss it fully. Follow the same process as above.

6. Continue the process as appropriate for other items.

7. At some point, as safety increases, you should raise the question: What additional issues, feelings, reactions, hopes, etc. are still unexpressed? Follow the same process of in-depth listening before problem solving.


This article originally appeared in Great Lakes Leadership Group’s “Leader’s Edge”. Reprinted with permission.

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