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Five Things You Did This Week That Undermined Teamwork

By Russ Sabia - November 2016


In my work consulting to leadership teams around organizational health, I find most teams are comprised of well-intentioned people trying to do the right thing for their team. Despite those good intentions, however, teamwork is often undermined when members inadvertently act in ways that are not in the best interest of the team. Each of the behaviors below is a subtle (or not so subtle) manifestation of one or more of Pat Lencioni's five dysfunctions of a team.

Here are five things you might have done this week that erode the cohesiveness of your team:

  1. Nodded politely through meetings, not voicing your concerns. We call this artificial harmony. This behavior is so prevalent within some companies that they have coined it. For instance, GM employees call it "the GM nod." Artificial harmony stems from a fear of conflict and inevitably results in important issues not getting raised and less than optimal decisions being made.

    Often, the fear of conflict manifests itself as unproductive politics after the meeting when team members go to their boss behind closed doors and lobby for their point of view, or they don't support team decisions outside the room.

    Next week, try this: Add the value that your place at the table demands. Share what concerns you may have, explain why you support another's ideas, or play devil's advocate when there are no opposing views being expressed.
  2. Avoided an opportunity to give feedback to a team member. Providing constructive feedback is one of the hardest things for team members to do with each other ---- but it is precisely what high performing teams demand. Highly accountable teams are so committed to their collective goals and approach that they are willing to remind each other when they are not living up to those commitments or when someone's actions are hurting the team.

    One of my manufacturing clients decided to do something about their leadership team's reluctance to give peer-to-peer feedback. They each committed to have lunch with one person on the team they needed to resolve an issue with, and one person from whom they were most afraid of hearing feedback. To hold themselves accountable, they shared the outcomes of those meetings with their other teammates at their subsequent staff meeting.

    Next week, try this: Invite a team member for coffee to provide feedback with a spirit of goodwill and support.
  3. Allowed another team member to shut down someone with a different point of view. Teams thrive when diverse ideas and perspectives are debated on their merits. Shutting down other perspectives, especially when the majority of the team might be advocating one point of view, weakens the team and diminishes its collective intelligence. As one of my clients put it, highly constructive conflict within teams is when people are "arguing as if they are right, but listening as if they are wrong."

    The leadership team of an engineering company I worked with included several trained engineers, wired to find the flaws in ideas. One member of the team was an out of the box thinker who constantly felt shut down and marginalized by the team because they would immediately pounce on everything that was wrong with his ideas, rather than build on what possibilities might be there. During an offsite, the team talked about this dynamic for the first time. To minimize it in the future, they established a ground rule to "articulate what we like about an idea before expressing concerns." This led to much more robust debates and people with differing perspectives feeling more valued.

    Next week, try this: Make an effort to fully explore different perspectives or encourage the team to wrestle with a point of view that makes them uncomfortable.
  4. Used the back door. Rather than talking directly with a person with whom you had an issue, perhaps you went to your boss or another member of the team to complain. This is a nasty form of politics ---- called triangulation ---- that erodes trust and peer-to-peer accountability within the team.

    To discourage this behavior, a financial services team I worked with recently set a ground rule of "Mama don't like sneaky." This became a humorous way to remind each other to address issues directly with one another.

    Next week, try this: Approach the person you have an issue with directly. If others come to you complaining about someone else on the team, nip it in the bud by encouraging them to talk directly with the person.
  5. Made assumptions about another team member's motives. We all fall prey to this one, and social psychologists have given it a fancy name: the fundamental attribution error. It is when we attribute other people's negative behavior to a personality flaw. But when we do the same or exhibit similar behaviors, we tend to attribute our own actions to external circumstances. The "error" is that our assumptions can often be wrong, and this can lead us down some very unproductive paths with teammates.

    The antidote? First, work to build trust with team members so that it is easier to assume good intentions. Before attributing motives to another's behavior, ask yourself, "what am I not seeing from my line of sight?" Or "why might a reasonable person do this?"

    Two members of a team I worked with had a misunderstanding years ago that caused distrust and discord between them. It affected how they communicated and collaborated and negatively impacted the entire team. At one of our recent team offsites, they finally talked about the issue and realized they had made false assumptions about each other that had led them both to work against each other.

    Next week, try something one of my clients practice: before taking action, think of "three generous interpretations" when you find yourself making negative attributions about someone's behavior.

Like a river, teams can meander off course when team members take the path of least resistance. Building team cohesiveness requires purposeful and intentional efforts on the part of every team member, and seemingly benign behavior can sometimes be very detrimental and erode trust.

What have you done this week that might have undermined your team's effectiveness?