Excerpted from “The Orange Revolution: How One Great Team Can Transform an Entire Organization” by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton. Copyright © 2010 by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
We’ve been inside organizations that had perfect theoretical teams and departments: leadership communicated effectively, strategies were clear; workers were talented, everyone knew the goals, shared commitment, and were motivated to high performance. Everything was neat and tidy. And then…little fights broke out, disparity of opinion wreaked havoc, gossip ensued, meetings became increasingly less efficient and effective, and resolve sagged. Finally, the team broke down—kaput.
As you can probably attest, calling a group of people a team is no guarantee that they’ll come together and act like a team.
Team dysfunctions happen because we are people, and that means we sometimes act in regrettable, unprofessional ways. Sad, but true. And these individual problems become team problems as the people fail to coalesce into a single-purposed body. As any manager can tell you, a part of every day is spent working on teamwork issues such as: Mike is backbiting about Debra’s work ethic. Shy Aaron is getting a bad rap as being aloof from the group. Matt, a top performer, has become a prima donna no one wants to work with. Ruth is in a bad mood a couple of times a week and takes her irritation out on the two new team members. We could go on and on.
There are so many potential problems lurking with teams, we can understand a manager wanting to throw in the towel on the entire idea of cooperating. Many have done that, to their own detriment. Instead, we take you on a clear-eyed review of why teams struggle interpersonally, a pointed attack toward the specific issues that undermine teams, and finally, an initiation to a unifying act will bring the team together.
Let’s start with the harmful side. A breakdown in a team is usually the result of one or more of a half dozen common problems: infighting and ego; seemingly irreconcilable differences of opinion; misdirected ideas of competitiveness; cultures of blame; inappropriate hierarchies of power inside the team; and unaligned values of the individuals that are not in sync with the organization’s goals. It’s human nature for any given group to occasionally squabble. After all, looking at the litany of team troubles above, it is easy to find similar issues on an elementary school playground, a college dorm, or a corporate boardroom. We can be too eager to fight over misunderstandings, too stubborn when we could be conciliatory, too focused on our version of being right, too competitive, too quick to point fingers, too willing to climb over others to get ahead, too focused on “me” instead of “we.” These personality-based team troubles are the result of individuals who lose focus on what the group is trying to accomplish. They aren’t bad people. They’ve simply forgotten why they are working with others in the first place.
Now what of the manager? We certainly cannot ignore the part played by a leader who exploits personal weaknesses. When individuals are disagreeable, does the manager condone demeaning behavior if the person is a good performer, pulling the team apart? Is risk so frightening in the culture that the blame game is the first reaction to any perceived failure by a teammate? Are there hierarchies of power so pervasive as to make nimble teamwork impossible? If these problems are allowed to flourish, they become like weeds in a garden, chocking out productive growth. Take blame, as just one example. If a manager allows a team member to throw a co-worker under the bus successfully, the message to the rest of the team is clear: Survive at all costs. Teamwork is derailed until a new leader intervenes to discourage dissention, or excessive competition, or aggressive maneuvering—helping teammates work together, competing against outside forces, not internal.
If a team is to be sustainable, more positive leadership is required.
The facile answer, then, is to make everyone the same, a team of equals. The marriage-of-equals team is a fairy tale. The dirty secret of teams (that we’ve saved until chapter seven) is that they are messy and unbalanced. On some other planet perhaps all team players share the same power, expertise, ambition, and motivation, but that’s a rarity here. A much better way to think about teams is using the image of the inner workings of a mechanical watch. There are wheels, springs, gear teeth, pinions, levers, shafts, which all need to perform specific tasks and be in balance with each other. Are the parts all the same size or shape? No, but they have the same ultimate purpose.
Thus, there are big wheels and small wheels on every team. They have different talents. They are paid differently. They are at different stages of their lives and want different things out of the group. We shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise. But that shouldn’t lead to imbalance. We shouldn’t accept that infighting and resentments based on these differences are an inevitable feature of teams. After all, the more time we spend trying to resolve squabbles between team members, the less time there is for doing the work of the organization.
Teams that are relatively free of tensions do exist. In our study, we found that Breakthrough Teams were at their heart supportive. They were relatively free of ego and were comprised of members who seemed genuinely interested in helping each other achieve.
If we were to be asked for one unifying action that we saw in these teams that would help other teams—as disparate as they are—come together, we would sum it up in one word: cheer.
Cheering is the secret sauce that can create a spirit of camaraderie so strong that the act of supporting each other becomes second nature, where the vast majority of pettiness and finger-pointing stops. Unhealthy competition abates, blame is diminished, and values start to fall into line when people back each other as peers. Of course, Ruth might still be moody from time to time, and Aaron may still be shy. But, for the most part, the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and scheming ends; the conflicts fade and the old baggage that hobbles the team dissipates when people cheer.
To be truly effective, cheering has to be cultural. The company has to nurture it, reward it, make it part of every day. It has to be as natural as breathing.
Chester Elton and Adrian Gostick are coauthors of several books including most recently “The Orange Revolution: How One Great Team Can Transform an Entire Organization” and The New York Times bestseller “The Carrot Principle.” They are consultants at the O.C. Tanner Company, recognized for their expertise on the business benefits of recognition.