The Secret Sauce for Making Teams Work

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

She was pissed! As the new leader of a perennial best-company-to-work-for, she was watching their industry-leader reputation continuing to slip away. Her executive team was a mess. Half were new folks she had brought in over the past 18 months. The other half had been there for a minimum of twelve years, some as long as 27 years. The old and new were at war with each other. She had replaced the folks she thought were the trouble-makers–one from each side. And…, no improvement. Now she was taking sides too, although which side she was on changed from week to week.

This CEO had been selected for being an experienced, smart, and consensus-oriented replacement for an old-school, autocratic martinet who ruled by fiat. Yet, after two years nothing seemed to be working, certainly not her executive team. She, like so many leaders, had no idea about the secret sauce for making teams work.

An article in the Harvard Business Review states that 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. A University of Phoenix study documents that 95% of employees see teams as important while 68% had experienced teams as dysfunctional. The organizations of these not-so-useful teams have smart, experienced CEOs and other leaders who constantly speak of the importance of teams. There is also extensive literature on teams and the keys to making them work. Leaders are only as good as their teams; that is well understood. So, what’s the problem? What’s missing? Why are so many teams under-performing? What are these smart, experienced people missing? And, why are they missing it?

Some might say, “It’s just human nature.” Some might say, “There’s nothing you can do about the personality conflicts that can happen anywhere and we just have to put up with them.” Some believe groups are inherently problematic: sometimes they work, but mostly they don’t. Business and management schools may discuss the importance of teams, but don’t offer the skills needed to build them.

What we are missing is an understanding of human systems: a concept unknown in most organizations. A human system is any group of people who impact each other. Teams, committees, families, clubs, neighbors, and friendships are human systems in which their members influence each other. In fact, such human systems tend to manage us rather than our managing them. All work in organizations is done by human systems – those inter-connected groups of individuals known as teams. They are the fundamental unit of organizations. And, they take on a life and behaviors of their own separate from the intentions and values of its members.

Most of us do not see human systems; hence, we cannot attend to them. If we find ourselves in human systems that are productive and satisfying we consider ourselves lucky. Too often we find ourselves in teams and other group situations that waste our time and energy and hinder what we wish to accomplish. We resign ourselves to putting up with these dysfunctional situations. We often single out some member of the system or the team to blame. Occasionally, we abandon these situations hoping the grass will be greener elsewhere. Such human problems are intractable when we do not see and understand them as system problems and not the fault of any single person. As a result, human systems manage our behavior. We aren’t managing them, they are managing us.

Understanding Human Systems
All systems are synergic: they produce results the sum of their components could not produce operating independently. There is positive synergy when a system produces results greater than the sum of what the members could produce working independently. Our cars, computers, and other machines comprising many components—when they are working well—are examples of positive synergy.

Systems have negative synergy when the results are less than the sum of what each of the components could produce alone. The lithium ion batteries that caught fire were negatively synergic. None of the battery components taken separately would catch fire. They would do so only in interaction with their other components. Negative synergy is rare in the world of machines; dysfunctional products rarely make it to market after routine product testing.

We have ignored or missed that groups of people interacting together are systems of positive or negative synergy. Seduced by the mystique of the individual, we are lost to the fact that synergic human systems are the fundamental unit of organizations and other human institutions and communities. When we understand the fundamental importance of human systems, we give ourselves the opportunity to appreciate positive synergy when we encounter it and do something about negative synergy when we see it. We can, then, turn dysfunctional teams into productive and satisfying ones.

Identifying the Human Systems Problem

The first step to working with teams from a human systems perspective is to recognize the synergy of the system. Look for what the system is consistently doing or not doing rather than what particular individuals are doing. Are ideas from several people being bounced around and spawning new ideas? Is there laughter and fun while work is getting done? Or, is there silence with only one or two people dominating the meeting? Are zingers, conflict, and passive aggression normal behaviors? These qualities of group interaction are the essence of systemic synergy.

Notice what most of the people in the team are doing. Often, the is focus on the leader of the team or some other dominate figure. In the adjacent cartoon, that would be the guy with the beard who will be gossiped about after the meeting for being boring. However, that most of the members of the system are busy being silent in their boredom is the systemic dysfunction. The leader is contributing too, because he is not addressing the dysfunction either. Likewise, if you are a member of the system, notice what you’ve been doing while the dysfunction persists: that would be your contribution to the dysfunction. Regardless, no one person can be a systemic issue. Every member of the system is contributing to its effectiveness or its dysfunction.

A more challenging example is the four guys in the troubled rowboat that is going nowhere. Most people see the problem as the two guys at the top disdainfully not helping the two guys bailing at the bottom. As a systems problem, all four guys are contributing to the boat going nowhere. The two guys up top are contributing through doing nothing to address problem other than congratulating themselves. The guys bailing may keep the boat from sinking but it still isn’t going anywhere. Any of the bored folks at the meeting could speak up with an idea that could stimulate more conversation. The same is true in the boat. Anyone could speak to the lack of communication, coordination, and collaboration needed to get things moving again.

Developing Healthy Human Systems

Once we can identify human system dysfunctions, solutions are often not difficult to find. For example, any of the guys in the rowboat could point out that if one of the bailing guys moved to the middle to row while the other three bailed from both ends of the boat to keep the boat level, they could get moving.

Here are three ideas for creating positive synergy and resolving negative synergy in teams:

  1. Invite team members to engage fully in team discussions. This should include speaking up about team dysfunctions. In many organizations there is a cultural and group norm to speak up about team dysfunctions only through complaints outside of team settings. Speaking up in the meeting is seen as risky, possibly offensive to the leader and career-limiting. Team leaders must be persistent in seeking input from all team members, listening well, and not taking silence as consent.
  2. Conduct checks during meetings about how well things are going and how to improve. At a minimum, leave time toward the end of team meetings for people to share their perception of how things are going.
  3. Assure that the work of teams is done collaboratively and decisions made consensually with a premium placed on listening and engaging curiosity instead of judgment about divergent ideas. This creates the positive synergy that leaders are seeking.

Our pissed-off CEO got the help she needed to learn about human systems. She saw how she was being seduced by her team’s dysfunctional norms. She had become part of the problem as she took sides by engaging in the prevalent win/lose power dynamics. With her new understanding she…

1. Could see when win/lose power dynamics would begin.

2. Would insist on diverging ideas being fully heard without interruption and with less judgment.

3. Would watch new, more powerful ideas develop as listening increased

Her old collaborative skills began to infuse her team. She was managing her team norms rather than being managed by them. The positive synergy requisite for innovation—the innovation and creativity that only comes from healthy human systems— also became a norm. Within a few weeks her team created a new strategic plan aimed at redeveloping their line of products and services to broaden their market scope and move their new productivity and engagement into the rest of their organization. All the result of a satisfying and tasty “secret sauce.”

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