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3 Reasons Teams Don’t Work

By Anne Elder Knight

Having spent many years working with leaders and their teams, I see the same recurring patterns in teams that don’t work as well as they could. At one end of the continuum this can mean that a team never reaches its full potential, and, at the other, that a team may be completely dysfunctional. The frustrating thing is that with a bit of will and work by both the team leader and the team these issues are usually resolvable.

Reason 1: Team Members Don’t Trust Each Other

At the beginning of every team building session I start with an exercise deliberately designed to help team members to get to know each other: where they’ve come from, the influences that have shaped them, the challenges they’ve faced and overcome. Regardless of how long a team has been together, I always hear people say “I never knew that about so and so!”

The reason for undertaking this exercise is to build trust. When we know people, we understand more about who they are and we can attribute meaning (rightly or wrongly) to their actions. In doing so, we are much more likely to trust their intentions (if not their actions) and cut them some slack when they don’t act the way we want or expect them to.

This is no different from the ‘friend or foe?’ question we asked ourselves in the cavewoman days. Relationships, including those in teams, are based on trust. Trust, in turn, is based on knowledge of one another and being able to understand and predict outcomes. Getting to know someone answers the questions, “How are you like me and what can I count on you to deliver?”

In high pressure environments where the focus is on delivering results at pace, taking time out to ‘get to know one another’ can seem both ‘soft’ and self-indulgent. Yet without investing the time to do this, the collective output of a team is never likely to be what it could be.

Tip: Try asking some of these questions at your next team meeting:

  • If you were a kitchen appliance what would you be and why?
  • If you could go anywhere in the world on holiday where would you go?
  • How do you like to celebrate your birthday?
  • What did you want to become when you were little?
  • What interest haven’t you pursued that you’ve wanted to?

Reason 2: The Leader Can’t or Doesn’t Facilitate

While I think there is real benefit in getting an external coach to help a team in its development journey (read ‘high performing journey’ if you want the trendy jargon), at the end of the day the baton must be passed to the leader. While leaders do not need to be solely responsible for facilitating in their teams, they at least need to be able to take their share. Time and again, I see leaders who, while they may get as far as putting an agenda together for a meeting, seem incapable of going any further.

Effective facilitation involves using tools and processes to amplify the collective intelligence of individuals in a group to determine the right course of action and build a plan for acting on the choices they make.

Effective facilitators:

  • Make connections and help others see meaning;
  • Provide direction without taking over;
  • Balance ‘what’ is being done with ‘how’ the group is working together;
  • Create an environment where it is safe to surface and resolve conflict;
  • Build the capacity of others so they can take the lead in future.

This involves being both a first class noticer of people’s behaviour and a deep listener. These skills are as rare as hen’s teeth in the leaders I’ve come across, yet they are critical to both galvanising others to act and to creating an environment where people want to engage. And the tragic thing is, like everything else, these are skills that can be learned.

Reason 3: Conflict is not Surfaced or Addressed

While having a leader with effective, let alone first-rate, facilitation skills can assist with surfacing and resolving conflict, every person on the team needs to take responsibility for facing up to, and into, the challenging conversations that need to be had. This is called being a grown-up in relationships – at home and at work.

Developing skills to have these conversations elegantly definitely helps, but in the first instance having these conversations requires an act of courage: courage to speak up and own your truth and your perspective; courage to ask for what you want and tell others how you want to be (or don’t want to be) treated. Courage also to say “Enough!” and make different choices for yourself if you find yourself in an environment where it really isn’t safe or where you feel the spirit is being leached out of you.

Tip: Start by having the courageous conversations with yourself.

Ask yourself:

  • Why is it important to me that I have this conversation?
  • What am I thinking and feeling about having this conversation?
  • If I put myself in the other person’s shoes what do I think they are thinking/feeling about this issue?
  • What is at stake for me, the other person and/or the team if I don’t have this conversation?
  • How do I want to show up in this conversation?


If you’re in a team that is not as effective as you think it could be:

  • take some time to really get to know those you work with;
  • learn to facilitate, even if your leader can’t;
  • have the courage to speak up say what you think and ask for what you need.

And if all else fails … get help!

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