A scout leader was trying to lift a fallen tree from the path. His pack gathered around to watch him struggle. “Are you using all your strength?” one of the scouts asked.

“Yes!” was the exhausted and exasperated response.

“No. You are not using all your strength,” the scout replied. “You haven’t asked us to help you.”

Weak managers don’t leverage the strengths of their teams. In Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, reports, “a study by the Center for Creative Leadership of top American and European executives whose careers derailed, the inability to build and lead a team was one of the most common reasons for failure.”

Control Freaks: It’s All About the Boss

Many bosses believe in take-charge management. “Just do it” is often their mantra. Less effective managers believe a strong leader is a decisive problem solver who takes control and “makes things happen.” What an ineffective boss calls “teamwork” is often about exhorting everyone to pull together to meet the manager’s goals and follow their direction. These autocratic bosses see lack of compliance as not being a team player.

The same bosses who mandate Return-to-Office policies try pulling the right strings to manipulate project teams, departmental groups, task forces, or direct reports into teamwork. Good luck with that.

Teamwork is voluntary. It can’t be pushed, bullied, or cajoled. It can only be fostered, coached, and supported. That takes leadership skill.

Signs of Dysfunctional Teams

Less effective teams often have some combination of these dysfunctional team behaviors:

  • Opposing views unsaid at meetings cause disagreements to go underground — This is symptomatic of inauthentic conversations not addressing the moose-on-the-table. So, the focus often moves away from a healthy debate of the issues to unhealthy personal conflict.
  • Complaining, criticizing, and talking about each other behind member’s backs — This unhealthy dynamic either results from or reinforces organizational silos, turf protecting, and “othering” (us versus them).
  • Difficult feedback not given directly to that person — A culture of courageous conversations overcomes fear. Courageous conversations also require skill development in “elevating feedback.”
  • Healthy debates avoided because of disrespectful undertones and “humorous” pot-shots — A high Fun Factor and high Laughter Index help leadership teams create energizing environments. Cowardly humor that hides deeper messages is cancerous.
  • A few vocal team members hog airtime and dominate discussions — Too often teams are separated into a few members having a strong debate and a few spectators. Highly effective teams use processes and practices that actively engage everyone.
  • Lack of response or silence mistaken as agreement — Many of the above points reduce discussion and debate. The team leader then thinks he or she has consensus, only to be frustrated later by lack of commitment and follow-through.

Which dysfunctional behaviors are reducing your team’s effectiveness? If you’re the leader, how can you ensure your answer isn’t just your own opinion?

If you’re a team member, how are you contributing to the problem? How will you be part of the solution?

Team Leadership: Be It to See It

As the 18th-century poet, Goethe, said, “If you would create something you must be something.” A team’s effectiveness reflects the values and skills of its leader. Team leadership hinges on:

  • The leader’s level of self-confidence. Sharing power and developing others is almost impossible if leaders are insecure. Weak leaders draw their security from how well others “listen up and follow my orders.” They’re focused on powering, not partnering.
  • Redefining their job. Strong team leaders know their job isn’t to be the main problem solver. That just ensures more upward delegation and an ever-weakening team. Rather, strong team leaders ensure teams — well equipped and supported — are solving the right problems.
  • Servant-leadership. A strong leader directs and guides teams. But the best team leaders also serve them. They’re constantly seeking feedback on how they can better coach and support their teams.
  • Strong team leadership skills. There’s a strong relationship between a leader’s skills in facilitating team discussions, managing conflict, leveraging the strengths of diversity, leading meetings, and building a team’s effectiveness.

Making Teams Work: Some Ways to Build Teams

  • Make sure group leaders and members are given the processes and skills to become true teams.
  • Use the 85/15 Rule to look at teamwork issues. Research continually shows that “people problems” or poor team dynamics are most often (85 – 95%) symptoms of deeper problems with structure, systems, or processes.
  • How’s your team leadership behavior under pressure? Do you revert to command and control? Is that sending inconsistent signals to your organization? How do you know?
  • Wrap up meetings with a short team reflection and learning session. This can be as simple as asking everyone, “What went especially well today?” “What could we do to make our next meeting even more effective?”
  • Be careful of team building exercises that promote “teaminess” as an end in itself. Lasting teamwork comes from getting everyone focused on the key issues and shared priorities.
  • Build a series of small wins. Celebrate and recognize all team progress to build energy for continued efforts.
  • Effective teams meet frequently. Are our meetings often enough? How do we know?

Highly effective teams balance doing their work or working IN the team with stepping back periodically to refocus and work ON the team. Top teams don’t confuse busyness with effectiveness. Less effective teams often lose sight of their objectives and then speed up their efforts. They spin faster and faster into disharmony with poorer results.