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Why is teamwork so hard? And what you can do about it

Team psychology has been studied since the 1940s, and we’ve learned a lot over the years. We know that we need teams to survive, and most of us have had a least a few positive experiences with teams, some of which can be life-changing. But the basic reality is that teamwork is often fraught, provokes strong emotions, and sometimes leads people to behave in ways they wouldn’t ordinarily in one-on-one interactions. These problems are magnified when dealing with leadership teams, when groups of leaders come together to address larger organizational issues – such as executive or operating committees. So, what’s going on? And what can be done to make teamwork better?

Wageman and Hackman, a wonderful research duo from Harvard, observed that teams of leaders usually underperform because there are particular ironies associated with this type of team experience. Team members often interact in ways that depress the team's effort and make having a meeting something that is dreaded, rather than something to look forward to. These troubled teams rarely demonstrate signs of mutual teaching and learning, and instead place heavy emphasis on status while having a structure that thwarts having a clear purpose or objectives. Rather than being a source of solace and support in fulfilling each member’s leadership role, team membership becomes an additional burden.

All of us have been in meetings that focus too much on trivial matters, or where members get caught up in conflicts that seem unresolvable. This is due to a complex set of dynamics, some of which may not even be conscious. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky describe a particular dynamic of “work avoidance” which can show up as demagoguery, scapegoating, diversion of attention, and displacement of responsibility. And many teams have derailers, who seem to bring out the worst in others rather than engaging in healthy conflict, causing a chain reaction, and fostering cultures of subordination and of collusion. Furthermore, teams are often pervaded with gender and racial or cultural dynamics that members never discuss or acknowledge.

So, what can be done? There are a lot of things actually!

· Teams can be structured and facilitated so that members work collectively, derailers are removed, and where members are coached and encouraged to be productive contributors

· Establishing group norms is very helpful for setting up a frame for how everyone can get the most out of meetings. These can include things like spatial set up (often overlooked!), discussing the level of participation expected, and how to stay on task

· Team charters are agreements that clarify direction and establish boundaries for people working on teams. A charter can include things like operating rules, how conflicts and disagreements should be handled, and how individual team members will be held accountable to each other and the team leader

· Determining how decisions are made is also key. Sometimes the boss makes the decision, and sometimes it should be done by consensus. But has this been discussed? And is consensus the same thing as unanimity? Teams need to talk about exactly how decisions are made, to ensure maximum buy-in and efficiency

Want to learn more about team effectiveness? Please reach out. Conduit Consultants offers workshops to help teams work more effectively and also individual and team coaching and facilitation.


Heifetz, R. A., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Wageman, R., & Hackman, R. (2010). What makes teams of leaders leadable? In N. Nohria (Ed.), Handbook of leadership theory and practice: An HBS Centennial Colloquium on advancing leadership (pp. 475-522). Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business Press.

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