FIRST CLASS COACH - I've moved to a new company at senior management level and am amazed to find the 'team' I've joined is completely dysfunctional. People spend more time on turf wars than on driving the business forward. Is there anything I can do?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I've moved to a new company at senior management level and am amazed to find the 'team' I've joined is completely dysfunctional. People spend more time on turf wars than on driving the business forward. Is there anything I can do?

In my work I've encountered many groups of managers who are individually talented but together add up to less than the sum of the parts. As one of my clients lamented at our briefing session: 'Team meetings are the least productive time any of us spend.'

A contributory factor seems to be that the drive and ambition that propelled these individuals to senior positions is the very quality that gets in the way of their becoming effective team members. Teams can struggle for years with internal competition and poor communication hampering output.

It becomes the norm and is not really noticed by those within the pattern, only by newcomers like you.

Before you wade in and try to improve things, it is important to be clear whether the team really is dysfunctional or just more aggressive in style than you are used to but nevertheless effective.

A starting point for your assessment could be the categorisations identified by Gareth Lloyd Jones (late of the BBC) and Rob Goffee, of London Business School, in their recent book The Character of a Corporation. They point to two divergent dynamics in company behaviour: sociability and solidarity.

These are present to differing degrees in different organisations and in different teams. In some businesses - for example, management consultancies - there is considerable solidarity for the life of a project between those engaged in it, but not very much sociability in an essentially temporary team. In other businesses, such as start-ups with active founding partners, sociability and solidarity can both be high, with tightly knit team members spending a lot of time together, at work and socially.

The team you have joined is there for a purpose and that might not require close teamwork to be effective, even though this may be the way you personally prefer to work. However, having done your analysis, you may still decide that the team is under-performing and needs attention. One problem I foresee is that, if the team has become set in its ways, members may be reluctant to change and your intervention will be unwelcome, casting you as someone who 'doesn't understand the way we do things'.

For this reason it's useful to involve an objective third party to help the team get a perspective on itself. Third parties can help to enhance team performance by focusing on the big picture of what the team jointly has to achieve; by defining the mutual goal in ways that make it motivational to all participants; and by creating an honest forum where people can learn how their own behaviours are affecting the team, positively and negatively.

If the team leader acknowledges the problem but there is no budget for outside help, you could try to get the team to heal itself by taking time out, on neutral territory, to think about the way you work and how you can enhance it.

One approach worth trying is to create a team template, a mutual definition of what your group believe are productive ways of working together. You will all have had experience of being teams, good and bad, at work and at home, and you can start by discussing your individual experience of what works and what is counterproductive. Then move on to define the five characteristics that make a great team. Ideally, you will reach consensus, but if necessary vote on it. In less than two hours, you will have produced a template of what your team regard as the ideal.

Even by getting this far, you will have had a positive experience of working as a team, have collectively identified some of the behaviours falling short of the ideal, and made the topic a public one, to be revisited later. If together you can also identify some relevant, practical steps to move you towards the ideal, and commit to them, there's a good chance that things will change and some aspects of team interaction will improve.

If you can't get the team leader to initiate a team review, you can still do something yourself to prompt positive change. Start by modelling the behaviour of a good team player: focus on shared business goals, listen to other members' points of view, and be honest about your own priorities; share information; and be tolerant of difference; provide feedback on the contribution of others; and so on. In a small way you'll be following Mahatma Ghandi's advice to 'be the difference you seek to make', and you may well make some headway.

Miranda Kennett is managing coach at The Coaching House and a founding partner of The Management Due Diligence Co. If you have an issue you would like covered in this column, please e-mail:

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