A Team of Five has 59,048 Possibilities to Under-Perform

For a team to truly perform well, there must be excellent relationships among all team members. We covered that in the previous issue.

On a five-person team, there are 59,048 other possible relationship combinations. Person A gets on with Person B, but not with Persons C, D and E. Person B gets on well with Persons C and E, but not so much with the rest, and so on. With weak connections, the team under-performs.

My key point here is to make you more aware of how important the quality of individual relationships are in delivering a top performance.

I mentioned previously that mechanical systems are per definition stable and organic systems are per definition unstable. By unstable, we mean that the system is in a constant flux—always in transition from one state to another.

One aspect of the instability in a five-person team is the quantity and quality of connections—the relationships—between team members.

Two people can have three types of relationships—good, neutral or bad. Yes, I know, I am already simplifying things here.

ISS. 12 FIG. 1 (3)If there are three members, there are suddenly 27 possible variations.
ISS. 12 FIG. 2 (27)When they become four, it jumps to 729.
ISS. 12 FIG. 3 (729)At five, it is suddenly a whopping 59,049 different combinations.
ISS. 12 FIG. 4 (59,049)Only one combination results in a high performance team.

And that's just part of the story.

Each team member is also an organic system; therefore, also unstable; i.e., happy, hungry, tired. With each state, there is a mood, a mindset, priorities and needs. More or less, these will consciously affect the relationships. Add that into the mix and you begin to understand that team work is maybe not as easy as it sounds.

As a team leader, all these variables are unbelievably complex to grasp. We take the easy way out and try to reduce them to something simpler and ignore the complexity.

But not paying attention does not make the problem go away.

It is our favorite trick as human beings: to simplify things that we cannot grasp. In order to do that, we use two key tools: disconnection and reduction.

We break up the system and disconnect the parts or chunks from the rest to make them more manageable. We reduce things to parts in the hopes of understanding the whole by just examining some parts.

I am not saying that you can control all these relationships, but the least you can do is to make an effort to help manage them as opposed to pretending that the problem does not exist.

You will not survive in an increasingly complex world by ignoring the complexity.

You must develop complexity awareness.

What does that mean in practical terms?

It means you must be aware that:

  • When you add or remove a team member, you change the relationship dynamics.
  • The number of people on a team is crucial to the quality of the relationships. More than five is where it starts to get tricky.
  • The whole and the parts are unstable by nature. Acknowledge and plan for this.
  • Each person arrives at work in a different state every day. You cannot do much about it, but you need to factor it in. That is why we do check-ins.

The only people I know who take all this relationship management stuff seriously are Special Forces soldiers—maybe because their lives depend on it. As one of them explained me to once, when you are in deep trouble behind enemy lines, you do not want to have any doubts or misgivings about your colleague, or vice versa. It could be fatal.

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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