Why teams really underperform (and it’s not because of distrust)

Dec 13, 2010

Teams don’t underperform because the individuals on the team distrust each other. Distrust is just a symptom – it doesn’t emerge in a vacuum – it emerges because of something else.Here are the three real reasons most teams underperform:

1. Incompetence.

Pretty simple, huh? The single most common reason teams underperform is because of the straightforward incompetence of a significant number of the team members. (Depending on the size of the team, and the seniority of the individuals concerned, that ‘significant number’ can be as low as one.)

By the way, this doesn’t refer to their competence as functional managers – they may or may not be good at managing their own division, department, project, group or team – this is about their competence as senior executive team members – an entirely different thing.

The easiest – but by far the most painful – part of my job is to call the elephant in the room and state the obvious: that some of the executive team members simply shouldn’t be sitting at the table. Hardest of all when that person also happens to be the team leader.

2. Work avoidance.

This is a weakened version of 1. In this case, it’s not that the team or some of its members is incompetent per se, it’s that they lack competence in the mechanics of working as a team – they don’t know the choreography of good decision-making. As a result, they do everything except sit down and make good decisions.

This is easy to fix – simply model good decision-making for a few months, and put some ground rules in place. Unfortunately, success in this isn’t the end of the story as it usually results in the exposure of a degree of (1) that was formerly unseen (i.e. incompetent team members hiding in the incompetence of the team).

Nonetheless, to start by fixing 2, then exposing 1, is a good way to begin righting an underperforming team.

3. Hidden and/or personal agendas.

This is where mistrust emerges. By bringing hidden and/or personal agendas to the table, team members engender mistrust in each other. This is where I see most team interventions go wrong, by placing the emphasis on the mistrust, rather than on the the cause (hidden and/or personal agendas).

The theory is that by using team building exercises, ‘getting to know you’ sessions and attempting to bond team members, trust will grow, thereby displacing the hidden and/or personal agendas.

Frankly, it doesn’t work. Sure, like an on-again off-again dieter who sees some weight loss before crashing face forward into a pecan pie, the team will see some short term dilution in mistrust, but it doesn’t solve the root cause. The true, long-term answer is to teach and reward people for being transparent, and expunging those who cannot or will not be so.

(Thanks to @ronnieswafford and @Valutivity for helping me noodle out the distinctions between distrust and mistrust.)