On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

You can't hide a dysfunctional leadership team

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

How important is teamwork within a leadership team? We know that on average, teams that demonstrate better teamwork will outperform other teams. And that applies to leadership teams – teamwork can help them be more effective. But there's more to it than that.

Over the years I've noticed that the way in which members of a leadership team interact with and talk about one another sends a strong signal about teamwork to the rest of the organization. For example, when a leader disparages other units, leaders, or functions, "his people" learn that such behavior is acceptable and that cooperation is optional. When a leader squelches input or dissent, it sends the message that it is a one-man show, not a team. I've seen leaders ask members of their organization to collaborate while at the same time taking visible actions that demonstrate that teamwork doesn't matter. When this happens, their behavior trumps their words. Man Behind Hands iStock adjustedSmall

Observable behaviors and interactions among top management team members provide a visible blueprint about teamwork for the organization. But what about the way the team works together behind closed doors? Can a leadership team hide their dysfunctions? Recent research suggests that they can't...

Researchers Anneloes Raes, Heike Bruch, and Simon De Jong studied 63 top management teams and reported their results in the journal Human Relations. They found that leadership team cooperation (e.g., helping one another meet deadlines, exchanging information, engaging in joint decision-making) was positively related to productive energy in the organization. That energy, in turn, resulted in higher levels of employee job satisfaction and lower intent to leave the company. In other words, when the management team is working well together, collaborating effectively, and reaching joint decisions -- actions that are not readily visible to most employees -- employees throughout the organization view their jobs more positively and are more likely to stay with the company. Interesting, huh?

How does the message about teamwork spill out? A large body of literature on occupational health psychology provides some insight. As it turns out, individuals are not very good at "compartmentalizing" life events: the positive and negative experiences that occur in one context often spill over to impact attitudes and behavior in another. For example, individuals who experience a stressful day at work are more likely to get in an argument with their spouses that evening and carry a bad mood into the following day.

So a leadership team's private interactions can "infect" behaviors and attitudes throughout the company. In our experience, employees can sense when their leaders are engaging in dysfunctional infighting. Stories about the leadership team can also make their way through an organization. I've heard some of those stories over the years – and they remind me of the old Clint Eastwood movie – some are good, some are bad, and some are downright ugly.

The punch line here is that there are valid business reasons for ensuring that leadership teams "work well together." Lack of collaboration hurts their performance – and they have important jobs to do. And moreover, it sends signals to the organization that can diminish teamwork, create a sense of malaise, reduce employee engagement, and even increase turnover.

If you are a senior leader and think you can hide your team's dysfunctions from the rest of the organization, unfortunately, you are probably mistaken. It is like trying to keep the kids from finding out that Mom and Dad aren't getting along...they can sense it. So I'd encourage you to address the challenge directly. Allocate time to work on becoming an effective, functional team. Even if you are a fairly effective team, there are benefits to continuing to get better and stronger as a team. It just makes business sense.