But it is possible for real teams to exist and be effective, even within a highly political culture. Some of them in the U.S. government, particularly in the Senate — the McCain–Feingold team on campaign finance reform, or the bipartisan teams within the banking committee that developed provisions of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — are relatively well known. Others are less visible, generally operating within the executive branch. Although they may have compromised on some important elements, they also worked long and hard to realize the best intentions of both sides in even more important ways.
It may come as a surprise — at least to those who don’t know business very well — to hear that most executive teams at the top of large corporations face a similar problem of a clash between integration and compromise. Although few companies have to bear the intense political infighting seen in Washington today, they are seldom free of political considerations. Sometimes those considerations reflect hierarchical ambitions, sometimes functional allegiances, and sometimes personal animosity. Whatever the source, however, whenever those considerations take precedence over the team’s purpose, high levels of performance are very unlikely.
The solution in both the public and private sector lies in recognizing and understanding how the hidden elements of culture can either vitalize or derail real-team efforts. Usually, these elements are more emotional than rational, and must be dealt with accordingly. If you are a leader in an organization with this kind of dysfunction, you have to work with and within the culture to get the behavior changes you need. The following principles and rules of engagement can help:
1. Take advantage of the positive emotional power of your culture. Never ignore or underestimate it. It is at work (either for you or against you) in the hallways, around the desks, and behind closed doors. And don’t expect to change your culture overnight without the “help” of a major economic, political, or marketplace disruption. In other words, you cannot change a well-established culture very much very fast. The recent turmoil at the top of Hewlett-Packard Company illustrates what can happen when leaders ignore a culture as deeply embedded as the famous “HP Way.”
2. Concentrate on the “critical few” behaviors that will determine success by reinforcing the cultural elements of integration that already exist within your company. What are those behaviors? How will meetings be conducted? What will members need to do between meetings? How will the leadership role be shifted? How will “bad behaviors” be handled? A senior leadership “culture team” at General Motors Company made remarkable progress recently working with a seemingly dead culture by focusing hundreds of managers on changing the critical few behaviors at multiple levels that affect speed, accountability, and customer experience.
3. Use both the formal and the informal elements of your organization. The best leadership teams are highly networked in ways that inform their teaming and spread support for the team’s recommendations. They use both formal and informal mechanisms to sustain their networks. They also make frequent use of sub-teams to permit different member configurations and working approaches. Before Michael Sabia left the CEO post at Bell Canada in 2008, he launched a pride-builder movement that spread virally (via peer-to-peer interactions) as well as programmatically and changed motivational behaviors in 1,500 frontline supervisors in less than 18 months.
4. Select team members who can check their politics at the team-room door. Think about what it will take to ensure safe interactions that are not overly emotional or political. Each member should have the skills and experience that are essential to the team task, and each will be respected by other members. Their hierarchical, functional, and political affiliations should be secondary to the capability required to achieve the team’s purpose.