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To Craft Great Teams: Form Should Drive Function

Politics, low morale, high turnover - sometimes the cause is in a team's structure.
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Let's talk about a sticky matter: reporting structures and hierarchies. Why sticky? Because CEOs often shy away from making the tough decisions on this stuff and end up paying for it by seeing unproductive behaviors like backstabbing and political infighting derail their teams.

Here's a scenario: I worked with a "team within a team" recently, where several people on the team reported to a woman, we'll call her Tanya, who reported to the team leader, Juan. When we talked about this situation before starting to work together, Juan didn't think it would make a difference that half the team reported directly to one of his direct reports. And that may be true--on a healthy team. The problem was that this team was the outcome of a recent restructuring during which Tanya had been in the running for Juan's job. The kicker was that Tanya was known for being a bit vindictive and quite power sensitive. Oh, and she was also a high performer on what we call the "smart" stuff.

So, we know that great teams are built on a base of vulnerability based trustand that they engage in productive ideological debate (we call it conflict) about the business. Those are just the first two characteristics of great teams and I can tell you that Juan's team didn't measure up in either area. Given their structural issues, that wasn't surprising. Who would expect team members to point out difficult issues when they worried that their boss would later punish them for it? And they surely weren't going to do anything as risky as to ask for help.

Now, Juan was dealt a tough situation. He wasn't in charge of the restructuring; he didn't even have the ability to dismiss Tanya. His only real option was to go big on team cohesionand hold her accountable for the agreed-upon team behaviors (vulnerability based trust, open conflict, commitment, team-based accountability and a focus on collective results). Of course, that's easier said than done, but I give him huge props for knowing this and making it a priority. The art will be in keeping that focus for as long as it takes the team to improve.

The salient question is: what was Juan's boss thinking? I can think of three possible scenarios:

  • He underestimated the impact of the hierarchy on the team's productivity or
  • He knew what he was doing but just didn't want to deal with the situation with Tanya or
  • He was blinded by the fact that Tanya was a high performer.

And the question for leaders is: Have you done this to one of your people? Have you then watched that team fumble in an effort to get things done? Have you been annoyed by all the politicking and backbiting?

As someone who is often hired to come in to helpfix these kinds of messy situations, I can tell you that when leaders minimize this kind of problem, they eventually pay for it--in low productivity, low morale, high turnover, or simple misery.

Better to consider the ramifications of reporting structures (hint: they mean more than any leader would like them to) and engage in the discussion if someone brings it up. What's that old maxim about the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one?

Last updated: Jul 30, 2014

KRISTINE KERN | Principal consultant, the Table Group

Kristine Kern is a principal consultant with the Table Group, a firm founded by Patrick Lencioni. She works with executive teams to help them achieve organizational health and increase productivity. kristine.kern@tablegroupconsulting.com




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