Why Teams Fall Apart

I am experiencing a flurry of issues from clients about teams. In the last year I have heard everything from teams that are underperforming to good people resigning, to leaders arguing over insignificant issues in an effort to derail projects and damage reputations.

A few years ago Patrick Lencioni took the business world by storm with his book/fable The Five Dysfunctions of A Team. In it, Lencioni offered the easy-to-understand and hard-to-argue-with observation that when teams are struggling it’s due to one or more of five dysfunctions:

  1. Inattention to Results
  2. Avoidance of Accountability
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Fear of Conflict
  5. Absence of Trust

Some teams suffer from fear of conflict, while others struggle with members who lack commitment, but whatever the ailment, I find almost all roads lead to a lack of trust. While it’s helpful to know the symptoms of team dysfunction, this information only scratches the surface. The bigger question is Why? What really causes teams to fall apart?

There are lot of causes for team strife and dysfunction, and I don’t claim to know them all. But here are a few of the most common reasons we see teams struggle:

1.      THE MISSION IS NOT CHALLENGING

In our book Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership we introduce the concept of “Evolutionary Teams” – high performance teams that accomplish significant transformational change. In the book we share the wisdom that retired Navy SEAL Captain Steve Ahlberg as gained through over 20 years of leading SEAL teams. Captain Ahlberg stressed the need for high performing teams to “have a reason for being – a desired end state. Without this, the team cannot exist.”

The best teams are those that have a challenge to tackle. They know they have to work together in order to win the day. But here is the interesting thing, just as strong teams become strong in the face of an important challenge, weak teams are made weak by ill-defined, short-sighted, insignificant, and/or low-profile work.  The natural tendency is to say, “Oh that team is dysfunctional so we are only going to assign them crappy and unimportant tasks,” not realizing when you do that you effectively make the team itself crappy and unimportant. It seems counterintuitive but you need to ensure significance and challenge in every team based assignment—otherwise there is no need for the team in the first place.

In an earlier blog titled, Can Work Really Be A Game, I mentioned Lev Vgotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development (ZPD): (1) we need to be challenged beyond our current capacity, and (2) when challenged in this way, if we are aided by someone (or a group of peers) who are more capable, we can progress. In other words, we need a challenge worth pursuing, peers that push us, and a good coach to support us.

If you are regular reader of the blog you also know we are big fans of the work of developmental theorist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “ME-HIGH, CHICK-SENT-ME-HIGH”), a renowned Hungarian psychologist who, in the 1960’s, introduced the world to the notion of FLOW – the “sweet spot” of productivity where our ability meets the level of the challenge at hand – where we are stretched nearly to the breaking point of our capacity, but not so far beyond it that we crack. And in that place of “flow” we are able to reach our highest potential.

The next time you find your team has the time and motivation to engage in office politics, gossip, backstabbing, foot-dragging, sabotage, whining, and complaining, ask yourself: “Do we have a desired end state worth pursuing? Is the challenge for this team big enough?”

2.      THE PARTICIPANTS HAVE NOT BONDED AS A TEAM

In most workplaces people are just thrown together out of convenience, location, project or department needs, and then assigned a leader. We call these teams – but they’re not really teams. They’re just work groups. That’s another piece of advice we learned from our work with Captain Ahlberg – real teams, as opposed to work groups, devote time to “bonding” the team together through shared experiences, training and communication. Often when we think of bonding we think of sending the team out for pizza together, or worse yet, putting them through poorly conceived “bonding games,” trust falls, and awkward sharing experiences. The best bonding experiences are based in challenges (are you detecting a theme here?) that demand communication, leadership, decision, making, time pressure, and performance pressure.  Steve Ahlberg is famous for designing the most brutal scavenger hunts ever. In a team development experience for a high tech firm, the newly formed management team walked 13 miles in one day solving an Ahlberg scavenger hunt—in the town where they were going to be operating as new account executives. That team knew each other pretty well by the end of the day, but they also knew the town, the town’s history, landmarks, great places to eat that are off the beaten path, and every transportation resource available. Now, years later, the team members are still in touch with one another—even though many have gone on to different jobs at different companies.

Most organizations don’t spend the time or resources to bond their teams together effectively.

So the next time you find you have a team made up of people who don’t trust each other, compete against each other, exhibit signs of jealousy, bitterness and self-pity, or behaving in ways that are self-serving, antagonistic or dismissive of other teammates, ask yourself: “Have we invested the time and resources into bonding this team together? Have we put in the practice we need, the social time, the shared fun, experience and communication it takes to build a real team?”

3.      TEAM MEMBERS ARE NOT RECOGNIZED FOR THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS

Have you ever heard the old adage from child psychology that children want attention – and if they can’t get it for being good, they will get it by being bad? In the same way that negative behavior is the neglected child’s way of screaming “notice me!” adults want to be recognized, complimented and appreciated. This very human need is not something most of us grow out of.

I have seen leaders in the highest ranks of systems and networks designed to accomplish great good, lose focus on the big picture and spend time chasing petty grievances, worrying over what so-and-so said about this or that email, and debating over what to do about the seating chart for the upcoming planning meeting in order to achieve minimal political drama – all because they didn’t feel recognized or appreciated for the greater good they do. It’s easy to get swept up in the little stuff when the big stuff doesn’t seem to matter to anyone.

Two truths: (1) Most people don’t feel they are recognized enough for their contributions; (2) Most leaders feel they are giving out adequate recognition to their teams.

You can see the problem. So to be safe, follow these two rules: (1) your teammates need more recognition; (2) recognition needs to be tailored to each team member – find out what matters most to each member of the team and recognize them accordingly.

Great team leaders figure out how to build a culture where the most important recognition comes from the team itself. If you think of firefighters for example—it may be nice to receive a commendation from the mayor, but nothing can replace the handshakes and backslaps from the people who know what it took for you to succeed, the ones who have been there and done that. Great teams hold each other accountable at a level far higher than any other standard.

4.      THE LEADER LEAVES

We all know those teams that fall apart when a beloved leader or coach moves on. It’s why great coaches are worth their weight in gold. But really great coaches know how to set their teams up to succeed long after they move on.

Succession planning is perhaps the most neglected area of team leadership. Great leaders understand that one of the biggest jobs they have is to replace themselves with someone better. When we see teams struggle after the loss of a leader it is often because the new leader doesn’t “measure up” to the expectations the team has come to view as “good” leadership. Teams have trouble adjusting to change just like individuals and organizations. We get used to one leader and what we want is a “clone” to replace him or her, creating as little disruption to team dynamics as possible. But what worked for a team in the past may not be what that team needs in order to be challenged in the future. Good succession planning means:

(1)    Warding against team expectations that a “clone” is the best replacement

(2)    Assisting in finding a replacement that will challenge the team

(3)    Devoting appropriate time to the transition – prepare your team for the new leader, lay the groundwork, build his or her credibility with the team, and set them up for success.

 

5.      THE TEAM HAS RUN ITS COURSE

Teams are temporary. They are formed around a desired end state, take on a challenge, and accomplish a mission. Then they disband and rest. Sports teams have a season and a down time. Project teams complete the project and then go back to their “regular jobs”. People retire. New recruits are brought on board. People transfer and relocate.

Even the highest performing teams can stagnate when left to toil on for months or years at a time with no clear “end state” in sight. Teams need to have an end and new teams need to form. Recognize this reality and build it into the culture of your organization. Make it a part of the way people think about teams. Help them to see change as normal – as part of keeping teams healthy and strong.

WHEN THINGS FALL APART

So as I head off this month to work with some struggling teams, I have a few key questions on my mind:

  1. Why does this team exist? What is your purpose for being?
  2. Who are you as a team? What kind of a team do you want to be?
  3. What is your end state? What are you willing to sacrifice to get there?

As I work with these teams I will share a little secret; I know they know what they need to do already. I know they know they can do so much more. I know they understand the problems better than anyone. My job is simply knowing when and how to hold up a mirror so they can finally see their true capability.

About Carmen Voillequé

CEO of Best Practices Media.
Co-Founder of Strategic Arts and Sciences.

Voillequé is a senior consultant and partner with Strategic Arts and Sciences and the CEO of Best Practice Media. Her background features deep experience in education, curriculum development, and management training. Voillequé works with a wide range of client groups including government agencies, financial institutions, and health care companies. Last year Voillequé completed a scope of work that allowed all of the public and private agencies who serve the needs of children in Oregon to plan and work together to maximize resources. She is also a sought after speaker and strategic planner with a reputation for tackling tough issues.