Why is there so much destructive behaviour in this team?


One of my HR clients memorably described her role in her team as being like ‘brokering peace in a bag of ferrets’. Although the description was extreme, it’s certainly evocative of the tension, arguments and unmanageability of many of the Leadership Teams I come across.

Indeed, our research suggests that a huge majority of those in leadership teams think their team doesn’t function effectively. And, if you ask those outside the team how well they think their top team functions, the answers are considerably less favourable!

These tensions aren’t always on display, but they are always there. A strong CEO can often keep them in check in the boardroom at least. Even in those cases, the problems will, however, leak out to conversations at the water cooler or behind the closed doors of individual’s offices. Worse still, frustrations can be shared with members of their own team – setting a bad example and producing similar tensions between functions further down the organisation.

Sometimes the right kind of conflict is useful, even necessary. I’m talking about the destructive kind. Win/lose arguments, personal antagonisms, fighting over resources… The list goes on – and most who have seen a leadership team will recognise them all too readily.


Why does this happen?

Most attribute these kind of dysfunctions to the personalities and motivations of individual team members. Members of leadership teams are painted as ruthless, bullying and devious. Ego maniacs whose primary motivation is their own agenda and career.

There certainly are some pretty unpleasant characters who have fought their way to the top of organisations. We have all met a few. They aren’t however nearly as common as you might think, though. And there aren’t nearly enough to account for the near ubiquitous levels of dysfunction in Leadership Teams.

The problems in Leadership Teams are, in fact, very little to do with the individuals within them. You could take any group of people, put them in a Leadership Team and the same problems will emerge. You might find this surprising, even difficult to believe, but it’s been proven to be true.


Reality TV without the cameras

In the 1970’s a pioneering group of social scientists conducted a seminal series of experiments. They created a village with a number of tasks that needed to be completed for the community to survive. They then brought a series of groups of people into the village to live and work together.

Each new intake of villagers was randomly split into three groups. ‘Tops’ owned the resources, ‘Bottoms’ did the work and ‘Middles’ managed the ‘Bottoms’ on behalf of the ‘Tops’. The community would then be left to its own devices, working out how to operate as they went along.

Over a period of years, all sorts of groups of people became villagers. Different ages, nationalities, gender mixes, cultures, workers from different sectors…

To the researchers surprise the same patterns emerged whatever the makeup of the people in the community. Time and again, the ‘Tops’, ‘Middles’ and ‘Bottoms’ would follow a similar path, settle on similar solutions and encounter similar problems.


The destiny of all Tops – fragmentation

The start of the Tops journey was usually a happy one. They were excited about the possibilities that the power of their position brought them. They almost always began with a strong commitment to doing the best for the whole community. They were energetic and pitched in together on most things, supporting one another’s efforts and finding resolutions even when they disagreed.

And then a seemingly small event would change things. Flushed with their success, they became more ambitious about what they could achieve. This meant that the work facing them increased in volume and became more complex. Faced with this, one of the Tops would inevitably suggest that they divide responsibilities so that each would look after some aspect of the community. Because it made sense, the others would agree and each would be given a team of Middles and Bottoms to help them do so.

It wasn’t long before the problems began. As each team member spent more time facing out to their own responsibilities and people, they spent less time working together. When they did come together, they increasingly found that they were in conflict. Each was developing different ideas for what was important for the community with their own team. When they came together they discovered that these ideas were in conflict, or overlapped in places. They needed the support from one another’s teams to deliver these. Increasingly constructive debate became destructive conflict over ideas and resources, leading to friction, arguments and distrust.

It’s not hard to see the parallels with Leadership Teams. If you’d like to read more about the experiments and their outcomes I highly recommend Barry Oshry’s book ‘Seeing systems’.  So what can we learn from these experiments and their conclusions?


Back to Schoolboy physics

There are, then, pressures which push the members of all Leadership Teams apart. I think of them like centrifugal force. The faster the organisation is changing, the greater the force pushing the team members away from one another.

To avoid this fragmentation, like the string that keeps the weight moving in a circle, the team must create opposing forces which are at least as strong. A shared ambition is necessary, but as the villagers found, is not sufficient. The other essential element of keeping a team working effectively together, therefore, is strong relationships between its members.


It’s not about spending Christmas together

The role, then of Relationship Conversations, is to create bonds strong enough to resist the forces of fragmentation. This doesn’t mean making everyone friends though. They are about creating the human connections which are necessary to deliver the work. No more and no less.

Relationship Conversations involve generating a better mutual understanding in all team members about:-

  • What motivates each person and what they want for the organisation
  • The strengths and attributes that they most want to bring to that endeavour
  • The environment and support that they need from the rest of the team to give of their best

If these things sound simple, that’s because they are. There are tools in my book JUMP! that, facilitated well, will achieve these things. The real challenge is time. In the hurly burly of the day-to-day and the packed agenda of the monthly meeting, few teams find time to build relationships between team members that are strong enough to get the work done in the face of the forces of fragmentation. In the absence of this, trust is replaced with suspicion and fragmentation is accelerated.

So the choice is simple. Suffer the inevitable fragmentation and sub optimal effectiveness of your team or take action to build, and maintain, relationships to counter those pressures. If you select the former, I hope you’ll at least be a bit more forgiving of the individuals in the team. It’s really not their fault!


Developing a high performing leadership team

Creating a team that functions well, exploits the amazing strengths each member brings and complements the inevitable weaknesses that every member also has can lead to dramatic improvements. It can transform an organisation’s results, culture and prospects, quickly and permanently.

It is perfectly possible to take a normal, uninspired, disparate collection of people and talents and set in motion a process that will help it evolve into a powerful, unified and productive Leadership Team.

You can do it, and it can happen quickly. A complete and sustainable transformation will take time, but the first positive signs of change will be visible, and making a real difference, within weeks. You just need to know how to go about it.


Making changes in your team

In my Book, JUMP! I set out in detail how you can build the case, and generate support for, developing your Leadership Team. Over the next few issues, I’ll expand on how HR professionals can apply these ideas to improve the effectiveness of their Leadership Teams and make truly transformational change to the people agenda in their organisation.


For now, you can get your free copy of JUMP! (hard copy or eBook) here.


I hope you can use these ideas yourself. If not, and you’d like help even if only to think through how you might do so, then please get in contact on 0845 519 7871 or by email


Read more…

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership, which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.


Better still give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session