In this concluding part we follow Paul as he has conversations with some of the team members and reflects on the past half year. We close off with a longer reflection on the overall story.
What’s with Max?
Paul tries to call Max several times after the presentation. Jesus, pick up the damn phone. He puts down his coffee on his desk with a thud. The fifth time Max finally picks up. Paul looks down to the floor as he presses the phone to his ear.
“I wanted to do a brief catch-up after the presentation, but you left early?”
“I did, I needed some time to … reflect.”
Paul takes a breath to calm himself down.
“Okay, we can talk later if that works better for you.”
“No, it’s okay, go ahead.”
“To be honest: I was a bit surprised given our conversation two weeks ago.”
Actually I feel more like I was misled.
“I really thought we could finish it in time.” Max replies.
“So, what happened?”
“I think people became demotivated, and therefore we lost traction.”
Why didn’t you just tell me earlier?
“Look, you have been at this for six months with no real results to show.”
Never give up
“Let me try some things Paul.”
Really? You’ve been trying for months, and now you found the holy grail? Let’s hear it.
“Do you have something concrete in mind?”
“There’s multiple things we could try. I mean getting in more development capacity …”
“We tried that.”
“Yes, but maybe Joseph was just a fluke, you know. And we could, we could …” Max sighs and it goes quiet on the other end of the line.
“What else could we do according to you?”
“I don’t know.” Max sighs again.
“I am not convinced that you should continue to drive this Max.”
“Give me a chance Paul, just give me one more chance to set things right.”
“I appreciate your dedication Max, but …”
“Please Paul, I can do it, I can. Just let me talk with Sally, and … with Tim, I can make it work. This product has so much potential! And, I mean, at this point, who else in the company would touch this? I know I can do it, I know I can, I must.”
Paul remains silent for a moment to let Max calm down.
“Have you thought of yourself Max? How much have you slept?”
“I haven’t slept well over the past weeks.”
The first realistic thing you said so far.
“Look, Max. I have seen you deteriorate over the past months. I remember our first conversations. You walked upright, bantered and made casual jokes. I don’t see any of that anymore.”
“I know, this has been … hard for me.”
“I can see that, Max.” Paul responds. “Let me take over for a week or two, after that we’ll see where to take it from there.”
Max let’s out a more deep sigh.
“You know, I really want to help and fix it. Make things right.”
“I understand Max, I understand.”
After much insisting, Paul gets Max to take some time off. A week after this call, Max visits the company doctor. Max informs Paul that he is diagnosed with a severe burn-out. It is unclear when he’ll be coming back, if at all.
Two weeks later Paul is in his office. He leans back and stares up at the ceiling light.
How to keep this team going? Alice already left and Max is on leave.
Paul looks at his watch, Sally is five minutes late. When she dashes in, he cuts straight to the point as she sits down.
“As you know Max is at home for now, I think this will take a while.”
Sally nods. Paul continues.
“At this point it’s unclear when, but if he does come back we’ll likely have him move elsewhere in the company for his sake.”
Is she smiling faintly, or am I just imagining it?
“So, I need your help Sally. Would you be willing to take over his role, even if temporarily?”
Sally leans back in her chair, and looks up.
“I really appreciate the offer, I really do. But … well, there is no easy way to say this, Paul.”
He leans forward in his chair.
“Sometime ago I applied for a position at Nudle, and they recently made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I am leaving in a couple of weeks.”
Nudle, wow. I should feel happy for her, but I don’t.
“I am sorry to hear you’re leaving us. There’s much more you could have brought to this company.” Paul slumps in his chair. “I wish you would have let me know earlier that you were unhappy here, we could have made changes so you would remain challenged in your job.”
“Have you talked with Tim recently?”
“Yes, I know he’s negotiating to move to a start-up. He told me a couple of weeks ago he was looking at other options.”
Unlike you Sally, unlike you.
A few hours pass. Paul is alone in his office. He sits backs in his leather armchair, turns around and stares out of the window. Slowly, he stirs his latte macchiato.
What could I have done differently?
Paul feels he had set everything up for success six months ago: two of the most successful people in the company, Sally and Alice, willing to form a team, a decent balance between people at different stages in their career development and a clear thing to focus on: improving the app.
Nevertheless, six months later he is left empty handed. A temporary hire intended to bring more balance to the team, Joseph, walked away after only two months. Alice decided to switch to a different team, because she became disillusioned with the project. Tim is looking to join a start-up again, and Sally just announced her move to Nudle. All of them highly skilled people. How could this have happened?
Paul straightens his suit before he walks into the lush penthouse office. He somehow has to explain what happened to team Phoenix to the CEO and he hasn’t come up with a good explanation just yet.
“Phew, this is a real bummer Paul. I would have expected you to keep a better tab on this and inform me earlier.”
“I understand.” Paul looks down.
“Look, in a couple of weeks you effectively have only one person left in the team. What was his name again?”
“Ah yes. I think you should move this Bob to a different team. He was a junior right?”
“So, great. I think he can continue to learn at another team.”
“So, you’re saying I should disband the team?”
“For now, I see no other option Paul.”
“What about the app?”
“Well … we can always start a new team, right? A fresh look at the problem might help.”
Oh, great, let’s just step over this entirely and start team Icarus.
“Until you’ve formed that team, we can ask one of the operations teams to keep the app in the air. While not critical it is important, the app. Especially for our longer term company growth.”
There must be more that we can take away from this, apart from just starting over again.
As Paul went down again with the elevator a little later, the fate of Team Phoenix continued to haunt him. What had actually transpired over the past half year? Why didn’t the team function well? He phoned a friend to reflect. He pointed Paul to series of blog articles that he should read on the topic of so-called dysfunctional teams. Hence, Paul spent the rest of his afternoon going through the seven articles published there one by one.
Paul’s laissez-faire policy with regard to his teams gives them a lot of freedom and responsibility. However, we can see that he took so much distance that he actually lost touch with them. On the one hand the team was hiding their failures on purpose which made things hard to see, on the other hand Paul could have done more to dig things up, challenge and coach the team. There were enough early warning signals to warrant a more active involvement.
We have seen in this story that a group of people can spend a tremendous amount of energy not getting off the ground, or really: anywhere at all. This despite their individual skills, their experience level and even their goodwill. Remember that all of the team members just wanted this to work. However, they did not manage to do so. They were all running, but stayed in the same place, or even regressed.
The outcome for Team Phoenix is that people left, either because they became dissatisfied, burned out or found something better. The team literally fell apart. An alternative route might have involved educating the team about their dysfunctions, helping them see and reach each other through counseling, and slowly building things from there. Nevertheless, even the best such interventions usually still end up loosing a sizeable amount of the team’s members. It’s better to prevent than to cure.
In this series we touched upon the five dysfunctions of a team. To summarize these are:
- A lack of safety and trust, that manifests as team members …
- pretending to be invulnerable, not admitting when they don’t know and hiding their failures and true feelings.
- saving the day repeatedly, and feeling that is the only way they can contribute: the hero complex.
- working alone on problems almost exclusively.
- No productive conflict by team members …
- pretending everything is fine, while it is not.
- blandly agreeing publicly, while privately disagreeing.
- avoiding discussions and people.
- Team members not committing to the team’s objectives because they feel …
- it is unclear what the direction is, and what the priorities are.
- they need to pretend to buy in, so they can just do their own thing.
- the need to constantly revisit previous agreements, because the motivation for choices is unclear, and there’s no room for productive discussions.
- Avoiding accountability by team members …
- conforming to low output standards, because that’s what they can both get away with and accept from others.
- performing mediocre overall, because they no longer really care, and neither do they believe their teammates do.
- pointing at others and taking their frustration out on them.
- Not caring about the results of the team by team members …
- focusing on their personal success only, over the success of the team.
- no longer contributing to the learnings of the team.
- shrugging off missed deadlines.
It is important to realize that these dysfunction build on each other, with safety and trust providing the foundation:
Many people work in a team daily. When teams are at their best they deliver far more than the sum of their parts. A high performance team multiplies the productivity of its members. However, when teams are at their worst they drag down and bring out the worst in every team member. Such teams instead could be said to divide the productivity of its members.
There are few teams constantly at their best, and even those tend to go through performance peak and regression cycles. All teams are confronted with problems. However, how those problems are handled separates a good team from a bad one. If in that process a team makes its members miserable, like we have seen for team Phoenix, we can speak of a real dysfunctional team. It is important to realize that this has nothing to do with the output of a team. A dysfunctional team can actually deliver, though it is less likely to do so, as we have learned in this story.
Recognizing when a team is dysfunctional is not easy, especially not when you are actually in one. My hope is that this series has been useful for you to help you develop a better sense of what dysfunctions are, how they emerge over time, how they can hamper a team and how they can lead to a team’s demise.
I hope you’ll use this knowledge to improve situations in teams that you are part of now, or in the future. The key is learning to recognize and reflect on your own behavior and that of your fellow team members keeping the dysfunctions in mind. Doing this structurally will prevent your team from spiraling into the abyss, and lay the foundations for the emergence of a true high performing team.
- Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable.
- Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The Fearless Organization.
- Gregg, B. (2017). Brilliant Jerks in Engineering.