Friday, February 28, 2014

In the name of ‘dynamic adjustment’ – Teams in Downturns and Upheavals

I have facilitated interactions in top teams to unblock their energies on several occasions. The period post-2008 has been particularly interesting for the insights each facilitation experience threw up. Let us examine some of them.
1.       Risk-averse team players are unaware of what they are unaware.
Teams in crisis are often hostage to the choices of key individuals. That is to say that if the authority is active in the team, there’s at least one person with titular or social power over others in the team.  The sheer discretion in sanction makes this power amplified in experience. With unequal advantage over specified resources like money and material, they tend to swear by deliverables (deliverance is another conversation). They are seduced and mesmerised in trappings of an economic contract that also gives them social power over others, irrespective of and sometimes, in spite of their knowledge of tasks and their impact. Yes.

They are risk averse for the most part, and fend their role boundaries to preserve their social identity perceptions. In doing so, they endanger their respective teams and the aggregate top team too.

Let us say there are 4 such persons with their respective pyramids in a team at the top. These 4 persons are in most cases found stuck in a dynamic that is more concerned with their fiefs than with what they could accomplish between themselves. They get so busy with short-feedback loops of tasks within their control, that they fail to see the larger picture. Seeking job security in and with operational execution, they leave overall strategic leadership matters to chance. This is not the conversational upward delegation syndrome, but the wishful thinking that if operations are ensured, strategy would be taken care of by those with the social power. Oh, how they blind each other without knowing it! The alibi they project status quo in is sworn integrity to their respective roles!

2.       Teams in crisis tend to reap the very whirlwind they want to avoid 
Why? Very strange, you may say. In a variation of the Abilene paradox, my learning has been that due to their excessive task orientation, team-members under-estimate the inter-personal competence required to confront each other. Such underdeveloped synchrony of social intelligence blocks from themselves the learning pregnant in their environments. Whether industry trends, innovative technologies and business processes of competition; these signals are below any radar that the team may have to interpret meaning and consequence.
In selfish motives of trying to protect their jobs in limited loops with a supervisor, they are uncomfortable testing early understanding of team synergy. Leaders at the top grope for reasons of team dysfunctionality. They pigeon-hole their slices of convenient evidence in a fragments of a whole. Reality eludes them like heaven eludes the strivers on earth. Why did old-fashioned diligence, consistency of purpose, charm and civility do little to protect them from the deep impasse? Found wanting for courage individually and collectively, they are often like children at a fair who lose their way in the festive spirit of an aimless crowd. Then they ask the control room to announce over the public address system that they have lost each other!
In one case, a CEO was just too nice to others within his team (read excessive need for approval), that he forgot to appreciate how the kindness killed his own edge in influencing them to do what they may not do otherwise. In another case, the leader was caught up in making a mark with revenue top-lines. He destroyed his own capacity to absorb and detect signals from his team to the impending long-term incapacity of the organisation. There have also been cases of cross-border team initiatives, where out of sight had been out of mind, until a facilitation opportunity meant speaking issues to each other’s face, and realising as a consequence how they hold themselves back habitually.

3.       Goals trump Style, but Style trumps the moment.
I have often found that when members are fused with a sense of shared purpose, seldom do they consider interpersonal issues as the dynamic of focus. They may focus on procedures, protocols or even role and team charters. Team Maturity takes time with each other.

Consensual social attraction also imbues the leader with powers of sanction with apparent status.  This creates a status-based distinction within the group.  The leader(s) and followers syndrome kicks in without much bother, due to limitations in interpersonal range. This has characteristics of unequal status intergroup relations.

 In addition, a fundamental attribution process constructs a charismatic leadership personality for the leader, which further empowers the leader and sharpens the leader–follower status hiatus. This prototype-based leadership breeds a lack of debate, and the team drains up energy faster than they know what goals they are assembled for in the first place.

In rhythmic consonance, members in a team tend to get set in patterns. These patterns are signaled by the behaviors emitted between the leader and the immediate roles around the leader role. If social power is usurped through charisma, the leader’s style has disproportionate influence over less assertive souls whose allegiance is as fragile as the regularity of their pay-check. In this syndrome, team Goals are trumped by the leader’s style. It takes a deft facilitation to depersonalise the team construct in such cases, and then design for the alternate choices for those involved in the team. The opportunity can unfold possibilities for all members with stake in the situation. Design thinking is so vital here.
Prickly downturn situations are like this fencing around a rotting stem 

Summary: Trust from togetherness is germane to the human bond irrespective of economic climate. We underestimate is the power of the environment beyond the organisation’s boundary.  It determines climate and culture in the organisation, much more than we care to acknowledge.

It is such a contrast that in years of business growth, arrogance, hubris, competitive myopia and turf wars dominated as dysfunctions in a team. It may be quick and convenient to label and look for similar phenomena in downturns. In downturns, the patterns of team dynamics are not as clear or similarly bracketed. They are a mix of role design, goal clarity, and procedural constraints that get played out through anxious overtones of a myriad personality.

Perhaps, there is a remnant of behaviors learnt during economic growth in downturn dynamics too. In teams experiencing the downturn, situations are ripe with first signs of overlearning. When left to themselves, team-members are unable to use alternate approaches or styles in interaction, let alone focus on goals, roles and procedures that can enable effective interactions. It takes conscious effort to ask and assist when in top leadership teams.

It is in unconscious regression to known ways of operation that past learning deceives us. Phenomena of emergent nature are not the same as problems of yesterday.  The teaming paradox related to learning is this : The capability to get past setbacks and the resilience to successfully overcome constraints is not a stored capability, but a capacity to be explored in interdependence. 

What have you experienced in teams of today? What do you see as you look beyond the balloon bursting cracks of pent-up cynicism? And the cake plastering on faces that feign compensation for lack of recognition?