Sometimes, even high-performing teams lose their way. They derail.
Successful teams—teams that have been working together for a long time, that easily find ways of collaborating and getting the most of every team member, that have clear goals and trust, that get results—can get off track.
Teams’ strengths and behavior norms can become their weaknesses.
It turns out that teams, just like individuals, tend to derail under certain circumstances—under conditions of stress, uncertainty, and unfamiliar circumstances. Many high-performing teams that work well day-to-day in a predictable environment with routine processes don’t do so well when the game changes or stress goes up. Their habitual methods of working together can go awry.
For example, an accounting department’s leadership team may work wonderfully together ten months of the year, but when they are closing the books, or tax season hits, they “lose it.” Or, a leadership team that worked smoothly together for years, may “lose it” when faced with a high-risk/high-gain merger. Or, a self-directed manufacturing team may work well together, until they need to change a process.
Case in point.
Consider the following (real) senior leadership team.
If you are familiar with the Hogan Development Survey, you will have noticed that a large proportion of the team members is at risk for derailing due to being reserved. That is, they have a tendency to be aloof and to withdraw under stressful conditions.
This team has developed a tradition of thinking through problems and then convening when everyone has an opinion and is ready to talk about it. However, when faced with stressful/unfamiliar circumstances or a heavy workload, this tradition hurts them. They don’t easily think through problems, so they tend not to meet. And when they do meet, there is little generative discussion, let alone productive conflict or healthy adaptation. The team derails.
There are three main patterns of derailment.
The team described above is not alone. We have found that teams tend to derail in three main ways:
- Moving away from people—Withdrawing from productive conflict and conversation when a steady deliberate presence is needed to motivate and direct
- Moving against people—Moving too aggressively to dominate and squelching others when a more moderate, toned-down approach would allow others to contribute
- Moving toward people—Practicing conformity and obedience as a way of getting along with others (consider “groupthink” and the Bay of Pigs) even when having diverse/innovative perspectives are expected
At Linkage, we have started using a derailer’s assessment to find out—and to communicate—how a team reacts in challenging circumstances, and the above patterns are often uncovered in our assessment and feedback sessions.
Forewarned is forearmed.
Team members often share certain traits that will prevent them from adapting and learning in the most stressful conditions. This makes sense, because teams often attract or add members with similar temperaments. It makes the day-to-day work easier. But it can create a blind spot that is only visible when the heat is on. There is hope, though. We’ve found that teams that know how they tend to derail are better prepared to meet challenging circumstances and stay on track.
Do you recognize yourself (or your teammates) in one of the three derailing patterns? How does that change the dynamic of the team when it’s crunch time?