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How to deal with dysfunctional leadership teams

Rob Pyne, Leadership Coach and Author

The success of our organizations and business – their very survival even – is predicated on having an effective leadership team. And yet a McKinsey survey of 500 executives in Building Teamwork in Leadership showed that 80% did not think their leadership team was a high-performing one. If you are one of the 80% who believes your leadership team is somewhere between disastrous, dysfunctional and doing-just-enough, then what can you do?

Get perspective
First, you’re going to need to get some perspective. In the same McKinsey study, 80% of the executives rated themselves as having the skills needed to perform their role, but only 30% said the same was true of all their colleagues. Recognize that your view might not be right. Be open to your own role in the dysfunction. You can ask your colleagues to rate the team on the three types of intelligence a leadership team needs.

  • ‘How strong are our relationships within the leadership team?’ is the EQ (Emotional Intelligence) question.
  • ‘How effective are we at thinking through problems together, developing solutions and making collective decisions?” is the IQ (Creative-Analytical Intelligence) question.
  • ‘How good are we at delivering results, executing projects and driving transformation?” is the PQ (Practical Intelligence) question.

You can ask these questions in a team meeting, through a survey, or by using an external facilitator to interview team members. The emotional intelligence of the team creates the very foundations on which you can build creative-analytical and practical intelligence. Therefore, we’ll focus on how to build emotional intelligence.

The troublesome individual
Occasionally, the underlying issues in a dysfunctional leadership team come down to one disruptive individual. In Anita Williams Woolley’s research into collective intelligence, she found that a single disruptive team member could significantly decrease the whole team’s ability to solve problems. If that’s the case in your team, then the leader must make an intervention with the disruptor to agree what behaviours are necessary in the leadership team, and where that individual needs to step up. There is little point in having the whole team discuss the team’s performance issues if the elephant is – literally – in the room.

Resetting the team
More often, the team has muddled its way to mediocrity or descended into dysfunction. Usually, this is due to a lack of agreement about what makes a good leadership team and how this team needs to ‘show up’. A team can do a ‘hard reset’ which starts with aligning on answers to three simple questions: why, what and how.

Why do we exist as a leadership team – what value do we create and for whom?

Therefore, what should we be focused on, what are our priorities, what should we talk about in meetings? And therefore, how often should we meet, what different types of meeting do we need to have, and how should we behave?

Answering these questions helps create the ‘emotional foundations’ of the team; it creates the conditions where trust, honesty and psychological safety are possible.

Encouraging one-on-one feedback
Once you’ve created the conditions for emotional intelligence, it’s time to help the individuals build relationships. If you have seven people in your leadership team, the number of pair relationships is twenty-one. Each of those relationships needs some attention and each of your colleagues has a perspective worth listening to . If you can get the team to take some time ‘off the track’, which I call a team pit stop, then you can organize the team to have a 1-1 chat with each of their colleagues. Give them a topic and guidance. I like to say, “go for a short 10 min walk and share with your colleague one thing they could do to make a better contribution to the team. Make sure you are sharing it from a place of genuine generosity.”

If these conversations are set up well, to explicitly avoid “airing your frustrations with each other” then I’ve seen them completely shift the team dynamics.

Taking the emotional temperature
Once you’ve addressed problematic individuals, and reset the emotional foundations of the team, then you should regularly take the emotional temperature of the room by checking on with how everyone is feeling.

There are three obvious times to do this. At the start of your team meetings, it can be a good idea to check in how everyone is doing at work and in life. At the end of meetings, you can quickly ask, ‘how did everyone feel about today’s meeting? Did we talk about the right topics? Did we get the right outcomes? Did we hold to our standards? And finally, every quarter you can re-run the survey or interviews I mentioned at the start of this article to check on your progress. Are we working better as a leadership team now than we were last quarter?

From toxic to terrific
It can take up to 12 months for a leadership team to really hit its stride. But when you get there, you’ll feel like your leadership team meetings are your best meetings of the month, and that you’re build a team which is smarter than the sum of its parts.

Rob Pyne, author of Unlock: Leveraging the Hidden Intelligence in Your Leadership Team

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