Is Your Management Team a Real Team or Just a Pseudo Team?

Is your management team a team?

The system favors the pseudo team.

Culture eats the system for breakfast.

Characteristics of the Pseudo Team

Is your management team a team?

This probably depends on how you have chosen to define the word team. If your definition is that we all have a common goal or purpose, then, in all probability, you consider yourselves a team.

But if you think more closely about that definition, then you could say that everyone running the Berlin Marathon is a team because they have the common goal of finishing the marathon in the fastest possible time.

Obviously, they are not a team.

A more purist approach to the definition of a team, and the one I prefer, is that a team is a group of people who have a common goal and who hold themselves mutually responsible for reaching it.

Ah, now that changes the picture a bit.

Do you feel mutually responsible for reaching the overall business goals of your company? Meaning, if you notice that I am in difficulty with some part of my area of responsibility, will you come to my assistance to make sure that we reach our overall goal?

Most probably not. If you do, consider yourselves lucky. It is something I do not see often. But if not, you are probably not working as true team. You are what we call a pseudo team.

Is that a problem?

In so far as it is almost the standard you could say, most companies seem to make it work.

Could it be better?

Yes, clearly there's is an enormous upside, in terms of performance and overall thriving on the job, if you make the transition from a pseudo team to a fully integrated interdependent team.

Why does it not happen more often?

The system favors the pseudo team.

The reason so few management teams are real teams is built into the system. You could say that we sabotage the exact notion of ever becoming a true team by design.

The typical organization is divided up into departments or sections. Each section has a department head who in turn is part of the overall management team.

This is a favorite way of management thinking: We divide things up into parts and by closely managing each part, we assume that the overall result will be greater than the sum of each part—

—only that, most of the time, it does not happen.

The only way the parts will become an effective whole is if they are treated as a whole and not as parts.

Let me explain:

If you are Section Head A and I am Section Head B and we are judged, promoted and remunerated by how well we attain our individual goals, there is not much reason for us to collaborate. More precisely, I will collaborate with you as long as it specifically furthers my own performance areas; the rest is not my problem.

But that is the lesser of two evils and many companies elaborate complicated bonus systems where you get points for collaboration or achievement of overall company goals, among others.

But it is just fresh paint on a rotten system.

Because every day, the reality is that you are held responsible by your boss, and in a certain sense, the others in the management group for your specific part of the performance.

If you hold me responsible for something, my first reaction is that I need to have clear boundaries. You need to define clearly for me what is within my responsibility and what is outside my responsibility. How else can I be responsible?

If I have been in the game a bit, I will have learned that the trick is to narrow down my own areas of responsibility and create firm boundaries towards others’ areas of responsibility.

Do you see where this is going?

The more hard boundaries I create in the system, the less it becomes a whole system and instead, in reality, it becomes several smaller systems. Some would call them silos.

Suddenly, you find yourself sitting in the dreaded management team meetings, not as team members with a common goal, but individual representatives of your territories—mainly haggling over resource allocation and definitions of boundaries.

Is that inspiring? Probably not.

What is the solution?

Culture eats the system for breakfast.

The solution is to create a culture where we do not hold people responsible, but where people take responsibility. When you do that, it becomes a game changer.

The difference is sometimes hard to wrap our heads around conceptually, but let me give you an example.

We have the weekly management team meeting. A customer sent us a written complaint about something last week that went horribly wrong. The knee jerk response is to determine whose department was responsible for that. Then, we nail them.

But in a complex environment, the problem is that placing blame on just one department or person rarely makes sense. Around the table are colleagues who will be relieved that they are not in the firing line just now. But if they are honest, they are thinking, “Yes, I did see that problem coming,” or “I did hear something before that happened that I could have flagged,” and maybe it could have been prevented.

But as it was outside their boundaries and that they have enough on their plates already they did nothing.

When the complaint comes in, instead of looking for the fault or looking to place blame, we need to ask, “What could we have done to avoid this happening?" "What are we going to do to make it good again?"

In that crucial we, we recognize the interdependence—that most of what we do is complex and that we are interdependent and mutually responsible for each other.

It is rarely someone’s fault. It is our fault. We screwed up.

In most cases, it makes little sense to isolate incidents in order to determine the precise cause. Most of what happens is a chain of events, and it is not always the last step in the chain that is the real cause.

Now, don't get me wrong. It may be a simple issue. A department head may raise their hand and say, “Let’s not waste too much time on this today. I screwed up. This is what happened. This is what I need to do to fix it.”

Great. End of story. Next item.

But that, my friends, is the crucial cultural difference between a group of people who we hold responsible and a team where they take responsibility.

Characteristics of the Pseudo Team

This is the top management group, where department heads see themselves mainly—almost exclusively—as in charge of their own silos. The regular weekly or monthly meeting is an exchange of information on a need-to-know basis. There is no actual teamwork—as such, no high level exchange of ideas nor the solution of complex problems. Department heads favor 1-on-1 sessions with the CEO to solve their issues. They seldom bring them to the group; thus, there is little transparency.

Group members will have informal discussions in pairs or three outside the main group. The main group meetings are experienced as neither productive nor inspiring. Some of the participants have a tendency to skip them if they possibly can get away with it and it's not uncommon for the regular meeting to be cancelled.

Further Reading: Leadership: What, Why and How

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Mike Hohnen, MBA is a coach, trainer, author and public speaker who supports leaders, managers and their teams in implementing the principles of the Service Profit Chain.


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