The Power Of Teams

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

All-star teams are losing teams.

Henley Management College as it was known then, is located on Greenlands, a picturesque estate on the bank of the Thames River. It’s here that Meredith Belbin and his team conducted extensive research on teams in the 1960’s, and where I would complete postgraduate management studies many years later.

What he discovered was there are important roles within teams that are not exclusive and must be fulfilled for teams to function well, different personality types tend to cluster around these roles, once a team breaches a threshold of about 10 members it tends to become less efficient, and, importantly, it’s not enough to fill all the roles in a team, it also depends on how those roles interact. What he described in effect is a complex social system.

Around the same time, Bruce Tuckman described the social dynamics involved when groups form through what became known as forming, storming, norming, performing, and mourning. When people form or join groups, they establish relationships, get to know the task, and begin establishing ground rules for conduct, followed by a period of instability, then starts functioning collectively as a group around shared norms, and finally, perform the task based on evolving roles. Some groups break up after the task is completed, or members leave, followed in some instances by a grief reaction. Sherif and others showed groups emerge spontaneously very quickly even without a specific task around minimal shared interests.

Although neither Belbin nor Tuckman explicitly pointed to the social nature of their models, it is what they are in practice. Therein lies the trap; many people subsequently interpreted their findings mechanistically and tried applying it as a formula on the assumptions teams work like clocks and therefore can be optimized, repaired by replacing parts, or perfected by combining the best parts. However, all-star teams rarely function well.

As social systems, teams represent an average slice of society. For them to work, you need many different personality types, mental abilities, and skills. The outcome doesn’t depend on having the right people, but on how well they interact with each other. Teams in which all members are the same typically don’t work well, specifically if based on mental ability. In the real world some organizations and specifically bureaucracies attract similar types of people, and, lacking the variety required to evolve, ossify.

Well-functioning teams have at least one creative individual challenging what goes on as a counter balance to stagnant routines, provided they are recognized and managed by a leader or manager understanding this role. The immune system of bureaucracies effectively eliminates this type, and in the business world they are usually buried in specialized roles where they have no impact. Hence bureaucracies of all types lack the creative yeast needed to flourish.

Leadership is a social role, not a position as in the clockwork model. As Belbin pointed out, you don’t have to be very smart to be a leader, instead you must have a deep understanding of the social dynamics of teams. Different types of leadership are required at different times; hence leaders must be adaptable. Contrast this to the prevailing concept of leadership as a position giving you the power to make things happen through organizing people from outside. Leadership as a role also implies followership, hence what matters is how leaders and followers interact. Followership is irrelevant to leadership as a position, since followers can be replaced with more pliant ones following orders unquestioningly.

As Hernes pointed out, organizations are an ongoing flow of processes based on people’s connectedness, in which organizational life fluctuates while maintaining a measure of order emerging from the processes and interactions. Any attempt to change from the outside is destabilizing and destroys processes and relationships. The alternative is changing processes and connectedness from the inside through conversation, dialogue, adaptive changes, and learning.

The current norm is bringing in new all-star leaders or consultants from the outside who through force of will or superior intelligence change things, assuming if you change the coach, the same team will start winning. That only works if coaching is a role and the new coach understands team dynamics. General Electric Chairman and CEO Jack Welch got the nickname Neutron Jack for eliminating employees and leaving only empty buildings behind, and left an almighty mess as his legacy. Many still believe this type of heroic leadership to bring about change is the way to go, not realizing it is obsolete in today’s complex society.

Sadly, the same disregard for people and teams prevails in Canada’s health care bureaucracies. When people talk about health care teams, they talk about clockwork teams, and when they talk about leadership they talk about a position. It is disgrace that an industry named health care, cares so little about the people working in it. There is a desperate need for heeding the wisdom of Belbin, Tuckman, and Hernes, but as long as it suits politicians to appoint neutron bomb leaders, the health care soldiers in the trenches will be sacrificed and massacred. What’s needed instead is leaders of Belbin’s kind, who understand teams and their social dynamics.

Apparently, nothing will happen until it is too late and our health care system completely collapses. Perhaps when we build something new from the rubble, we can get it right.