Unity of Crisis
Marvel Comic’s Avengers are a pretty impressive bunch. Thor, Captain America, Ironman, and the Hulk make a fearsome combination: Captain America is practically indestructible, Thor flies around throwing lightning, Ironman, aka Tony Stark, is like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs rolled into one, and the Hulk is, well, the Hulk. When it comes to fighting off alien invasions, these guys have power to spare. That’s a good thing, because impressive as they are individually, as a team they aren’t so hot. Their inability to coordinate well would have been a total disaster if they hadn’t had such tremendous power and a friendly script writer in the basement to back them up. In fact, after watching them in action, it’s easy to understand why Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Nick Fury, is bald.
But wait! Sure, the Avengers have their issues, but they do pull together and beat off the invasion. They may have been at each other’s throats earlier in the movie, but aren’t they a team by the end? What’s the problem?
Fundamentally, the problem is that the Avengers are not really ever a team; rather, they are a group of people, more or less, who are able to agree that working together is less awful than the alternative. That, as the poet said, is not exactly a ringing endorsement! Even without Loki’s mind games, they were already barely civil to one another. He merely accentuated what was already happening, pushing them into open conflict.
The Avengers, of course, are fiction. Sadly, this unity of crisis is not. A common problem in business settings are teams whose members barely interact until the pressure of the oncoming deadline forces them to work together at least enough to get something out the door. At one company, this non-interaction took the form of endless debates and decisions that were revisited every week or two. At another company, the team ended up dominated by a couple of loud members, while the rest simply tried not to be noticed. In neither situation was there productive debate, problem solving, or effective decision making; unlike the Avengers, the motions they went through were not particularly dramatic or exciting. On the bright side, again unlike in the movie, no flying aircraft carriers were harmed.
When I’m speaking on organizational development, it’s at about this point that someone interrupts to tell me that they are communicating: they are sending email. Don’t get me wrong; email is a wonderful tool. However, it’s not some sort of magic cure-all. When I actually sit down with groups to look at their communications patterns, we quickly find out that while emails may be sent to everyone in the group, they are really only for the benefit of the team lead. Quite often, the email chain quickly becomes an echo chamber or an electronic trail useful only to prove a point or hurt a competitor when reviews come around.
The challenge every team faces is helping its members learn to communicate. It seems so simple: after all, everyone is speaking the same language. As we see in the Avengers, though, that is not entirely true. While the words all may sound the same, each person is bringing their own perspectives, assumptions, and beliefs to the table. Moreover, each person is bringing their own assumptions about what the goals are and the best way to accomplish them. Also, not unlike the Avengers, there is often a certain amount of friction between different team members. While most business teams do not explode into physical violence, the verbal equivalent does occur. Unlike the Avengers, when that happens many teams simply fall apart. Although the Avengers avoid that fate, it was close. While that experience may be exciting in a movie, I find that most business leaders would rather skip the drama.
So what can be done to create real unity, instead of a unity of crisis? To begin with, it takes time. Sorry, but just like baking a cake, if you simply turn up the temperature of the oven, all you get is a mess. Teams are the same: if you rush, you still spend the same amount of time but with less to show for it.
Assuming that you use your time well, it is particularly important for the team lead to set the tone: invite questions and discussions, but also be willing to end debate and move on. At first, team members will be happy to have the leader end the debate; eventually, though, they’ll start to push back. That’s good news: your team is coming together and starting to really engage. Now you can start really dissecting the goals of the team, and really figure out the best ways of doing things. Start letting the team members make more of the decisions, although you may have to ratify whatever they come up with for the decision to be accepted. Encourage questions and debate, but do your best to keep your own opinions to yourself: the process of learning to argue well isn’t easy and if the team members realize you have a preference, the tendency is for the team to coalesce around that preference. Alternately, the team may simply resist your choice just because it’s coming from you. Better to not go there.
A unity of crisis can be very useful for a one off event, such as saving the world from an alien invasion. But for more mundane, ongoing, projects, real unity is a far better outcome.
Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author, and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The McGraw-Hill 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” and “Organizational Psychology for Managers.” He is also a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” For more information, or to sign up for Steve’s monthly newsletter, visitwww.7stepsahead.com. You can also contact Steve at 978-298-5189 or firstname.lastname@example.org.