#289 from Innovative
Leader Volume 6, Number 8
Most Teams are “Dumb”
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.
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 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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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
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.
Were your parents right?
It’s a culture conflict.
The psychology doesn’t fit; first one identity, then
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
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.
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