Australia’s parliamentary political system consists of two major parties. Both of these parties form self-selected teams of parliamentarians around a shared ideology. And yet, a lack of teamwork has been on prominent display in recent weeks, as a veritable procession of ministers, back-benchers, and even the odd public servant make statements either on the record or behind the veil of anonymity that severely damage the capacity of their party to actually lead the country.
Teams commonly form around values. An article I wrote many years ago that featured the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes demonstrates that in spades: the survivors were lost in freezing conditions at high altitude for over seventy days, and eventually resorted to cannibalism to survive.
Teams in business rarely face such parlous circumstances. How, then, does one go about forging a common goal or purpose for teams to rally behind?
When I pose this question to others, a common response I get is that those common goals are developed through something called Strong Leadership. My next question, of course, is “what is strong leadership?” Answers I get are populated with terms such as charisma, assertiveness, compassion, vision, decisiveness, and innovation.
I then think of leaders who had those characteristics, but never formed true, purposeful teams. I can think of one leader who had unbounded charisma, was very well-connected in industry, and had a real vision for her organisation and the industry. She was compassionate at times to a fault.
She presided over a turnover of staff of about sixty percent. She and her husband – they owned the company together – were always fighting fires. When they were unavailable, they sent their few capable people to fight fires on their behalf, but most of the time every crisis required their input in one way or another, and crises occurred often. Their ninety or so staff worked in functional, geographical, and sometimes personal, silos.
Their issue was not the absence of a rallying cry either. The Managing Director had a simple, emotive message which related directly to the heart of the industry they were in and to every role in the organisation.
It is interesting, at least for me, to ponder what was missing. Why didn’t this organisation behave as a team, at least to a moderate level? What lessons can be learned from an organisation with such poor teamwork that had so many ingredients right?
In my opinion, there were three ingredients missing.
Whilst the Managing Director liked strategic thinking, she was not strategic. Instead of consistently making decisions between two or more good things each of which would contribute the organisation’s goal, she embraced all of them without ever implementing one of them. Like many strategic thinkers who find detail difficult, whenever presented with a new idea or what we at Change Factory like to call ‘a shiny rock’, she would quickly speed off in a new direction, chasing her new shiny rock. The result was that she appeared inconsistent to all her staff.
The issue of consistency plagues many organisations. A tell-tale sign is when, through middle management levels in particular, a new person takes on a role and the direction changes. What was important is suddenly now unimportant, and vice versa. It’s a sure symptom of a lack of strategy and its impact on teams is significant.
Individuals work best when they have a sense of purpose. So do teams. It is difficult enough to get teams united behind a single goal when they are each dedicated to their own purpose. It is almost impossible when the team purpose keeps changing.
Charisma will allow you to be forgiven many times for inconsistency, but eventually team members will tire and leave.
The Managing Director’s oratorical skills were good. She made fine speeches at team meetings, and she talked about empowerment and strategy with equal vigour. Her actions, however, were of micromanagement or setting people up to fail, and of tactical decisions that never addressed root causes of the problems they had.
Incongruence is hard to hide from people and sometimes hard to spot in ourselves. In a Johari’s Window sense, it often lies in our blind area; known to others but not to us (Luft & Ingham, 1955). Mostly, it will come in differences between spoken words and tone and pace of voice and body language. Leaders who do not believe in their strategy, perhaps because it has been delivered to them from senior managers, often show this level of incongruence. It’s not only about individual leadership, either. Leadership across the organisation from the CEO through to their direct reports, and their direct reports, need to demonstrate congruence to have teams act as one, especially when change is afoot (O’Reilly, Caldwell, Chatman, Lapiz, & Self, 2010).
Another level of incongruence stems from an ability to think systemically (Senge, 1994). Individual leaders who are unable to think through cause and effect and blockers and motivators to change are much more likely to create an environment of perceived incongruence as their actions result in multiple negative unintended consequences.
It is clear from my commentary above that the leader I have been reflecting on lacked some competencies as a leader, in my opinion. That lack of competency extended through to the team she built. Recruitment processes were informal and ad-hoc resulting in unsuitable people being put in roles up and down the chain of line management and in key functional areas. The people that ended up in these key positions in question were not just slightly incompetent, they were totally out of their depth, recruited on some unfathomable likeability factor and a good-looking resume which was not appropriately checked. This reinforced the need for the owners to work in the business, rather than on it.
Having an incompetent leader or team has an obvious impact on the performance of teams in terms of decision-making. However, there are also some less obvious implications of having incompetent team members.
Trust is often the first casualty, especially if the incompetence is perceived of an experienced team member in a role they know well. New people in new roles are usually given trust on credit. It is only when their balance of credit is whittled away by poor outcomes does the trust disappear.
When trust disappears, the willingness to share and enquire and debate issues disappears with it, reinforcing silo behaviour.
Research has shown that by “building the team’s expertise, leaders enhance team members’ willingness to rely on and disclose information in the team, which in turn increases team knowledge sharing” (Lee, Gillespie, Mann, & Alexander, 2015). Our own research has shown that when even good teams are unable to share team knowledge because of process and systems issues, performance becomes suboptimal and risks are substantially increased.
The three C’s of Team Leadership
Returning briefly to the current leadership of the federal government of Australia, how would you rate the leadership team for consistency, congruence, and competence? What impact is it having on the team performance?
Then think about your own teams. If you have the vision, the energy, and the availability of resources, but still do not have a functioning team, which of the three C’s might be missing?
Lee, P., Gillespie, N., Mann, L., & Alexander, A. (2015, February 28). Leadership and trust: Their effect on knowledge sharing and team performance. Retrieved from Management Learning: http://mlq.sagepub.com/content/41/4/473.short?rss=1&ssource=mfr
Luft, J., & Ingham, H. (1955). “The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness”. Proceedings of the western training laboratory in group development. Los Angeles: UCLA.
O’Reilly, C. A., Caldwell, D. F., Chatman, J. A., Lapiz, M., & Self, W. (2010). How leadership matters: The effects of leaders’ alignment on strategy implementation. The Leadership Quarterly, 104–113.
Senge, P. (1994). The Fifth Discipline. In P. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (pp. 53-77). New York: Currency Doubleday.
Image credit: Sydney Morning Herald.