The problem with teamwork

Virtually every executive staff these days believes in teamwork. However, a surprisingly few of them make teamwork a reality in their organisations. Patrick Lencioni, in fact believes that these executives often end up creating environments where political infighting and departmental silos are the norm.

Yet, they continue to tout their belief in teamwork, as if that alone will somehow make it magically appear. Lencioni have found that only a small minority of companies truly understand and embrace teamwork, even though, according to their vision and mission statements, more than one in three of the Fortune 500 publicly declare it to be a core value.

How can this be? How can intelligent well-meaning executives who supposedly set out to foster cooperation and collaboration among their peers be left with organisational dynamics that are anything but team oriented? And why do they go on promoting a concept they are so often unable to deliver?

The problem is more straightforward – and more difficult to overcome according to organisational theorists. Most groups of executives fail to become cohesive teams because they drastically underestimate both the power teamwork ultimately unleashes and the painful steps required to make teamwork a reality.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, teamwork is not a virtue in itself. It is merely a strategic choice, not unlike adopting specific sales model or a financial strategy. And certainly, when properly understood and implemented, it is a powerful and beneficial tool. Unfortunately, management theorists and human resource professionals have made teamwork unconditionally desirable, something akin to being a good corporate citizen. As a result, Lencioni believes that many of today’s leaders champion teamwork reflexively without really understanding what it entails.

By preaching teamwork and not demanding that their people live it, they are creating two big problems. First, they are inducing a collective sense of hypocrisy among their staff members, who feel that teamwork has devolved into nothing more than an empty slogan. Second, and more dangerous still, they are confusing those staff members about how to act in the best interest of the organisation, so they wind up trying at once to be pragmatically self-interested and ideologically selfless. The combination of these factors evokes inevitable and sometimes paralysing feelings.

Executives must understand that there is an alternative to teamwork, and it is actually more effective than be a false team. Jeffrey Katzenbach, author of the Wisdom of Teams, calls it “working group.” A group of executives who agree to work independently with few expectations for collaboration. The advantage of a working group is clarity; members know exactly they can and, more important, cannot expect of one another, and they focus on how to accomplish goals without the distractions and costs that teamwork inevitably presents.

Of course, none of this is to say that teamwork is not a worthy goal. There is no disputing that it is uniquely powerful, enabling groups of people to achieve more collectively than they could have imagined doing apart. However, the requirement of real teamwork cannot be underestimated.

Organisation theorists have highlighted the fact that building a leadership team is challenging. It demands substantial behavioral changes from people who are strong-willed and often set in their ways, having already accomplished great things in their careers. What follows is a realistic description of what a group of executives must be ready to do, according to the behavioral experts, if they undertake the nontrivial task of becoming a team, something that is not necessarily right for every group of leaders.

Vulnerability-Based Trust

The first and most important step in building a cohesive and functional team is the establishment of trust. But not just any kind of trust. Teamwork must be built upon trust. This means that members of a cohesive, functional team must learn to comfortably and quickly acknowledge, without provocation, their mistakes, weaknesses, failures, and needs for help. They must also readily recognise the strengths of others, even when those strengths exceed their own.

In theory this does not seem difficult; but when a leader is faced with a roomful of accomplished, proud, and talented staff members, getting them to let their guard down and risk loss of positional power in an extremely difficult challenge.

Healthy Conflict

One of the greatest inhibitors of teamwork among executive teams is the fear of conflict, which stems from two separate concerns. On one hand, many executives go to great lengths to avoid conflict among their teams because they worry that they will lose control of the group and that someone will have their pride damaged in the process. Others do so because they see conflict as a waste of time. They prefer to cut meetings and discussions short by jumping to the decision they will ultimately be adopting anyway.

Unwavering Commitment

To become a cohesive team, a group of leaders must learn to commit to decisions when there is less than perfect information available, and when no natural consensus develops. Because information and natural consensus rarely exist, the ability to commit becomes one of the most critical behaviors of a team.

But teams cannot learn to do this if they are not in the practice of engaging in productive and unguarded conflict. That is because it is only after team members passionately and unguardedly debate with one another and speak their minds that the leader can feel confident of making a decision with the full benefit of the collective wisdom of the group.

Unapologetic Accountability

Great teams do not wait for the leader to remind members when they are not pulling their weight. Because there is no lack of clarity about what they have committed to do, they are comfortable calling one another on actions and behaviors that do not contribute to the likelihood of success. Less effective teams typically resort to reporting unacceptable behavior to the leader of the group, or worse yet, to back-channel gossip. These behaviors are not only destructive to the morale of the team, they are inefficient and allow easily addressable issues to live longer than should be allowed.

Accountability seems simple but often it is difficult to make it a reality. It is not easy to teach strong leaders on a team to confront their peers about behavioral issues that hurt the team. But when the goals of the team have been clearly delineated, the behaviors that jeopardize them become easy to expose.

Collective Orientation to Results

The ultimate goal of the team is the achievement of tangible collective outcomes. However, while most executive teams are certainly populated with leaders who are driven to succeed, all too often the results they focus on are individual or departmental. Once the inevitable moment of truth comes, when executives must choose between the success of the entire team and their own, many are unable to resist the instinct to look out for themselves. This is understandable, but very unhealthy to a team.

The problem with teamwork is not that it is difficult to understand, but rather that it is extremely difficult to achieve when the people involved are strong-willed and  independently successful leaders. The point here is not that teamwork is not worth the trouble, but Lencioni reiterates that its rewards are both rare and costly. As for those leaders who do not have the courage to force team members to step up to the requirements of team work, they would be wiser to avoid the concept altogether. Of course, that would require different kind of courage: the courage not to be a team.

By Captain Sam Addaih (RTD)

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