reading between the lines
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Overburdened by greatness lately? How teams can lose their way.
It is doubtful if there has ever been a happier hunting ground for lessons about human behaviours and team dynamics than present-day US politics. Aside from President Trump and his immediate coterie in the White House, the other figure carving out a space on the stage recently has been Senator John McCain with his speeches and dramatic votes.
Already well known, McCain’s diagnosis with cancer would have made the news anyway, but his speech to the Senate on 25th July caught the attention (and mixed reviews) of much of the US media. My interest lies in the first half of the speech in which he analysed the Senate’s inability to get things done – not in the politics of the moment.
McCain never explicitly uses the word ‘team’ to describe the Senate – that would be a step too far I suspect – but he talks extensively about one of the characteristics of an effective team: a common understanding of its role. He does not try to define what that is for the Senate, but hints at it in several different phrases including ‘how best to serve the national interest’ and ‘provide workable solutions to problems Americans are struggling with’.
Those two phrases, with a few words substituted, might sum up the role of most senior leadership teams. McCain’s analysis of why the Senate is failing to fulfil its role and ‘getting nothing done’, is equally applicable to other teams. For my money, his key point revolves around collaboration and can be broken into a few important ideas:
- ‘A principled mindset’. Recognising that, whatever personal differences or views, members of a team have a duty to fulfil their role. In his words the Senate ‘had an obligation to work collaboratively to ensure the Senate discharged its constitutional responsibilities effectively’.
- ‘Compromises that each side criticize but also accept’. In order to make progress, strongly held views on how the common purpose is achieved, may require adjustment. Holding out at all costs is likely to lead to stalemate and, in many cases, a less effective solution. It is worth highlighting that, in less political teams, the ‘criticism’ he refers to should stay within the walls of the team and not be aired publicly.
- ‘For the sake of winning’. McCain admits that personal feelings too often get in the way – ‘I made it harder to find common ground because of something harsh I said to a colleague… I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy’. Personal animosity is frequently rooted in a failure to understand another’s motivation or style, and can result in dysfunctional behaviours and blindness to the overall goal.
- ‘Systems…account for our imperfections’. The processes that have grown up in most organisations have done so because they provide structure and a balance to our own human frailties. This can include methods of dealing with conflict, decision-making, even time-keeping. While not above change, teams function when the processes and procedures that support them are respected and adhered to in order that progress is achieved.
Few of us will ever work in a team that is as important (or probably as fractious) as the US Senate but we have all talked about, or been lucky to be part of ‘great’ teams. We would do well to remind ourselves, as individuals and as teams, of how it is possible for our behaviour not to leave us ‘overburdened by greatness’.Back to Insights