every executive staff Iíve ever come across believes in
teamwork. At least they say they do. Sadly, a scarce few of them
make teamwork a reality in their organizations; in fact, they
often end up creating environments where political infighting and
departmental silos are the norm. And yet they continue to tout
their belief in teamwork, as if that alone will somehow make it
magically appear. I have found that only a small minority of
companies truly understand and embrace teamwork, even though,
according to their Web sites, more than one in three of the
Fortune 500 publicly declare it to be a core value.
can this be? How can intelligent, well-meaning executives who
supposedly set out to foster cooperation and collaboration among
their peers be left with organizational dynamics that are anything
but team-oriented? And why do they go on promoting a concept they
are so often unable to deliver?
itís not because theyíre secretly plotting to undermine
teamwork among their peers. That would actually be easier to
address. The problem is more straightforward -- and more difficult
to overcome. Most groups of executives fail to become cohesive
teams because they drastically underestimate both the power
teamwork ultimately unleashes and the painful steps required to
make teamwork a reality. But before exploring those steps, it is
important to understand how the compulsory, politically correct
nature of teamwork makes all of this more difficult.
to conventional wisdom, teamwork is not a virtue in itself. It is
merely a strategic choice, not unlike adopting a specific sales
model or a financial strategy. And certainly, when properly
understood and implemented, it is a powerful and beneficial tool.
Unfortunately, management theorists and human resources
professionals have made teamwork unconditionally desirable,
something akin to being a good corporate citizen.
a result, many of todayís leaders champion teamwork reflexively
without really understanding what it entails. Pump them full of
truth serum and ask them why, and theyíll tell you they feel
like they have to promote teamwork, that anything less would be
politically, socially, and organizationally incorrect. "What
choice do I have? Imagine me standing up in front of a group of
employees and saying that teamwork isnít really all that
that would be better than what many -- if not most -- leaders do.
By preaching teamwork and not demanding that their people live it,
they are creating two big problems.
they are inducing a collective sense of hypocrisy among their
staff members, who feel that teamwork has devolved into nothing
more than an empty slogan. Second, and more dangerous still, they
are confusing those staff members about how to act in the best
interest of the company, so they wind up trying at once to be
pragmatically self-interested and ideologically selfless. The
combination of these factors evokes inevitable and sometimes
paralyzing feelings of dissonance and guilt.
must understand that there is an alternative to teamwork, and it
is actually more effective than being a faux team. Jeffrey
Katzenbach, author of The
Wisdom of Teams, calls it a "working group," a
group of executives who agree to work independently with few
expectations for collaboration. The advantage of a working group
is clarity; members know exactly what they can, and more
important, cannot expect of one another, and so they focus on how
to accomplish goals without the distractions and costs that
teamwork inevitably presents. (For guidance on deciding whether
teamwork is right for your organization, see (see sidebar),
"To Be or Not to Be a Team.")
course, none of this is to say that teamwork is not a worthy goal.
There is no disputing that it is uniquely powerful, enabling
groups of people to achieve more collectively than they could have
imagined doing apart. However, the requirements of real teamwork
cannot be underestimated.
fact is, building a leadership team is hard. It demands
substantial behavioral changes from people who are strong-willed
and often set in their ways, having already accomplished great
things in their careers. What follows is a realistic description
of what a group of executives must be ready to do if they
undertake the nontrivial task of becoming a team, something that
is not necessarily right for every group of leaders.
first and most important step in building a cohesive and
functional team is the establishment of trust. But not just any
kind of trust. Teamwork must be built upon a solid foundation of
means that members of a cohesive, functional team must learn to
comfortably and quickly acknowledge, without provocation, their
mistakes, weaknesses, failures, and needs for help. They must also
readily recognize the strengths of others, even when those
strengths exceed their own.
theory -- or kindergarten -- this does not seem terribly
difficult. But when a leader is faced with a roomful of
accomplished, proud, and talented staff members, getting them to
let their guard down and risk loss of positional power is an
extremely difficult challenge. And the only way to initiate it is
for the leader to go first.
vulnerability is unnatural for many leaders, who were raised to
project strength and confidence in the face of difficulty. And
while that is certainly a noble behavior in many circumstances, it
must be tempered when it comes to demonstrating
vulnerability-based trust to hesitant team members who need their
leader to strip naked and dive into the cold water first. Of
course, this requires that a leader be confident enough,
ironically, to admit to frailties and make it easy for others to
follow suit. One particular CEO I worked with failed to build
trust among his team and watched the company falter as a result.
As it turns out, a big contributing factor was his inability to
model vulnerability-based trust. As one of the executives who
reported to him later explained to me, "No one on the team
was ever allowed to be smarter than him in any area because he was
the CEO." As a result, team members would not open up to one
another and admit their own weaknesses or mistakes.
exactly does vulnerability-based trust look like in practice? It
is evident among team members who say things to one another like
"I screwed up," "I was wrong," "I need
help," "Iím sorry," and "Youíre better
than I am at this." Most important, they only make one of
these statements when they mean it, and especially when they
really donít want to.
all this sounds like motherhood and apple pie, understand that
there is a very practical reason why vulnerability-based trust is
indispensable. Without it, a team will not, and probably should
not, engage in unfiltered productive conflict.
of the greatest inhibitors of teamwork among executive teams is
the fear of conflict, which stems from two separate concerns. On
one hand, many executives go to great lengths to avoid conflict
among their teams because they worry that they will lose control
of the group and that someone will have their pride damaged in the
process. Others do so because they see conflict as a waste of
time. They prefer to cut meetings and discussions short by jumping
to the decision that they believe will ultimately be adopted
anyway, leaving more time for implementation and what they think
of as "real work."
the case, CEOs who go to great lengths to avoid conflict often do
so believing that they are strengthening their teams by avoiding
destructive disagreement. This is ironic, because what they are
really doing is stifling productive conflict and pushing important
issues that need to be resolved under the carpet where they will
fester. Eventually, those unresolved issues transform into uglier
and more personal discord when executives grow frustrated at what
they perceive to be repeated problems.
CEOs and their teams must do is learn to identify artificial
harmony when they see it, and incite productive conflict in its
place. This is a messy process, one that takes time to master. But
there is no avoiding it, because to do so makes it next to
impossible for a team to make real commitment.
become a cohesive team, a group of leaders must learn to commit to
decisions when there is less than perfect information available,
and when no natural consensus develops. And because perfect
information and natural consensus rarely exist, the ability to
commit becomes one of the most critical behaviors of a team.
teams cannot learn to do this if they are not in the practice of
engaging in productive and unguarded conflict. Thatís because it
is only after team members passionately and unguardedly debate
with one another and speak their minds that the leader can feel
confident of making a decision with the full benefit of the
collective wisdom of the group. A simple example might help
illustrate the costs of failing to truly commit.
CEO of a struggling pharmaceutical company decided to eliminate
business and first class travel to cut costs. Everyone around the
table nodded their heads in agreement, but within weeks, it became
apparent that only half the room had really committed to the
decision. The others merely decided not to challenge the decision,
but rather to ignore it. This created its own set of destructive
conflict when angry employees from different departments traveled
together and found themselves heading to different parts of the
airplane. Needless to say, the travel policy was on the agenda
again at the next meeting, wasting important time that should have
been spent righting the companyís financial situation.
that fail to disagree and exchange unfiltered opinions are the
ones that find themselves revisiting the same issues again and
again. All this is ironic, because the teams that appear to an
outside observer to be the most dysfunctional (the arguers) are
usually the ones that can arrive at and stick with a difficult
worth repeating here that commitment and conflict are not possible
without trust. If team members are concerned about protecting
themselves from their peers, they will not be able to disagree and
commit. And that presents its own set of problems, not the least
of which is the unwillingness to hold one another accountable.
teams do not wait for the leader to remind members when they are
not pulling their weight. Because there is no lack of clarity
about what they have committed to do, they are comfortable calling
one another on actions and behaviors that donít contribute to
the likelihood of success. Less effective teams typically resort
to reporting unacceptable behavior to the leader of the group, or
worse yet, to back-channel gossip. These behaviors are not only
destructive to the morale of the team, they are inefficient and
allow easily addressable issues to live longer than should be
let the simplicity of accountability hide the difficulty of making
it a reality. It is not easy to teach strong leaders on a team to
confront their peers about behavioral issues that hurt the team.
But when the goals of the team have been clearly delineated, the
behaviors that jeopardize them become easier to call out.
Orientation to Results
ultimate goal of the team, and the only real scorecard for
measuring its success, is the achievement of tangible collective
outcomes. And while most executive teams are certainly populated
with leaders who are driven to succeed, all too often the results
they focus on are individual or departmental. Once the inevitable
moment of truth comes, when executives must choose between the
success of the entire team and their own, many are unable to
resist the instinct to look out for themselves. This is
understandable, but it is deadly to a team.
committed to building a team must have zero tolerance for
individually focused behavior. This is easier said than done when
one considers the size of the egos assembled on a given leadership
team. Which is perhaps why a leader trying to assemble a truly
cohesive team would do well to select team members with small
all of this sounds obvious, thatís because it is. The problem
with teamwork is not that it is difficult to understand, but
rather that it is extremely difficult to achieve when the people
involved are strong-willed, independently successful leaders. The
point here is not that teamwork is not worth the trouble, but
rather that its rewards are both rare and costly. And as for those
leaders who donít have the courage to force team members to step
up to the requirements of teamwork (see Figure
1, below), they would be wiser to avoid the concept
altogether. Of course, that would require a different kind of
courage; the courage not to be a team.