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Threats for meaningfully team dynamics

Meaningfully team dynamics is the magic co-operation that makes people feel good. It’s about interaction and discovery, it’s about all those things like arguing, decision making, discussion, problem solving, not being on your own, moving on together, feeling recognized… It’s what makes a person thrive on a job, what makes the athlete excel in his specialism, and what makes it worth being exhausted from when you look back at what is accomplished. It’s even in the satisfaction after a long and eventful life. Related tangible results depend on the context of the teamwork and vary from business productivity, Guinness Book of Records achievements, the loving smile of your partner, the bunch of rampageous kids following their trainer, via personal development steps to the extra bonus you get at the end of the month. It’s what you value, you just name it!

Meaningfully team dynamics however isn’t self-evident. On the internet you find many contributions that show the opposite. Colleagues that just go for their own benefits, managers who only satisfy KPI’s, people who get lost in the complexity of our society, wastes in our daily routines that cause friction and loss of energy… Luckily you’ll also find many good stories about how to strengthen and improve team dynamics. Two major threats for meaningfully team dynamics are in the size of the team in relation to the degree of organization in its surrounding environment. Apart from the vulnerability of small groups, there’s the the world-wide scale enlargement resulting in uncontrollable human-built organisms. This article explains a bit more about this phenomenon.

People forming teams is a natural thing to happen. Whether it’s a primitive tribe, an army, trade union or inter-country federation, underneath there’s the same mechanism. The intrinsic motivation can be positive and proactive (achieve more, increase well-being, succeed in a joint mission etc.) or negative and reactive (seeking security and safety, competing others for resources and so forth).

We all feel that in every situation there’s a unique optimal size of the team. That’s the reason why too big teams after a while usually split up in smaller entities. Likewise, too small groups are redistributed over comparable other teams. Qualitatively the team “meaningfulness” (be it effectiveness, productivity, level of well-being, …) can be plotted against the team size in a bell shape alike graph. No statistical analysis here… For now I just follow my intuition; shape and details aren’t that important for this explanation.

The picture says that a team member doesn’t experience a meaningful impact anymore if the team is too small or too big. It also hints at the robustness of the team against the threats of over- and under-population. Vulnerability of small teams is well-known, in particular when outsiders start questioning the reason for existence of that team. Growing, strengthening and maturing a team is subject of many publications and studies, leading to models such as Belkin and mission / vision approaches. Let me summarize this area by saying that the threat to a small team is manageable.

Now think of you being member of a growing team. Most likely this team isn’t the only one in your environment. Multiple teams usually co-exist in more complex contexts. Such cascading is seen everywhere, like the soccer team being part of a soccer club, embedded in a national soccer union and regulated by European or global federations. As said before, if your team grows, most likely at a certain moment it will split up. Afterwards your team is overseeable again, and you may think its meaningfulness signature is safeguarded. I’m afraid in many cases that’s actually not true anymore. Being embedded in a large structural complexity the autonomy of your team gradually degrades down to a level where the team only has value to the surrounding body and not so much to the internal members anymore.

Structural complexity generally results in organization models with hierarchies and distributed responsibilities. Originally the intent of such an organization is to get the best out of the teams, stimulating meaningfully team dynamics on and between all levels. I can’t help using the comparison with a healthy body, where each entity is like an organ with a special function. Ideally the result is an organic cooperation that is of great added value to everyone. In practice however, human behavior leads to something else: within a large organization and faced with complex operational models, individuals tend to escape in roles rather than looking at meaningful task execution. People feel like being a number in the big picture, not being heard or seen, with sub-level tasks too small to be significant. The result is a loss of efficiency and effectiveness. It requires strong leadership to prevent this from happening. Even more is needed to repair such a situation, as the culture (integral sum of all behaviors) is hard to change. Communication of mission, vision and strategies is vital, as is the attention to shape the culture. LEAN initiatives and employee satisfaction questionnaires may help, however the root cause seldom will be addressed adequately. The root cause is that the organization unnoticed turned into an organism.

There’s a big difference between en organic operating organization and an organism. The latter tends to have a life of its own, regardless of the opinions of people within. An organism will try to survive by itself, creating structures and rules to make that happen. Of course it’s the people within that execute things, but these tasks can be so small, scattered and diffuse, that no-one really know “how it works”. If you see special groups being established to control the work of other groups you have a clear signal that something is happening in this direction. If you notice that people talk more about interpretations of rules than about usefulness, they’re on the same path. Even worse is the case when interpretations of the loudest voice become a rule because no-one knows better… Processes and procedures are said to be more important than why they were established in the first place. If you try to change this, you’ll notice it’s about the behavior of many people at the same time. Who hasn’t pointed at someone else as an excuse not to change? Who didn’t occasionally blame someone else’s actions for bad results instead of looking at own contribution? It’s human behavior, steered by all kinds of cognitive biases.

Some examples where this threat for meaningfully team dynamics is present:

  • Bureaucracy is the best know example. If you want a registration be changed, it takes a lot of people to get that done, and often they have to wait for each other before they can move on. Many officials and civil servants hide behind regulations and forms where they are required to get all details before even thinking of further steps. In such situations it’s hard to take a bold responsibility, because people are afraid to be personally accountable for the consequences of a mistake. In a highly automated world, the most frustrating experience is when software systems rule the game, and no-one has authority to deviate from the programmed workflows. Beware if there’s a negative label behind your name…. it follows you until the end of your life and even after you passed away, because virtual identities don’t fade out the same moment you do. And if you notice something is wrong, the burden of proof is at your side. The system is right until proven to be wrong!
  • Big companies, in particular those that are heavily regulated, see similar procedural bureaucracy. The fear of an audit drives people forward in ways of working against their personal opinion. The result is that more and more employees move to smaller and flexible companies or even start for themselves. It’s a clear signal that during the last 20 years there’s been a massive attention for leadership, team building, culture change and so forth.
  • An army also behaves like an organism. They’ll automatically identify enemies as reason for their existence, and act accordingly. That these actions create the enemy feelings back and forth isn’t relevant. People in the army are required to follow orders (no insubordination allowed). Of course in critical situations one should be able to rely on each other, but blindly follow orders…. Because of the heavy penalties the army has outlined? The social exclusion if you think differently, or even the discrimination based on gender or sexual preference?
  • This brings me to country leaders, being squeezed by public opinions, political election ratings and military forces. They’re so afraid of facial loss and personal brand damage. Being pushed into very unhealthy statements and actions that drive counterparts to even more dominant statements, they don’t care to risk the lives of many people that can’t help this from happening, and -honestly- even aren’t interested at all. The organisms here are on global scale. Nations with self-imposed grandeur and global obligations who forget to solve their internal problems first.

How can we fight this trend in scaled-up collaborations?

First of all we can use the true spirit of this internet era: transparency. By exposing organism biased behaviors and decisions, we can make lots of people re-think what actually happened. The power of the numbers will feed the counter reaction to mindless attitudes.

Another thing is that each and everyone of us should be and act authentic. Never sacrifice your own identity to the group you seem to belong to. Think for yourself while interacting with others. That also means not to blame others for failures, but try to understand why things happened, and decide how you can respond to that.

In order to avoid chaos, respect hierarchical levels, but also count with the limited scope of each level: cross-level communication is very productive. That takes time though, but it’s needed to have all teams flourish in meaningfully cooperation. Put trust in the people.

Balance well the small and the big things in your life, often represented by work versus family. It’s this balance that ensures you discover the automatic mechanisms that characterize organism behavior.

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