A few months ago, I was working with five faculty members of a university sociology department. They were having difficulty getting along with each other. There were lots of conflicts and negative judgments were abundant. I interviewed each one. They were all well-intentioned, bright people with excellent knowledge of group sociology. Regardless, as a group they were a mess. I’ve worked with similar situations many times and understand this dynamic as systemic negative synergy.             

We commonly think synergy as the whole of a system producing a result greater than the sum of its parts working individually. In organizations, teams often produce results beyond the sum their members could produce individually. That is true, but that it is only half the story.

In some situations, as with my five professors, the whole is producing less than the sum of its parts might! You’ve been in teams and in meetings where lack of engagement or overt conflict have wasted time and energy. How could those meetings of well-intended and intelligent people go so wrong? Negative synergy is at work.

Some years ago, Buckminster Fuller defined synergy as the behavior of a system that is unpredictable by the behavior of its parts taken separately. That definition allows for both positive and negative synergy.

Dysfunctional systemic norms cause negative synergy. A good example would be a tacit group norm that says, “Do not speak up even though you know that the meetings suck!” Or a team where the norm is that disagreements too often become acrimonious conflicts with lots of egos in play. The first is an example of systemic conflict avoidance and the second of not enough conflict resolution.

Establishing new norms for teams and organizational culture can turn negative synergy to positive.  The new norms must be modeled by leadership and reinforced by rewards. For a more complete list of ways to shift group norms and organization cultures, check-out my article, “Seven Areas for Changing an Organization’s Culture.”

What have been your experiences with negative synergy? I’d love to hear about them! I’m collecting stories of negative synergy for a book I’m working on! Include any experiences you’ve had in trying to turn that negative synergy to positive synergy! Send them to me at michael@chumans.com.

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There is always more to learn about creating great teams and organizations. One way to significantly deepen your understanding and skills for working with organizations and teams is to sign-up for the powerful program “Leadership, Change & Self-Mastery Master Class.” It’s based on the highly successful Triple Impact Intensive that Edie Seashore and I developed at Johns Hopkins University and ran independently for 16 years. Check out the program and its free introductory webinars and workshops at chumans.com/master-class or email me at michael@chumans.com.

Dr. Michael Broom is an organizational psychologist with 40 years of experience with all kinds of people and organizations. He is the author of The Infinite Organization, and Power, The Infinite Game (with Donald Klein). Formerly of Johns Hopkins University, he founded the Center for Human Systems and is a Lifetime Achievement Award honoree of the OD Network.

  • Contact Dr. Broom for coaching and consulting for yourself or your organization!
  • Michael F. Broom, Ph.D., CEO, Center for Human Systems
  • CHumanS.com ~~~ michael@chumans.com ~~~ 410.960.3485

Learn about the Center for Human Systems and Michael’s coaching and consulting Services for leaders and for change practitioners .

Sharing a proud moment! Michael receiving the OD Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award

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