You don’t have to be ill to get better…
- 28 January 2019
Over the last 15 years I have worked with senior leadership teams all over the world. Some new, some well-established, some already succeeding and looking to get even better, others recognising they are operating at a sub-optimal level.
It has been a great privilege to experience a wide range of national and corporate cultures. Despite such diversity, senior teams share a universal challenge; the need to bring a group of strong and successful individuals together as a collaborative team.
The truth is that the very attributes that earn us a seat at the leadership table can obstruct us in being successful once there. Sublimating personal success and individual agendas to the common cause often conflicts with learned and unconscious preferences; the values and behaviours that have delivered personal success. We are successful, after all, so why do we need to change?
This is reinforced by the higher stakes at these elevated organisational levels. We have a lot to lose if the team fails. One way to protect ourselves from this is to never really commit to the team (or its leader), preventing us from accessing the open mindset needed to learn new behaviours and changing habitual ways of thinking. Sure, we can pretend to be a team player; say all the right things and appear loyal and committed. But, at the same time, we can hold back our own judgement, protect our teams, share dissent with others and even drag our feet with implementing team decisions if we do not agree with them. All subtle, all covert and all justifiable; “I’m doing what I think is best for the organisation.”
It is rare to find an obviously dysfunctional senior team. Individuals are all experienced and shrewd enough to demonstrate apparent collaboration and superficial teamworking. To admit anything else is perceived as an admission of failure and I have lost count of the number of senior executives who settle for this – “you expect a bit of politics in a senior team”. We persuade ourselves that “it’s not worth the fight” i.e. confronting poor behaviour might make it worse and we all still have to work together.
Accepting “good enough” is the greatest enemy of genuine collaboration and co-creation. It tolerates sub-optimum debate, facilitates poor decision making, allows historical baggage to distort team behaviour and, over time, allows team members to resign themselves to accepting the “way we work around here”, avoiding the risk of rocking the boat.
The challenge for any third party coming in to help the team coalesce is to really get under the surface of the current ways of working. Therefore, to enable improvement the first step is always to be brutally honest about the current reality.
Uncovering what’s going on below the “polite” surface in a safe and constructive way is the only route to improvement.
Of course, this can be uncomfortable and there are multiple reasons why team members might seek to obfuscate the reality (including not noticing the dysfunctionality in the first place). To get a clear understanding of the dynamics of a team I have used a wide range of tools; MBTI, FIRO-B, 360 questionnaires, 1:1 interviews, stakeholder interviews, team observation and structured behavioural analysis.
So I was excited when I learned about Structural Dynamics* last year; a new (to me) method of objectively capturing the structure and patterns of communications in teams and developing awareness of the team’s communication and control systems. This approach has accelerated the insight stage of engaging a team on improvement, providing individual as well as collective clarity on the team’s interpersonal dynamics, patterns and traps.
The approach helps “put the elephant firmly into the room” in a way that allows the team to develop and manage their own structural dynamics in exactly the same objective way they would manage the structural dynamics of any process or system. This insight helps team recognise that improvement doesn’t need to start from a remedial place and that, in fact, you don’t have to be ill to get better.
In my next blog I will further explore the Structural Dynamics approach and its value in accelerating team performance.
*Structural Dynamics has been developed over 50 years of research and application lead by David Kantor. It is taught as a part of the Harvard Business School curriculum and widely used in consulting practices in the US and Australia. More information can be found at https://www.kantorinstitute.com/about/