Senior executives usually work at having strong relationships with their team members — but surprisingly often, they don’t focus as strongly on their relationship with their team as a whole. What’s even more curious is that intense one-to-one relationships are usually inconsistent with the leader’s stated philosophies about the importance of the group and their beliefs about the role of teamwork in managing both the organization and the work.
What could a person in power possibly want out of this kind of dysfunction? Some of the possibilities include:
- The benefits of being “in relationship” in a way that you can only be with an individual, not with a group;
- The definitive sense of power and control that comes from managing one relationship at a time without any risk of others taking exception to your leadership stance;
- The chance to make each individual feel “special.”
An Unraveling Team
But the team falls apart. It becomes a team in name only, not in operation. Instead of acting like the Three Musketeers (one for all and all for one), the team members are forced to play a zero-sum game: “I’ll support you as long as you’ll support me.” Individual members go looking for what they think they need — a personal relationship with the power source. They may actually give up the idea of a true collaboration, and treat their teammates more like a loose coalition.
When the typical situation is that somebody’s being treated as the team’s star or golden child, and another, less fortunate somebody is on the way to the woodshed or the doghouse, then each person’s every action and role tends to be discussed and dissected by the rest of the group. This kind of over-involvement can feel oddly like the imbalanced dynamics in some families, where there is always one sibling up and another one down — and everyone is buzzing about it.
Not all strong relationships are positive. Neither is the impact of all strong leaders. Both can take all the air out of the room, and stall innovation, creativity, and truth-telling. The experience can become one of frustration, anxiety, and insecurity about the future, with team members left wondering:
- Can it be safe for me here?
- What if I’m not really special?
- What if it turns out that the other guy gets whatever he wants, and I get nothing?
Instead of the team engaging together — in a contest against the marketplace, or in resolving a policy problem — their work turns into an organizational game of shifting loyalties, backchannel communications, subtle and not-so-subtle manipulations, jockeying for position, and hardening of role boundaries.
When a leader has held significant control for a long period of time, or there isn’t any greater authority to dictate (and support) power-sharing this distracting and inefficient behavior can occur in any organization, no matter how small or ostensibly informal. It’s even more likely to happen if the leader’s team is separated by location, organizational status, level of experience, etc.
Putting the Teamwork Back in the Team
How can a team recover from this kind of complicated mess? Here are three practical approaches:
- Leaders who are dissatisfied with the team’s performance may trigger an outside intervention if they have a strong enough desire for success as well as the humility to recognize their own need to change. Typically, the outsider explains the dysfunction so the team can recognize it, and then helps to create enough sense of trust and safety to move the change process forward, while keeping the leader and the members in balance.
- One or more group members can sponsor and sustain the necessary change. Someone from within the group may have the strength to withstand the seductiveness of being in partnership with the leader — and in small, large, and always respectful ways, keeps putting reality on the table where the whole group can see it.
- There is a structural change. Usually, the players change and/or the rules change when the leader changes. The group may be in for a hugely disruptive period, but a change in leader will create the cleanest break with the past — that is, if the team survives.
When one of these shifts occurs, it’s possible to create a virtuous cycle in which the team supports all the members and the members support each other, both individually and as a group. This support sometimes takes the form of peer (or peer-to-leader) pressure, acknowledging when the team itself is not working well, so that everyone can get back on track. Over time, it becomes clear which members truly want what’s best for the organization, and which ones are only in it for themselves.
Onward and upward,