#289 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 8          August 1997

Why Most Teams are “Dumb”
by William Lundin, Ph.D. and Kathleen Lundin

The Lundins, psychologists, are principals of Worklife Productions (Whitewater, Wisconsin; phone 608-883-2229; fax 414-473-7099).  They teach and train.  Their books include The Healing Manager (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 1993), Building Positive Relationships at Work (CRM Films, Carlsbad, CA, 1996), Working With Difficult People (Amacom, NY, 1995) and Three Values of Leadership (Worklife Productions, Whitewater, WI, 1997). This article is adapted from a book about smart and dumb behavior at work to be published by McGraw-Hill.

Teams can be collectively dumb—something you don’t hear too much about—even though their members may be individually smart.  Dumb teams are seldom described in the literature.  And the smart teams aren’t smart for very long.

Mandates are given to form teams, everybody tries, some succeed, most fail.  A self-directed or leader-directed group that is struggling to cooperate with one another is far from a team.  Their attempts are painful to watch, and even worse to be trapped in.  And, as with previous management fads, we hear anger in telling the truth of it.  “What went wrong?” we ask.

We’re told  “We weren’t sure what to do.”  “We didn’t like the leader given to us.”  “There was no trust.”  “All the teams began to compete.”  “Some weren’t on speaking terms.”  “It was the same old system with a new name.”  “Management didn’t ask us, so what do they expect?”  “All it did was save money for the company; everybody soon caught onto that.”  “Blame it on the big-name consulting firms.”

Can teams be saved?  The answer is “yes;” but it requires a better understanding of what’s really being asked for when management opts for teams.  Let’s unravel the confusion.

It might have been more productive for industry if employees had been given mandates which forbid them to congregate together to solve problems within a team context.  Tell someone not to do something—not to eat the apple—and they won’t be able to resist doing it.  The phrase “self directed” has a decided democratic ring.  The concept, however, is an imposed one, and presumes to wipe away generations of other-directed management behavior.

Managers aren’t as aware of human nature as they should be.  Surely they must remember how it was when their parents insisted on something as being “good for you.”

Leaders read management books, some of which they’ve helped write, which support their own illusions.  It’s one of the problems with having overplayed one’s hand in public and then being too embarrassed to admit a mistake.

The wonderment of teams is not why they fail, but why some succeed.  Most team leaders can’t get it to happen.  It’s not their fault:  they’re fighting the psychology of ambivalent and mixed feelings about others, and the sociology of fast-shifting group expectations, all at the same time.  They’re bound to lose.  There are hidden agendas on the one hand: “I must protect my job,” and a sincere desire to help their organization on the other.  Then the nagging doubts and memories:  “Should I update my résumé?”

The following three factors are important in understanding the life cycle of teams.  (1)  The values with which most of us have been raised.  (2)  The true nature of the society in which we live.  (3)  The global marketing strategies of today’s corporations.

Take a fast walk with us as we put those three factors together and you’ll see why many of today’s teams are doomed, and have been doomed from the very beginning.

From the Family to School to Society and Back Again

There you are entering kindergarten with your parent’s words in your head, “Be nice to others, be cooperative, share things,” or values very close to those.  You soon discover that the other children, most of whom have probably heard the same kind of right-sounding words, aren’t behaving they way they were “supposed” to.  The average teacher tries to create harmony and sharing, but usually fails.  The kids just don’t want to cooperate.

A few years pass into the early grades, and you discover that competition—what you see every night on TV in sports, cowboy movies, etc.—is the way to go.  If a survey asks you how students should act toward one another, you might mouth, what by now, has become a platitude.  In a group (team), the opposite values come out. If you win at the expense of a friend, tough luck.  Small-scale athletic and scholastic stars are born in front of your eyes. 

Later you see and read about large-scale super-stars in athletics and in business.  Heroes of the marketplace are seldom depicted as altruistic.  A few are bigger than life, and proud of it, as in the person of  “Chainsaw Al,” and among the corporate leaders who are often vilified for demanding and getting huge salaries and bonuses.

Finally, you’re out in the workplace and geared up for success, as you’ve understood and rehearsed it for the past 20 to 25 years.  Then what happens?  You hear your parent’s words again:  cooperate, work together, find solutions through common effort.  It’s management telling you to get into the team-building mode, to help your colleagues, and not to worry about individual glory.  It will all work out, and rewards will be shared.

What?  Were your parents right?  It’s a culture conflict.  The psychology doesn’t fit; first one identity, then another.  It’s nightmare time.  Mother said cooperate, society said compete, and your organization says cooperate.  Where do you put your faith?  There’s no place for your faith or trust, so welcome to the world of cynicism, where little can touch or hurt you.  Where very little matters because no one has given you the context.

Becoming “Smart”

You don’t become smart by reading about it, attending a lecture or wishing for it.  The definition of smart is an operational one:  it’s what you do within the team context.  What can be done when hormones cry “slam-dunk” and frontal lobes caution patience, trust and cooperation?  Emotion and reason, early memories and newer behaviors—can they be reconciled?  Yes.  It takes new learning and the modifying perceptions before the first team project session is ever held.

Participating, caring and trusting have to be experienced first with other team members.  Think about it as a pre-team warm-up or rehearsal.  Three workshops—caring, trust and participation—will do it for you and will prepare team members for a more efficient way.  Only then will you be able to lead, or be part of, a truly smart—and productive—team.

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©2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.