We’ve all been members of teams that don’t work well. We know that the impact on the results of the organisation is serious – and that it’s not getting the best out of us or those around us.

Most of us have been members of more effective teams. We have first hand experience of how much more enjoyable and productive they can be.

We know that the prize for increasing team effectiveness is one of the biggest opportunities available to us. 

Why, then, are so few teams acting to make things better? Our research suggests that only 1 in 8 teams have made a serious attempt to improve team effectiveness.

If this sounds like your team, what part are you playing in keeping the team where it is? And how could you change things to move it forward?

The most important reason for this apparent contradiction lies in the psyche of each and every one of us.

I never contradict myself – er wait, yes I do

Human beings struggle to simultaneously hold ideas which oppose one another. The world is such a complex place that we are pre-programmed to find workable simplifications and rules to operate by.

From our eating habits to the way we deal with certain groups of people, to our approach to different types of work problems we try (often unconsciously) to find ‘the way’ to approach things. This helps us by ensuring that we don’t have to think and find a new solution to situations which are similar to those we have encountered before – leaving our minds free to wrestle with other, less familiar, challenges.

The rules we form in this way, as well as being useful, also create many problems for us. In future editions we’ll explore more of these but, for the moment, let’s focus on just one; the one that stops us doing things that would clearly be better for us.

Denial is not a river in Egypt!

In the context of teams, how can we possibly believe that things would be so much better if we made changes – whilst simultaneously acting as though change isn’t needed? It’s easy really. We all do it all the time.

The psychological jargon for it is ‘cognitive dissonance reduction’. It’s most common form is denial – and it’s the way we reconcile conflicting information and beliefs to avoid the tensions that the conflict brings.

We see this in others almost daily. I heard a great example of it recently on a radio phone-in about smoking.  Every smoker knows that smoking is bad for their health – but callers who were smokers gave a succession of reasons for not giving up:-

  • ‘We all have to die of something’
  • ‘If I stop then I’ll put on weight – and that’s just as bad’
  • ‘My auntie lived to be 103 and she was a smoker’
  • ‘I saw one study which said it wasn’t harmful’

It’s clear that these reasons don’t add up logically – but it’s equally clear that the people who believe them are determined to do so. In this way they meet their need to reconcile the conflict between their behaviour and its effect on their health.

So plenty of us can successfully rationalise something that is likely to kill us. It’s not hard to see, then, that  we have the capacity to stop ourselves taking action that would make our lives better in other situations.

We shouldn’t feel too smug about how smokers resolve their inner contradiction. We are all doing the same thing on a variety of issues – including those of us who are tolerating a team that is clearly holding back the organisation as well as greatly reducing the enjoyment we get from our work.

So what can you do?

There are many ways to take on the paralysis which comes from rationalising that the status quo is okay. Here are three of the most powerful. They will work whether you are a smoker needing to give up – or a member of a leadership team who wants to take action to get the team working more effectively:

Step One – Take responsibility 

This is probably the hardest one – but it has to be the place to start. You must decide whether you WANT to change the situation or whether you just think you ought/should/need to.

If you don’t then it’s your decision to make – but at least make that decision honestly and deliberately. Whicehever you choose, you will have to live with the consequences.

Step Two – Seek support

Change is much easier when we do it with the support of others. Who will be the first people you can talk to about this to begin to formulate a plan or take action? They could be members of the team in question – or friends, family or others whose counsel you value and trust.


Step Three – Experiment (seriously)

It’s much easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting. Doing something differently is a powerful way to break a pattern.

There’s no substitute for experiencing the benefits of  making a change for yourself. Having the experience of waking up and not coughing can be a powerful incentive to persevere with giving up – just as a few small breakthroughs in a team workshop can increase the support and energy for investing further in team development.


If all of this seems tough then consider this:

you have already taken these steps in many other situations, some of which were challenging. To get to where you are in your life and work, you will have successfully addressed challenges at least as difficult as this – and won. If you’ve done it before then you can do it again!

Good luck!


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.


Chris Henderson