Last week I received a mail from a friend and colleague. It was lovely to hear from her. She was responding to a message I had put to my network requesting senior management teams to participate in my doctoral dissertation. She has been very busy, but diligent as ever (and its what impresses me to no end about her) she had conducted a thorough review of all her executive clients. Her conclusion bothered me. She had realised that in all the teams she is working with, there is too much change, flux, angst and mistrust and she thus doubted any of them would participate. She is a seasoned consulting psychologist, and her call is most likely spot on.

Whomever I work with or chat to, I hear that organisations are buckling under pressure and toxic stress, and many executive teams are falling apart. But what does ‘falling apart’ look like? How do we know that our teams are in distress? It’s easy to answer these questions if you are in a dysfunctional team – you can feel the draining, energy sapping context. Most people have been in such a team. Leaders are generally however trying to build high performance teams, but I often observe a wide gap between intention and reality. This becomes most visible in a crisis, with economic headwinds and change. We seem to have that trifecta clobbering us all now.

My late father in law, lead a large corporation and weathered five recessions, each of which taught him something the business benefited from in the economic upswings. Difficult times can teach us more than the glossy brochures of success. The same principle applies to teams. If you want to see the metal of leadership and the enduring impact of great executives, have a look to see how teams are functioning in the present moment.

In much of my work I peak beneath the proverbial executive skirt. I see remarkable teams and struggling teams. I watch teams muscling closer to high performance, and others sliding into dysfunction, what else do I see?

Let’s start by defining high performance teams. Research suggests, fewer than 1 in 10 teams ever get there. It’s extremely rare because those teams need to meet the following criteria:

  1. Consistently exceed their targets and expectations across all metrics;
  2. Have innovated and disrupted the sector they inhabit,
  3. Grow market share and employ more new people than their competitors.
  4. Pick a metric of high performance and the truly high performing teams meet and exceed them all and are recognised by their peers and competitors as such.

Let me repeat. It’s rare – but achievable with deliberate and focused attention and effort.

Here what you should be looking for as indicators and warning lights that your team is heading in the wrong direction. The following conditions are evident in all failing teams:

1. Trust is low – its everyone for themselves, survival of the fittest (or cleverest). Strategies designed to win at the expense of others pervade.

2. Relationships are broken and strained – or straining and breaking.

3. There is a spike in rumour-mongering and background conversations – people are        taking about each other and not with each other.

4. The blame game is thriving – finger pointing abounds.

5. Cliques and silos emerge – in-groups vs out-groups, them vs us, and diversity suffers.

6. Micromanagement and controlling behaviours from senior leaders start to escalate as they tighten their grip on activities across the organisation. People become disempowered, feel demotivated and eventually disengage.

7. Desperation and punitive rhetoric and policies are considered and even implemented to force people to tow the line, put in more and fear stepping out of line.

8. There is conflict, but more of an under current than an open, tough engagement – lots of people passive-aggressively undermining each other. People feel like they are struggling more than before. Ease has been dismantled. Energy is waning.

9. Focus is more internal than external – people are distracted by petty politics, cc’ ing and bcc’ing all their mails and generally taking their eye off what really matters in their business. It all become quite childish, petulant, parental and patronising. Oh, it’s a mess.

10. People leave – the top talent first.

These conditions escalate when there is a crisis or an increase in pressure. You not only see the true character of a leader, but the darkest character of a team too. It’s the litmus test of what has been invested into the foundation and DNA of that team.

In contrast, the high-performance teams I have had the pleasure to work with possess qualities best described as a mix between a ninja and a monk.

1. There is a consistent and pervasive calm. It seems as if they are doing very little but have more time than ever and get more done – they are less busy, but more productive. The holy grail of leadership?

2. They have mastered the art of prediction and delegation. Others are delivering on their behalf towards a compelling future that they confidently believe in. They are trusted and followed. They believe in the capability of their people to overcome and win. This is consistent and unwavering.

3. Relationship are strong and close and robust – debate and diverse opinions and views are encouraged. Everyone leans towards friction points and celebrates resolution and new emergent ideas and creativity. Constructive conflict is used to both test and reinforce the depth of the trust in each relationship.

4. Trust is not too high – yes that seems weird, but it’s true. Trust is high but not too lofty. When it is too high, complacency and a fear of losing that high trust sets in, and conflict and debate subsides. That is a poor outcome.

5. The most senior leaders are hardly around. They are seeding opportunities for the future and assessing the trend lines of the market and thought leaders to ensure they can begin predicting what the business will require in terms of skills, capabilities and resources to capitalise on the future opportunities.

6. People stay, top talent is attracted in.

Right now, in many parts of the world, we have become fractured in society and organisations. Look around you. Chances are that those who are thriving sustainably started invested in high performance several years ago. There are others that have had a good run, and suddenly seem to be slipping closer to a precipice. Chances are they have been taking and reaping without reinvesting.

Now that you know this, what do you see? And of course, what do you do?
My advice – start right at the top. Invest in the most senior team and do it now!

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