Are egos and ignorance stopping executives from working in teams?

James Scouller outlines the obstacles blocking true teamwork at the top

CEOs and their top colleagues often grapple with issues of vision, employee engagement and organisational change – all challenges that suit teams. So you’d think senior teams would be common – but they’re not. Why is this? 

Senior executives find it difficult to apply team disciplines; for example, in genuine high-performing teams you’ll see:

  • Shared leadership (not a single dominant leader as in performance groups).
  • Leaders joining in, doing real creative work, not merely delegating and presiding over their colleagues’ work, as you’ll see in performance groups.
  • Members working jointly on shared tasks, delivering collective outputs (like defining a new company vision).
  • Individual and joint accountability (where the ethos is ‘only the team can fail’).
  • Readiness to engage in conflict plus an ability to handle it skilfully.

Why do they struggle to apply these disciplines? Because they face five blocks:

  • Ignorance
  • Unexamined presuppositions
  • High egocentricity
  • Psychological risk
  • No overriding stretching team-specific performance goal

You could visualise these five blocks as forming a pyramid, with ignorance at the bottom and no goal at the top. Each block sets the foundation for the obstacle lying above it.

Ignorance

At the pyramid’s base is ignorance. Many executives don’t know what a team’s distinguishing features are, couldn’t tell the difference between real teams and performance groups and don’t know they have a choice of disciplines. Alternatively, they do know the difference but believe they face a one-time decision. They haven’t realised you can switch disciplines according to the task. Just as important, they’ve never heard of pseudo teams (groups that stress unity at the expense of results). This sets the foundation for the problems you’ll see one level higher.

Unexamined presuppositions

At level two we meet their five unexamined presuppositions about teams. Not every senior executive holds all five, but they’re widely held, in my experience. They are:

  1. Teams don’t work. This stems from the ignorance just described plus previous bad experiences in so-called teams. Dozens of executives have told me about bickering, backstabbing and boring, pointless, time-wasting team meetings. It was clear they hadn’t worked in real teams, but in badly run performance groups or, worse, pseudo teams.
  2. Individual accountability trumps team accountability. The assumption that it’s best to pin final responsibility on one person. This blocks the ‘we succeed as a team and fail as a team’ mindset so crucial to team building. 
  3. Job title and status should control people’s influence around the table. This introduces feelings of superiority and inferiority, making it harder to form a real team. 
  4. If you report to the CEO you’re automatically in the team. Even if your mindset could hamper its results? This often undermines the unwritten team rule: ‘No passengers; everyone must add value.’ 
  5. People at the top aren’t there to do real work. Many in senior groups feel they’re not there to make products and services or deliver value to customers. They see their role as overseeing, delegating and criticising. They’ve lost the habit of doing real work together, such as problem solving, designing, creating and executing. That goes directly against the purpose of real teams.

The five presuppositions act as a sieve to make teams less likely, and performance groups dominated by a single leader are almost the default choice at senior level. But there’s more. When the presuppositions join the next two blocks the chance of building a senior team shrinks further.

High egocentricity

Executives making it to the top are typically strong willed and often self centred. All have been running departments, companies or divisions and they’re used to calling the shots. But in a real team they must collaborate with peers, which they can find tough if they’re used to shaping the agenda. That sets them up for clashes or uncomfortable silent standoffs with colleagues of similar attitude and status… which takes us to the pyramid’s next level.

Psychological risk

Being egocentric, they meet three forms of psychological risk. Why? Because they face the discipline of joint accountability – a hallmark of real teams – which is not only unfamiliar to them, it’s threatening. First, it could expose humiliating failures or mistakes. Second, it triggers the fear of losing autonomy and control (loss of freedom can worry them more than team results). And third, there’s the real danger of conflict because the chances of overt disputes are higher in teams than in performance groups. Most senior managers shy away from conflict. 

No overriding specific goal

Finally, you’ll often find there’s no overriding, stretching, team-specific performance goal. The business can be facing huge challenges, but the top executives may not see a compelling goal demanding urgent collective action forcing them to act as a team.

Maybe they’re right. Perhaps such a goal doesn’t exist. But I’ve seen companies in crisis where senior executives can’t see what’s obvious to everyone else: that they face a clear specific challenge unique to them, a challenge they can only meet by acting as a team. 

What causes this blindness? It’s partly the natural outcome of the pyramid’s four lower layers. But also their inclination to assume their purpose as a group is identical to the organisation’s aims. They don’t ask themselves: ‘If this is the company’s goal, what do we as a group have to deliver to make sure that goal is achieved?’

Payoffs

I’m not suggesting all senior groups need to act as real teams. For some, the performance group option makes more sense. But I do believe that if more top executives understood the difference between real teams and performance groups and grasped these five blocks, we’d see more top teams. The payoff? Higher employee engagement, increased customer satisfaction and better financial results. 

James Scouller is author of How to Build Winning Teams Again and Again