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PUBLISHED ARTICLE (Redux): How Individual Ambitions Disrupt Teamwork at the Top
29-Jan-12 [ by Larry Chao ] 27534 Read and 1 Comment

Individual ambitions often undermine top management teamwork‚ writes Larry Chao.

Isn't it ironic that most organizations tout teamwork as being critical for success‚ yet oftentimes the first place it breaks down is at the top?


While this may not true for all organizations‚ most top management teams suffer from poor teamwork at one point or another.


On the surface‚ you might not know that a top management team is struggling.  Executives are cordial and there is little sign of conflict.  But underneath these pleasantries is an undertone of mistrust that disrupts teamwork and trickles down through the organization.


"There are no obvious conflicts in our board team meetings‚" said Alexander (pseudonym) chief executive officer for a regional bank here in Asia. "But when it comes to execution we seem to spend all our time fighting about what we already agreed to do."


Real issues about priorities and how plans will be executed jointly across functions are hardly discussed in meetings.   As a result‚ the problems that block smooth execution are ignored.


"Every time we have a follow-up meeting to check on progress of our plans‚ I find myself playing the role of referee‚" continued Alexander.  "I wonder if my executive team members ever talk to one another between meetings.  It is frustrating and a waste of time."


The cause of poor top management teamwork may be traced to many sources‚ such as conflicting objectives‚ unclear roles and insufficient resources.


But the real culprit is when individual ambition becomes more important than shared accountability‚ and when there is a lack of trust between team members.


Imagine throwing together a bunch of highly competitive people‚ who do not understand or trust each other.  Chances are they will not make the sacrifices necessary to produce effective teamwork.


The problem is most executives are promoted based on individual achievement.  They learn that their track records are the backbone of success.  Sure‚ teamwork is important‚ but when push comes to shove‚ what you achieve as an individual is what counts.


Executive suites are filled with ambitious managers‚ who prize individual achievement over company success.  They believe this attitude is what made them successful‚ so why change?


Said Alexander: "Our bank has eroded into a bunch of fiefdoms where the whole is less than the sum of our parts.  We need to get back to basics and focus people on working for the benefit of the total bank.  Otherwise we sacrifice long term growth for short term gains."


The challenge is to balance the need for individual achievement with shared accountability for team results.  In reality‚ top executives need to wear two hats.   The first hat represents their functional interests.  The second hat represents overall company interests.


Along the way‚ there will be conflicts between functional priorities and broader company goals.  This is where putting ambitions and egos aside and encouraging executives to collaborate about how functions need to work together for the greater good is important.


In addition to balancing individual ambition with shared accountability‚ top management teams must also build trust. 


This isn't easy given the "survival of the fittest" mentality high achieving executives adopt as they make their way to the top.  As one executive commented‚ "at the end of the day‚ we are all competing and you have to look out for number one."


Oftentimes chief executives take it for granted that top team members already trust each other and get along.


But nothing could be further from the truth. 


Competitive‚ ambitious executives don't make it to the top without knowing how to compete and protect their flank.  Cooperating with others‚ making sacrifices and acting interdependently do not always come naturally.


What disrupts teamwork most often is the absence of trust.   It is the kind of trust that Patrick Lencione in his remarkable book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team refers to as trust where people can feel vulnerable making mistakes and revealing their weaknesses without fear they will be attacked.


According to Lencione‚ if team members do not have this kind of trust‚ they can never truly be open and honest with each other.  They will always be worried that they might say something that will make them vulnerable.  As a result‚ they act guarded and there is very little give and take.


Top executives don't have to love each other‚ but they do have to create enough trust to collaborate openly and work effectively as a team.  Without this trust there is the risk that individual ambition becomes too important and teamwork suffers.

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