What slows leadership 'teams' down?

Andrew Bass’s Pragmatics Newsletter July 2013

Practical techniques and thought-provoking ideas

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What slows leadership ‘teams’ down?

A lot of leadership ‘teams’ don’t really conduct themselves as teams at all, regardless of their official titles. A common and serious effect of this is a loss of speed, and particularly a lack of progress on strategic goals.

The basic issue is whether some members win at the expense of others –is it a zero-sum game? Or can they all do better by working together to increase the size of the pie? Not to say everyone should get equal reward, but problems occur when some get rewarded at the expense of others. Here are three patterns to look out for:

  • Overt win-lose competition. This is the easiest to spot – explicit disagreements, barbed comments, raised voices, fists banging on the table and all the other usual primate dominance displays. But although awkward, it can actually be the most straightforward to deal with, since you can at least tell when things aren’t working.
  • Lip-service and political manoeuvring. This can be very frustrating, since people look like they are working together. The classic symptom is that at meetings, people seem to agree, but in-between, they don’t follow through: you minute a list of agreed actions but they never seem to be acted upon, always for plausible-sounding reasons.
  • ‘Making nice’. This may be the most deceptive pattern. It happens when people like and are comfortable with each other, but fear the win-lose possibilities for not only themselves but for the others too. They will silently – sometimes unconsciously – collude to look busy: safely focusing on day-to-day operational stuff for example, but not actually doing very much to prepare the business for the future. I worked with a board where the CEO was very frustrated by this sort of situation. The company faced big upheavals in its market, yet because of a general lack of challenge in discussions, he felt the board was sleepwalking off a cliff.

What to do?

  • Have a big enough goal. If everyone is trying to make the pie bigger, they are less likely to get into zero-sum thinking than if you are in a retrenching cost cutting mode. With their attention facing outwards towards customers and the competition, political infighting is simply less likely to grab their attention.
  • Check the incentives. Especially the informal ones. Why should someone cross-refer if they risk losing a client relationship without any recompense? They’ll need a good answer before they cooperate.
  • If new strategies mean that one person needs to lose at the expense of another, compensate them somehow for their support. Your strategy may quite rationally call for the running of a mature business for cash which is then redirected to fund investments in a new rising star. The managers of the mature business, naturally resist being the turkeys who voted for Christmas. You need to figure out how to make it worth their while to support the strategy.
  • If it truly is zero-sum and you can’t change that, forget all about consensus and pursue accommodation instead. Some groups will never be teams. It’s often much faster and more constructive to acknowledge disagreements, and instead seek an intelligent and honest ‘accommodation’ – something all the parties can live with (this understanding of an ‘accommodation’ comes originally from the work of Peter Checkland, and I wrote a newsletter about it a while ago: Consensus is often the last thing you need).

In Conclusion

If you are frustrated by slow progress from your leadership team, check whether the incentives are win-win or win-lose. If they are the latter, your choices are either to make them the former, or failing that, realise you haven’t got a team at all, and shift into accommodation mode.
Either way, facing reality and dealing with conflicts of interest rather than hiding from them will get you faster to your goals.

Special Report

For more insight into the way players in zero-sum games work, I’ve been writing a short tongue-in-cheek guide, entitled:

How to resist change and slow down execution in any organization, for personal gain without personal blame.

It uncovers the most popular tactics and patterns that create organizational drag and destroy value.

Please email me if you’d like a copy.

Further free resources

Podcast: Why Use Consultants? Thinking about using consultants? Is it a good idea? Can’t you just do it yourself? Here’s my take, including reasons why sometimes there is no substitute for going outside, what to watch out for if you do so, as well as perspectives on how to get the benefits a good consultant will bring.

Visual: How to Undermine your Culture. If you allow people with good results but poor respect for your values to continue with their act, you utterly undermine your leadership credibility and erode the culture. This is a test of leadership courage…

Podcast: Baffled by People’s Behaviour? Why won’t people just do what they are told?!! Even more baffling, why do they agree to things and then not follow through?

Blog Post: Anyone can spend a budget, but can the get a return on investment? One question that can dramatically affect your ROI.

© 2013 Andrew Bass. All Rights Reserved.