Signs Your Team Is Too Strong for Its Own Good

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We talk about building strong teams as though there’s no upper limit — stronger is always better. But it turns out, you can go too far. It’s possible for a team to be too strong. In fact, one of the primary drags on organizational performance is the natural consequence of managers paying too much — not too little — attention to the strength of their own team.

I first noticed this 30 years ago when I worked with the training department of a large international company. The training manager demanded that my company write an exclusive contract that said we’d be the sole providers of our products and services to all divisions of the organization. I thought the emphasis on exclusivity was strange. I worried that the training manager’s goal was less about organization development and more about kingdom building. Soon thereafter, this training manager learned that some distant division was using some of our public domain IP to teach their managers — without involving the training department. After they refused his “cease and desist” request, he called me to make them stop — by suing them!

Certainly the work of team leaders is to turn a collection of individuals into a productive collective. But if their focus stops there, the larger enterprise will inevitably devolve into a bunch of competing tribes — in which organizational mission is subordinated to team performance and identification with the team is less a function of healthy trust and more of mutual protection.

Our VitalSmarts global “Cultural Operating System” study involved over 10,000 managers and executives from hundreds of organizations in an attempt to find the cultural “viruses” that most sapped the ability to execute and innovate. We sat up and took notice when we discovered that over-identification with a team dragged execution and innovation down by 11% and 12% respectively.

Flawless execution and consistent innovation can’t happen unless managers see their job as building “the team” rather than “my team.” Otherwise, tribalism trumps mission.

Here are four questions to ask to assess whether you are a carrier of the tribal virus or whether you’re contributing to enterprise health:

Tribe or Team?

  1. Do I frame our budget and resources as property or stewardship? If you follow the “use it or lose it” dictum with your budgets and engage in budget planning defensively — you’re building a tribe.
  1. Do I describe team goals as means or ends? If you spend little time reminding team members how your tasks connect with the company’s mission — you’re building a tribe.
  1. Do I refer to outsiders as competitors or teammates? If you refer to colleagues in other departments in derogatory, dehumanizing, or categorical terms (“Just blame upper management,” “Engineering did it again,” or “Good luck getting approval from the bean counters”) — you’re building a tribe.
  1. Is outside contact beyond your team free or monitored? If you require teammates to check with you before or immediately after connecting with those above you or outside your boundaries — you’re building a tribe.

Tribalism is natural. Humans have a natural conservative bias in assessing threats — mistrust is the default condition. Thus, we have a difficult time thinking good thoughts and feeling a sense of connection with those outside our immediate experience. The only thing team leaders need to do to create a culture of competing tribes is: nothing. In order to break down tribalism, though, they need to actively and intentionally foster three vital behaviors:

  1. Frequent exploration. People can’t care about what they don’t experience. It’s only through frequent contact with colleagues working diverse problems associated with the company’s mission that people come to identify with and feel responsible for larger goals. Great team leaders enable and require frequent connection with the larger “team.”
  1. 360 accountability. The best expression of commitment to the company’s mission is the willingness to raise problems — even interpersonally uncomfortable ones — that fall outside their smaller “team” stewardship.

The best predictor of the health of an organization is the average lag time between identifying and discussing problems — especially team problems. Tribalism dissolves when people are convinced that if they see something they can say something — whether to a senior executive or a manager in a distant division; no one is bigger than the mission. This kind of enterprise-wide accountability norm dramatically accelerates both problem solving and change.

Organizations that want to pivot rapidly and execute flawlessly can’t afford to wait for accountability to happen from the top down. They depend on a culture that rapidly connects awareness with responsibility no matter how far separated they are on an org chart.

  1. Periodic sacrifice. The second most important expression of identification with team rather than tribe is the frequency with which you sacrifice a team need to an enterprise need. If this isn’t happening, you’re building a tribe.

I once watched an instant transformation of tribe into team. During a combative capital budgeting exercise amongst a group of executives in a financial services company, one VP made the following statement: “It’s clear there is more growth opportunity in Andrew’s division than mine. Let’s talk about how much capital we should shift from my division to his.”

An embarrassed silence was followed by guilty reciprocity when two others grudgingly, then genuinely, joined into the new ethic of enterprise over tribe by making similar offers.

Frequent self-examination for the four indicators of the tribal virus — and intentional promotion of these three behaviors — will help you strike the right balance in building your team.

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