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Five reasons teams are dysfunctional

I was recently asked to run a team-building workshop based on the 2002 book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Let me summarise what author Patrick Lencioni laid out in his gripping fable about how Kathryn Petersen, DecisionTech’s newly installed CEO, faced the ultimate leadership crisis: uniting a team in such disarray that it threatened to bring down the entire company.

For most of the book it is uncertain as to whether she would succeed, but her experience from elsewhere allowed her to work with the awkward set of characters who made up the senior management team, and against all odds the company survived.

Lencioni is of the view that teams are inherently dysfunctional, made up of imperfect individuals who suffer from inflated egos and pursue selfish goals. Here’s how the book opens: “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”

I’ll comment later on that view, but let me continue with his valid conclusion that strong and deliberate steps must be taken to facilitate teamwork. The fictional book shows how a skilled team leader can do a great deal to make their team effective, and it takes us through Kathryn’s manoeuvres to rescue the dysfunctional group of characters the board had hired her to sort out.

Through his story, Lencioni reveals the five dysfunctions which go to the heart of why teams struggle so badly. At the base of his pyramid of dysfunctions lies the absence of trust, which prevents team members from showing vulnerability within their group.

In the context of building a team, trust enables team members to be confident that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. Teammates must become comfortable being vulnerable with one another.

Above mistrust comes fear of conflict, where those involved seek artificial harmony over constructive, passionate debate. Next, and again as a result of the lower dysfunction, is lack of commitment, merely pretending to buy in to group decisions, thereby creating ambiguity and lack of clarity.

All this sees team members avoid holding each other accountable, with low standards the consequence. And finally there’s lack of focus on results, as status and ego interfere with harmonised action.

To conclude, therefore, Lencioni urges us to find people who can demonstrate trust, engage in conflict, commit to group decisions, hold their peers accountable, and focus on the results of the team and not on own egos.

While the book is certainly exciting to read, full of breakthroughs and setbacks, I emerged less than convinced by Lencioni’s pessimistic view of human nature, and I also had reservations about his exclusive focus on overcoming the negative dysfunctions while insufficiently nurturing their positive counterparts.

Lencioni has his CEO relish conflict as a means of resolving issues, and while where there are conflicts they should indeed not be avoided, I am not convinced that she need have taken her team on such a painful journey.

Indeed in my workshop I had the team focus on how to build on the positive aspects within their team of the five functions of trust, dealing with conflict, commitment, accountability and focus on results.

It’s a great quintet of team factors, but my approach of working with “Appreciative Inquiry” would have me guide Kathryne differently. Also, my experience is different from Lencioni’s in that I have not found teamwork to be “so rare”.

However, I strongly recommend that you read the book, since it will stimulate you – as it did me – to reflect deeply on how people behave and what drives them, and then to assess whether the approach Lencioni advocates is the one you as a leader would feel is the one to adopt. It’s a book you won’t want to put down.

Before the workshop, the team members were also invited to watch a TED talk by Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson that nicely complemented the Lencioni book.

Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8 The essence of her talk was that where there is complexity, uncertainty and interdependence, one should promote curiosity and experimentation, accept fallibility, and so deliver psychological safety. Sounds like good advice.

Managing change in Kenya

This article was first published in November 2021 in the London Business School THINK magazine. Mike Eldon graduated from the LBS Sloan Masters Programme in Leadership and Strategy.


An LBS Sloan Fellow recalls being thrown into his first leadership role and going on to transform the organisational culture.

Three years after completing the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy programme in 1974, ICL – the British computer multinational for which I was working – transferred me from the UK to Kenya to run its subsidiary there. It was my first major management appointment, leading around 100 Kenyans – including a senior management team that was just taking over from a group of British expatriates and for whom this was therefore also a baptism in leadership.

My British bosses expected me to be a distant, feared and unsmiling instruction-giver, as my expat predecessors had been. To a significant extent my direct reports also expected such behaviour, never mind those in more junior positions. These were the normal parent-child, “I’m OK-You’re not OK” relationships of the time, practised not only by expats from the former colonial masters and elsewhere but also by local leaders – reflecting the deep-rooted local culture of great respect for seniors that assumed the steepest of organisational pyramids with the largest of power gaps between levels.

So here I was, plunged into a country I knew so little about, in a culture so different from the one I was familiar with in Britain, expected to act as a know-it-all in my new environment: change in reverse gear. I was determined to flatten the pyramid, and this transformation I undertook by spelling out my expectation of adult-adult, ‘I’m OK-You’re OK’ relationships and then helping the team to develop such ways of interacting with me and with others. Against the odds, I managed to nurture their path to maturity.

It was a fascinating time, acting as a pioneer for spreading the use of technology in a country that was already ahead of the game relative to elsewhere in Africa, and Kenya has been my home ever since. I continued as a CEO in the IT vendoring business as mini-computers replaced mainframes, in turn giving way to personal computers and laptops; as our customers’ huge systems and programming departments shrank with the advent of software packages; and later as the Internet linked us into the global village. So much change, with each technology not merely enhancing but completely replacing its predecessor.

From IT to management consultancy

My own work as CEO was not significantly affected by these technical revolutions. Rather, it was to help both my staff and my customers deal with the related non-technical challenges, to ease the change management that introducing IT systems always gives rise to. It was a natural transition for me out of the IT industry and into management consultancy. I helped organisations and individuals deal more generally with strategic shifts of all kinds, and with the ever-increasing and unpredictable pace of change. I took on directorships too, in which roles I also helped with such issues, and became a columnist for Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper.

One company where I have been a director for many years is Davis & Shirtliff, which operates in the water and energy sector in numerous African countries and is headquartered in Nairobi. Its Chairman Alec Davis attended London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme in 1992, and its Group CEO David Gatende participated in the same programme in 2010. This was when David met Costas Markides, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS, and he recently invited him to join us by video for our Annual Management Conference.

I had just published an article on how to influence change, so listening to Costas speak on the subject at that conference – never mind enjoying how he made his points in such a lively and humorous way – was a great experience, as it was for all those attending virtually from around Eastern and Central Africa.

Costas is, like me, an economist by education, and again like me he migrated into strategy, with social psychology a key ingredient. In his talk he reflected on how strategy must incorporate innovativeness, agility and resilience, and concluded that so much of what differentiates those who succeed relates to how they are able to influence people’s behaviour.

Behavioural change that lasts

He told the story of the patients who had been released from hospital following major heart surgery and were told that on returning home they needed to stop leading dangerously unhealthy lives: no more smoking or drinking alcohol; healthy eating and plenty of exercise. All very logical and rational. The group was followed for two years, and it was found that whereas all heeded their doctors’ advice in the first month after surgery, 90% of them had reverted to their bad behaviours within six months of their operations.

In Change or Die, author Alan Deutschman described what differentiated the 10% of outliers who held on to what was good for them, Costas related. It was how the doctors went beyond instilling fear in their patients by identifying the consequences of bad behaviour to also talking about positive futures that would result from good behaviour – like envisaging playing with their grandchildren or walking their daughter down the aisle. So to encourage people to change, we must make the need for the change positive, personal and emotional, we heard.

Costas also talked engagingly about how leaders must create an environment that supports the desired behaviours. So if you want your people to be proactive, question what’s happening, collaborate across silos, experiment and assume responsibility, you must generate an appropriate culture based on supportive values; devise measures and incentives that reward such behaviours; develop structures and processes aligned to what you are seeking; and hire people who are likely to be responsive to your aspirations.

This doesn’t mean people in the field can do whatever they want. There must be parameters that define their limits, beyond which they must consult with their bosses – such as if what they are considering lies outside the defined strategy. Above all, Costas told us that we must “treat people as people”, not as “human resources” or robots. They must feel special, working to support an uplifting purpose with which they engage.

For Costas the new normal involves frequent and unpredictable sources of disruption, with inadequate time in which to respond. But the optimist within him reassured us that we must see these disruptions as not just threats but opportunities too. Yet this requires going beyond simply asserting that leaders must lift their people psychologically and emotionally. Leaders must reach out to both the heads and the hearts of their people, enabling them to visualise the fulfilment of the opportunity. Then they will commit to fighting with you.

Leading the way in tech

Through the good number of visionary and empathetic leaders that have emerged in Kenya, the country has reinforced its leadership position in technology – we’re known as “Silicon Savannah” – not least with its global pioneering in processing money transfers through mobile phones.

The change to widespread financial digitisation has been made possible by the implementation of appropriate infrastructure, an enabling set of regulations, and not least the good education level and high energy and curiosity of Kenyans generally. As a result, and accelerated by the Covid pandemic, cashless transactions have become a new normal, including in the remotest of areas and among the poorest of citizens.

So are Kenyans generally good at managing change? We have developed an unusually diversified economy with a strong service component and a robust private sector that benefits from a highly developed entrepreneurial spirit. The era of expatriate leadership is long gone, and indeed so many Kenyans fill senior leadership positions all around Africa and more broadly globally.

Do we need to apply more of what Costas writes about and talks about? Of course. And, as everywhere, those who would most benefit from doing so are the ones least likely to. Here I particularly include the usual suspects: politicians and government bureaucrats; small-scale farmers and pastoralists; and family businesses – including many large ones that should know better.

My own time at LBS was a great experience for me, building both my competence and my confidence and preparing me so well for that life-changing overseas assignment all those years ago. I was by far the youngest in our class, and unlike my fellow students (we were only 16 in all) I had not yet benefited from significant formal leadership experience. But my account management and other previous positions had required me to exert influence even in the absence of authority – if anything, a greater challenge. I had also interacted with the top management levels both among my IT customers and within ICL. And I was ahead of the game as far as use of computers was concerned, more so having spent a year running ICL’s IT strategy workshops for CEOs and top civil servants.

So much of what I learned during the Sloan programme – from fellow students as much as from faculty members – affirmed both the good and the bad of what I had been seeing and doing. I was particularly attracted to organisational development as a topic, as we discussed it in the context of the turbulent industrial relations prevailing at the time in the UK that resulted in a three-day week (although not at LBS). I appreciated the practical approach our professors took, while it took us some time to become reaccustomed to the classroom setting. I have since also treasured my friendship with several of my colleagues in that sixth iteration of the Sloan programme: we still have lunch each time I visit London.

Promoting business school exposure among its staff was entirely new to ICL, and its general environment was actually anti-intellectual. The result was that in order to reintegrate me into the “real world” I was initially posted to a sales branch in the City where neither my boss nor my two salesmen had any university exposure at all and were considerably older than me.

To survive my time there I kept quiet about what I had been exposed at LBS, or I would have been mocked for spouting “ivory tower theories”. Little did they realise what stimulation they were missing out on. I learnt so much about building relationships of mutual respect with others very different from me. It took a great deal of holding back on what I might have offered, and required great humility and other aspects of emotional intelligence. Happily, my patience and perseverance were rewarded when I was asked to move to Africa.

Costas’ recent session for us reminded me of my uplifting days on campus next to Regent’s Park, taking me back to the stimulation that so characterised London Business School then and showing it to be as vibrant now as it was in the 1970s.

Challenges for leaders today… and how to overcome them

  • Uncertainty: Build a culture of trust, allowing for empowerment and delegation, hence agility to handle change
  • Staff retention: Identify an uplifting purpose; emphasise learning and growth, careers beyond present jobs, and provide coaching
  • Compliance: Handle this “necessary evil” calmly and holistically, with leadership from the board and properly resourced specialist functions
  • ESG: Find ways of doing well by doing good – it takes time, but may be easier and more beneficial than you imagined. Helps to attract and retain staff, customers, investors and others.

Nairobi-based Mike Eldon, a Sloan Fellow of London Business School, is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT; co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership; director of Davis & Shirtliff and Chairman of Occidental Insurance; a member of the Advisory Council of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, and a columnist with Business Daily. [email protected]

Are you generating good customer experiences?

In a recent article about that wonderful book Influencers, I mentioned an example of influencing that reminded me of my hospital experience earlier this year.

A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, I wrote, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect. So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly, to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were: smiling; making eye contact; identifying yourself; letting people know what you are doing and why; and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Splendid. And yet I now have an update on this, emerging from a conversation I had with the CEO of Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital, Robert Nyarango, who introduced me to the book If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9½ Things You Would Do Differently, by Fred Lee, a former hospital executive.

On Googling the book, I came across a link to a TED talk on the subject by Mr Lee, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve encountered in a long time.

In the talk, he refers to the exact list of five positive behaviours displayed by the best carers as quoted in the book I’d read… insisting this is far from sufficient to generate the kind of “customer experience” that is possible – and that is offered by organisations like Disney at their Disneyworld sites. (No wonder they call those who visit them “guests” rather than “customers”.)

So what should carers do more than smile, make eye contact and so forth? Mr Lee takes the deliberately mild example of a nurse taking blood for testing, where the patient still may feel unduly anxious about the prospective pain and the complications that may arise.

Where there’s anxiety, he explains, the blood pressure rises and so the pain threshold falls.

We hear from Mr Lee about a study that related the lower pain levels felt by patients whose blood was taken by nurses who received only compliments from patients: the positive consequences of feeling psychologically comfortable with the person inserting the needle.

To distract from patients’ anxiety, carers make small talk, like asking if they live nearby, or getting them to talk about their family. Then, they mention how expert and experienced they are, displaying a reassuring combination of competence and confidence – this with a light touch.

Mr Lee quotes that famous line from W. Edwards Deming, about only managing what you measure, but he adds the far lesser-known additional thought from Deming that being satisfied cannot be measured or scripted, as it only comes from the heart – like wanting to deal with the person again.

The approach to patients by the former hospital executive was transformed by reading the 1999 bestseller The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who described this new way of thinking about connecting with customers and securing their loyalty through offering positive experiences beyond good service.

As I have been doing from time to time since my release from hospital earlier this year, I will again relate to my own customer experience while a patient. The gentleman taking my blood each day was a very jovial fellow, and of course, I wouldn’t have minded were it not that his visits were at 5 am.

He would enter my room with a loud greeting and switch on the light, shocking me into premature wakefulness. I would dread that daily pre-dawn knock on my door by the man I came to call my Dracula, and his high-energy entrances made me feel so uncomfortable that after a few days I requested him to tone down his whole performance, which happily he did.

Here I have been describing how to generate the best possible customer experiences in stressful hospital environments. But as you have been reading I hope you have extrapolated to your own situations.

You have your customer experiences, both positive and negative. But how do the customers of your organisation experience their interactions with your staff?

Do your people know how to put your customers at ease and make them feel good about having interacted with them? Can they hardly wait to deal with them again?

Challenges to change in dynamic business world

Since writing my last article on how to influence change, I have had the privilege of listening to Costas Markides, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School and author of several outstanding books on the subject — including his latest one, Organising for the New Normal.

He was a delight to be with online at the Davis & Shirtliff management conference in which I was participating, making his points in such a lively and humorous way. Don’t take my word for it though, listen to him on this podcast, ‘Resilience mindset and the new normal’ on YouTube. You won’t regret it.

Costas — which I am sure is how he’d like me to refer to him — is, like me, an economist by education, and again like me he migrated into strategy. As with anyone who works in this field these days he reflected deeply on how the strategy must incorporate innovativeness, agility and resilience, and concluded that so much of what differentiates those who succeed relates to influencing people’s behaviours. He, therefore, focuses on social psychology as a key ingredient in his mix.

Why do people behave as they do, he asks, and what is it about the organisations within which they work that makes them do so? For sure leaders cannot simply tell their people to be, say, resilient and innovative. You won’t be surprised to learn that Costas is a great storyteller, and one he loves to quote is from the Harvard Medical School, which carried out a study on patients being released from hospital following major heart surgery.

Each of them was told that on returning home they needed to stop leading dangerously unhealthy lives — no more smoking or drinking alcohol, healthy eating and plenty of exercises. All very logical and rational.

The group was followed for two years, and it was found that whereas all heeded their doctors’ advice in the first month after surgery, 90 percent of them reverted to their bad behaviours within six months of their operations.

In Change or Die, the book about this case by Alan Deutschman, the author describes what differentiated the 10 percent of outliers who held on to what was good for them, Costas relates. It was how the doctors went beyond instilling fear in their patients by identifying the consequences of bad behaviour to also talking about positive futures that would result from good behaviour — like envisaging playing with their grandchildren or walking their daughter down the aisle. So to encourage people we must make the need for the change positive, personal and emotional.

Another factor that influences how we behave is our environment, and Costas talks engagingly about how leaders must create one that supports the desired behaviours. So if you want your people to be proactive, question what’s happening, collaborate across silos, experiment and assume responsibility, you must generate an appropriate culture based on supportive values, devise measures and incentives that reward such behaviours, develop structures and processes aligned to what you are seeking and hire people who are likely to be responsive to your aspirations.

This doesn’t mean people in the field can do whatever they want.

There must be parameters that define their limits, beyond which they must consult with their bosses — like if what they are considering lies outside the defined strategy.

Above all, Costas tells us that we must “treat people as people”, not as “human resources” or robots. They must feel special, working to support an uplifting purpose with which they engage.

For Costas, the new normal involves frequent and unpredictable sources of disruption, with inadequate time in which to respond. He tells us we must see these disruptions as not just threats but opportunities too. But this requires going beyond simply asserting that.

Leaders must lift their people psychologically, emotionally, reaching both their heads and their hearts, so they can visualise the fulfilment of the opportunity. Then they will commit to fighting with you.

Let me conclude by mentioning that an extra reason why I so enjoyed interacting with Costas was that nearly 50 years ago I spent a year at the London Business School as a student in their Sloan Masters programme. It was a great experience for me, building both my competence and my confidence. His session reminded me of those uplifting days, taking me back to the stimulation that so characterised the place and showing me it to be as vibrant now as it was then.

How to manage change during transition period

I have written about change quite often in this column, and a few weeks ago I referred briefly to my own change anxiety in the context of my stay in hospital while dealing with Covid.

There, during my two-month incarceration, I was moved several times: from this ward to that ward, and then first to one room and later another prior to my eventual release. Each transition provoked its own anxieties, however ill-founded some were.

I was reminded of my transition stress as I came across the book Managing Transitions – Making the Most of Change by William Bridges, a prominent consultant who pointed out that much of what gets us agitated is not the actual difference between the old and the new situations but the disruptive transition from one to the other.

Each time I dreaded the prospects of being wheelchaired to my new abode, someone trailing behind me with the oxygen cylinder to which I was hooked up, and someone packing my belongings and then unpacking them in an unfamiliar setting – on one occasion at high speed and late in the evening.

All this required great mental and emotional strength on my part to keep adequately calm and optimistic about both the journey and the destination.

One transition led me to a distinctly less conducive environment, justifying my prior concern; while the upgrade to my first private room delivered significant advantages, as did the freedom from isolation – allowing me to receive visitors. But even this did not take away from the discomforts of transition.

My exit from the confines of the hospital to a care home and then finally back to my own home exposed me to yet more transition experiences, yet more reasons to be anxious about moves from one environment to the next, where at each stage the availability of carers would be diminished.

The good news is that all this made me a transition expert in just three months!

Bridges describes the sequence of progressing from the first stage of “ending” the previous setting, when we feel a sense of loss, accompanied by first denial, then anger and frustration, as we come to terms with the need to let go of the familiar; to the “neutral” stage, where negative feelings diminish; to the “new beginning”, with its mix of gains and fresh challenges.

It’s good to seek support when facing change, advises Bridges, and indeed from my experience I saw that support should be offered pro-actively and pre-emptively – having understood where and why people are anxious. How was it for this hospital nomad?

Sometimes I was reassured and comforted by the doctors and nurses, but on one occasion I actually felt like an Internally Displaced Person. Important too is to be straightforward with ourselves about where the new situation will indeed leave us less well off, helping us to accept the inevitable gracefully, as it’s as good as it gets.

Managing expectations is the name of this game.

The neutral zone is the most challenging, I read, because we can’t go back to the old state and we haven’t yet mastered the new one. Other messages from Bridges are that it is easier to let go of the past if we take lessons from what is ending and what we must let go of.

And that if possible we should try and take some familiar aspects into and beyond the transition.

More so in this volatile day and age we are constantly challenged to transition beyond our comfort zones: a new boss or structure or job; a new phone or laptop, or a new version of an operating system or App or ERP, and so many other changes… not to mention Covid, which has multiplied the ways in which we have had to adapt – to remote working, to not shaking hands and in many other ways.

Some of us find it all so hard to handle, while others manufacture the strength to expand their comfort zones as they travel through their transitions and into their new scenarios.

If those new scenarios leave us worse off, make us feel like an IDP, then we must find yet more strengths – beyond those required for the journey through transition – so we can plan for our best possible future with an invigorated sense of purpose.

Embracing change is a choice we can make

My favourite line from President-Elect Joe Biden’s November 7 acceptance speech following the American election is this one, on the refusal over the last few years of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another: “It’s not some mysterious force beyond our control,” he declared, “It’s a decision, a choice. So if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate.”

I relate so well to this, as in my consulting work I share just such sentiments with some of the clients I support as they embark on change management initiatives designed to bring their people together by promoting higher trust and collaboration among them, between levels and between departments.

The conventional wisdom is that undergoing change is a long hard journey filled with disappointing setbacks, where few actually reach their desired destination. It’s like pushing a big rock up a steep hill, the strugglers sigh, knowing that if ever they lose their grip the rock will slide back and crush them… the most likely outcome.

I am among those who quote Prof John Kotter’s research, which showed that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. Not surprisingly, such statistics discourage organisations from even having a go. “Why waste our time and money, when things are as they are and cannot be changed?” they ask.

And yet. And yet. What about the 30 per cent of change initiatives that do succeed? What do they have in common? Kotter guided us with his renowned 8 Steps to Change, about which I wrote a column a few years ago, and through my experience with many organisations I too have learned much about common success factors.

Guess what? Everything is to do with leadership. And needless to say, starting with the top leadership: the board, the CEO, the senior management team. So the first question to ask is where are they? Are they part of the solution or part of the problem? And if the former, how strategic and ongoing, how authentic and influential, is the role they are prepared to play?

Will they merely have their HR person put some event together, show up at the opening and then let their people get on with it – with some unfortunate facilitator expected to wave a magic wand that will transform the expectations? Will there be robust follow up, with specific actions, impact indicators and so forth, to ensure the desired changes are taking place? Or does everyone just get back to work and keep on doing what they’ve always done, allowing the memory of the change management commitments to fade away?

Most importantly, how ambitious is the leadership for significant and sustainable change? How confident and bold are the leaders? How skilled in inspiring their teams to assume that change is indeed possible? Key to success is one of Kotter’s eight steps: ensuring there are enough “quick wins”, to stimulate a sense of hope and optimism, and to dilute the natural skepticism, maybe even cynicism.

For in too many cases it will not have been the first attempt at such change management. Previous initiatives had also promised much, and yet failed to deliver. Would this one also fall flat on its face?

I’m with Biden: it’s a decision. It’s a choice. If you don’t actively decide it will succeed this time then it will not. Not succeeding is the most likely outcome. But not the inevitable one. For sure the ones who most need to change may well be the ones least likely to, so again turning to Kotter it is vital to gather a “coalition of the willing”, of bold individuals who while preparing for the worst will hope for the best and show the way to other more timid and unconvinced folk.

Among role models, positive behaviour sometimes has to be one step ahead of natural feelings of doubt, hoping that subsequently such behaviour will in turn influence feelings for the better. These stronger characters are the ones to lead change, the ones to make all that pushing of stones up hills worthwhile, the ones who won’t worry about mysterious forces beyond their control preventing them from succeeding.