Teams don’t always function well. We have an abundance of theories and practices about how to identify team dysfunctions and how to deal with them. But I’ve really only come across one fundamental dysfunction in all my years working with leaders and their teams.
A team is a network of one-on-one relationships in which great work can get done. Blaming, conflict avoidance, inattention to results and lack of commitment aren’t dysfunctions of this network of relationships. They are symptoms that reveal the single underlying cause of all team performance problems and the one and only dysfunction worth addressing.
The one and only dysfunction of a team is our inability to build resilient, trusting relationships with each and every other member of our team.
For the moment, let’s put aside the symptoms we normally treat and address this dysfunction head on. Let’s begin by distinguishing the characteristics of a healthy, effective one-on-one relationship at work.
DEFINE “WORKING” RELATIONSHIP
I define a “working” relationship as one in which we:
- Acknowledge we are both committed, competent and well-intended
- Understand our roles and the relationship between them
- Have been explicit with each other about what we do and can expect from each other within this role relationship
- Agree that, because we are different observers, we will have different points of view and that our differences (which are typically referred to as “conflict”) represent opportunities to learn from one another, to innovate and to co-create.
When will we know we have a healthy working relationship?
When we can have whatever conversations we need to have with one another spontaneously—whenever we need to have them—to coordinate our actions without things devolving into an interpersonal breakdown. When trust increases as we discuss our differences. When, in fact, our differences define our relationship and we exploit them for our mutual benefit. When they have become fundamental to our ability to perform.
All too often I see teams skip or try to avoid this whole issue of building their working relationships. Partly because they believe anything to do with relationships is “soft skills” and will take up a lot of unnecessary time. True, it will take time. But that time is insignificant compared to the time we already spend creating and running workarounds so that our relationships that aren’t working don’t stop us from getting work done (however sub-optimally).
Yet, even when team members realize they need to take time to work on their relationships, they still don’t. Why? Quite often it’s simply because we actually don’t know how to go about doing so. This is, after all, not something we were taught to do in business school, in primary school or anywhere in between.
What we don’t know how to do often appears difficult until we know how to do it.
What’s missing for us to have working relationships that work? A shared, straightforward, concrete design that informs our conversations.
Where go our conversations, so go our relationships. When we learn what conversations to have to build relationship—and how to have them—we can get at the root cause of our team’s dysfunction.