Is Your Team Tearing Itself Apart?

Many senior executives sabotage their success with poor communication and unnecessary competition. Here’s how to stop the chaos before it starts.

By Wanda T. Wallace, Ph.D., and Peter Wright

It isn’t easy being on a senior team. Members must grapple with market changes, digital competition, growth strategies, and global forces—not to mention the usual expectations of customers. Thus, the strength of these seasoned leaders has never been more important to the company’s overall health than it is today.

But top teams are unusual creatures. Their time demands are high, the issues they face are complex, the career paths they take are unique, and they don’t always form a strong united force. All of these factors result in team dynamics that are unlike those in any other organizational squads, like project or development teams.

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When we started to work with a particular company in the technology industry, it was still dealing with the aftermath of a merger and acquisition that hadn’t gone as planned. The CEO was relatively inexperienced. The dozen global leaders who made up the company’s executive team met at least once a month on average, but despite their frequent meetings, they never had enough time to cover everything on their agenda. Items were consistently passed from one meeting to the next, leaving a frustrated organization that couldn’t move forward without decisions.

Even worse, the team members’ inability to constructively challenge one another resulted in weak decisions that weren’t really supported. This occurred because the lack of sensible career discussions left four people in the team believing that they had a reasonable chance of being considered as the successor to the CEO. 

Not only, then, did these four executives dominate most of the discussions, but they also engaged in debates deliberately designed to score points. Unsurprisingly, the rest of the team started to withdraw from the conversations, and eventually most of the decisions were being made solely on the input of the four people. Their competition debilitated the organization.

Sadly, this isn’t a unique situation. In fact, we’ve seen three frighteningly similar cases in the last month alone—and your own senior team might fit the bill, too. To understand what can be done to make top teams more effective, we must first understand why they become so dysfunctional in the first place.

How to Set Up a Team for Failure

Most senior executives who make it to the highest level have fought hard over many years to achieve their status. They’ve made significant personal sacrifices. They’ve been selected for stardom at an early age, or chosen as a protégé by a high-ranking leader. They’ve been taught to make an impact quickly and often within weeks or months of assuming a new position. They’ve been told to trust their own instincts and be confident and decisive. They’ve been highly rewarded for their ambition and drive. They’ve learned to operate independently.

The same is true even for those who have come up through functional or expertise routes. They’ve had little exposure to general management opportunities. While they’ve learned to be politically astute, they’re inclined to see the world from the perspective of their own area of expertise. They too have learned to act independently of other groups and functions.

So why should we expect them to behave any differently when they join a senior team? Can they really become team players, influence people over whom they don’t have authority, and collectively set an example for the rest of the company? Spoiler: The odds are slim.

How to Get Your Team Back on the Same Field

The most effective teams find ways to accommodate individual differences in style and experience. To adapt, individual members must understand themselves better so the team can have a framework to use for evaluating their collective performance.

At this stage, we prefer to use a tool like the Hogan Leadership Suite for several reasons. First, it allows us to have a robust discussion with each person about his or her values, motivations, and expectations of the working environment. Second, the team report provides a neutral means to consider similarities and differences among team members, the dominant team style, and the gaps in perspectives, and lets us examine the impact on five critical components for teams: results, pragmatism, innovation, process, and relationships.

This analysis quickly illustrates the strengths that a team possesses and the areas of development they’d do well to address. Although the process of reaching an optimal level of performance varies from team to team, the realization of what’s happening within a team—and more importantly, why it’s happening—is always a powerful moment.

Top teams need a business-driven reason to come together. Results, pragmatism, innovation, and process are business drivers, and not just nice-to-have factors. Thus, they facilitate a healthy debate about a top team’s mission.

Third, in the context of all these insights, we can now focus the team on one of the most powerful dynamics for top team performance: how members can deal with conflict, engage in healthy debate, and openly disagree while still staying friends. You won’t be surprised to learn that most teams are pretty terrible at this. 

Our opening story illustrates the consequences of inadequate debate: Decisions are too strongly biased, issues are unresolved, creativity is stifled, and key resources avoid engaging. How a team handles conflict is important because it’s the best way to create buy-in and commitment. Unless team members are able to say what they really think, then there won’t be any trust or genuine commitment, despite the head-nodding in the moment that suggests otherwise.

So what does it take for a team to engage in healthy debate? There are four critical underpinnings:

1. A Reason to Work Together

If we don’t have a reason to make the business stronger in the end, then team members will spend the majority of their time and energy in their own world, creating a silo. We believe it falls on the leader to define that reason, make it compelling, and make it real.

This is why crises so often pull top teams together, but any number of causes will also do the trick as long as the mission isn’t for individuals or business units to find solutions independently from everyone else on the team.

2. Adequate Time Together

People need time to get to know one another, learn their respective challenges of daily work, and understand their interests and perspectives. Even in today’s time-pressed world, there’s no good substitute for time spent simply talking and getting to know more about the other person.

In one top team that had worked together for more than 10 years, a few simple questions resulted in members revealing things about their experiences in life that others had never known.

We find assessments helpful ways to open such conversations. In another case, the CEO of an organization insisted that top team members travel to meetings together and specifically use the travel time to talk.

3. A Willingness to Be Vulnerable

The more time team members spend together, the more willing they’ll be to open up, take risks in a debate, and say what they’re really thinking. When one person understands another person well enough to know how to frame a criticism so it’ll be heard, only then will he or she speak the truth.

4. A Variety of Perspectives That Are Heard

If everyone on your team thinks the same things, what’s the point of having a team at all? A diversity of voices opens the door for new ideas. While most teams know they need variety, they also unintentionally silence people with different points of view. The variety must be welcomed, coaxed, encouraged, and developed to unlock the best results.

These four things don’t happen by accident. The discussions must be carefully and slowly orchestrated, and revisited. It’s not unreasonable to spend a year or more establishing a different way of working together. It’s also very difficult for the leader to facilitate the process, as he or she is part of the team dynamics. That’s where a trained facilitator comes in.

Openly reviewing your progress—and just as crucially, your missteps—is the only way your team can truly achieve greatness. Now who’s ready to work together?

Wanda T. Wallace, the CEO of Leadership Forum Inc., coaches, facilitates, and speaks on improving leadership capability. She specializes in helping women (and men) get to the top, stick, and thrive. Her latest emphasis is on helping managers build truly inclusive cultures. 

Peter Wright is a partner with Leadership Forum Inc. During his 30 years in corporate life, he held senior human resources positions at some of the world’s best-known companies, including Unilever, Estee Lauder, Merrill Lynch, BP, and AIG.