The problem with good teams

They were a really solid executive team. To a person, smart as a whip. They seemed to genuinely like and respect each other. They laughed together and had a nice camaraderie. They embodied the company’s values and were personally committed to its success and growth. Nothing was obviously missing. A lot of teams who seek team development and coaching have a clear weak link or source of conflict that prompts them. As I watched this team working together the first day, I recognized that they had a lot going for them.

They also had some audacious goals in front of them, and now that he had assembled this fine cast of characters, the CEO knew it wasn’t going to be enough to be good enough. So they went off-site for a few days to explore what it would look like for them to be an amazing team, not just a good-enough team.

Research is clear that it is insufficient to have smart people on a team. That it doesn’t really matter if they like each other. Or that they get together socially (or even see each other face to face for that matter). To really function as a team, in order to produce multiplicatively vs. additively, groups need key skills and “rules of engagement” that demand more from them both individually and collectively. They need vulnerability-based trust to create a climate of psychological safety. They need the interpersonal skills to engage in productive conflict and challenge each other effectively. They need effective processes for achieving clarity and buy-in. Fundamentally, the team needs to take primacy in order to promote cohesion and alignment below – this alone is an often-missing ingredient of top-notch leadership teams.

At the meeting, early discussions around the concept of trust showed some skepticism. We trust each other! they insisted. And yet it was their lowest scoring area on their team assessment. We challenged their definition of trust and talked about the impact on team effectiveness and efficiency when people hesitate sharing concerns and ideas and resist revealing weakness. In exercises we saw the implicit social agreement among them to operate in a small safe zone of disclosure; we practiced extending out of it. “I had no idea you were dealing with that – I can support you on that.” When people play their cards close to the chest, they deprive the rest of the team opportunities to leverage, support, and learn from each other.

We also focused on strengthening their other weaker spot, being more willing to engage in productively challenging and holding each other accountable both personally and in their areas of responsibility. This is naturally difficult for humans – both giving and receiving critical feedback. Independent-minded and achievement-oriented people (such as those who bubble to the top of the leadership ladder) can tend to resist others’ feedback or take affront to it; they also may not see it as their place to “meddle” in someone else’s responsibilities. They also may simply want to avoid the discomfort of perceived conflict. However, the absence of shared accountability correlates with positively with silos and fiefdoms and inversely with true teaming.

By the end of the third day, I saw a different team begin to emerge – and it was awesome. They left committed to continuing to develop together and some really good ideas for how to keep the momentum going. I left with renewed certainty that what most people think make teams “great” is really off the mark. It’s not the obvious stuff. It doesn’t look like smart people who like each other (though that’s nice to have). It’s messy, ongoing human work – to sacrifice your own best interests, to explore perspectives beyond your own view of the world, to willingly extend trust and be vulnerable. Like leadership, so much of the magic of teams requires wisdom.