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Views from the Prairie

August 08

Do you have a functioning team?

Patrick M. Lencioni's book on team building, "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team", has a few good quotes. Allow me to start off with a couple.

"Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is powerful and so rare."

"A friend of mine, the founder of a company that grew to a billion dollars in annual revenue, best expressed the power of teamwork when he once told me, 'If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time."

In an interview with Fast Company, Hatim Tyabji (former CEO of VeriFone) talks about the efforts needed to lead a team. It is not easy getting people to pull in the same direction. He mentions that it takes up to 12 times of pushing on something to get the desired movement.

So, what kinds of things get in the way of having a powerful team? Lencioni's book lists five dysfunctions:

1. The first dysfunction is an absence of trust among team members. This stems from an unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.

2. This failure to build trust is damaging because it sets the tone for the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead, they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.

3. A lack of healthy conflict is a problem because it ensures the third dysfunction of a team: lack of commitment. Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team member rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.

4. Because of this lack of real commitment and buy-in, team members develop an avoidance of accountability, the fourth dysfunction. Without committing to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven people often hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that seem counterproductive to the good of the team.

5. Failure to hold one another accountable creates an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive. Inattention to results occurs when team members put their individual needs (such as ego, career development, or recognition) or even the needs of their divisions above the collective goals of the team.

Notice that all of these are people's reactions to the situation rather than something that a manager can directly control. The only one that a manager can control is what drives the first dysfunction: whether or not it is safe to be vulnerable about mistakes. When it is not safe to have mistakes, it is impossible to have a team. Just ask the coach of any professional sports team.

Cohesive Teams

What makes for a good team?

Truly cohesive teams are obvious:

1. They trust one another.

2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.

3. They commit to decisions and plans of actions.

4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.

5. They focus on the achievement of collective results.

Notice that the words used are not the traditional authoritative management words. That is because a team is not one leader with a bunch of followers. Instead, the words are those of caring.

As Birute Regine and Roger Lewin put it, "Care is not a typical business power word, but it proved to be a powerful action. These organizations took their task of caring for their employees seriously, and this manifested itself as people caring about their work, caring for fellow workers, caring for the organization and its shared purpose, caring about their community."

Arie de Geus, a former senior executive of Royal Dutch/Shell stated that "Before they will give more, people need to know that the community is interested in them as individuals."

Also, we need to deal with the imperfections. Teams succeed, not in spite of, but because they are human. By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of teams overcome the natural tendencies that make trust, conflict, commitment, accountability, and a focus on results.

Hatim says the same thing: "Companies have this funny idea - they forget that human beings are human beings. Not here. Nothing I say should be construed as pie-in-the-sky stuff that doesn't take into account the frailties of human nature. I'm extremely mindful of the frailties of human nature. What I do is acknowledge those frailties and address them, rather than pretend they don't exist."

Teamwork ultimately comes down to practicing a small set of principles over a long period of time. Success is not a matter of mastering subtle, sophisticated theory, but rather of embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence.


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