'What wrecks many noble projects is feelings, and human beings have an infinite number of ways to sabotage here'
The default state of most teams is dysfunction. This is because any human working group will contain clashing egos and apparently irreconcilable needs, which leaves plenty of scope for violent disagreement.
Given this, the sensible thing would be for every team to invest time in identifying potential fissures, agreeing on standards of good behaviour and then ensuring behaviour is constantly reviewed. But we do not generally do the sensible thing. Typically, teams collude in ignoring the snake's nest of difficult feelings seething beneath the tranquil surface.
Alternatively, a feeble effort is made to create ground rules or values lists, most of which go no further than pussy-cat rhetoric such as 'openness' or 'honesty'.
It is only when a performance crisis occurs that a team may be forced to consider that its behaviour may have some connection to poor task results.
Working with a trust that had received devastating audit news, I talked to each executive team member privately as a prelude to the first away-day. The day then started with a summary of themes from the interviews, one of which was that self-protection through feigned indifference was the norm. Personal relationships had soured disastrously and it was impossible to express any genuine feeling in the consequent toxic atmosphere. Everyone nodded when I made this point.
About half an hour later we were discussing a possible new strategy for infection control when the director of nursing dissolved in angry tears, describing her shame at being associated with the poor record of the trust. Missing barely a beat, one of her colleagues almost literally elbowed her out of the way - he was sitting next to her - and said: 'Well, yes, as I was saying, to get back to what really matters here.'
It was a wonderful demonstration of exactly what was wrong.
It is not that difficult to prevent team dysfunction, but constant monitoring is needed. A set of ground rules is indeed useful, but only if you attach clear behavioural statements to them. If you want openness, what would it look, sound and feel like in your team? What would the negative opposites be? This set of rules needs to be a living tool and one to which you return constantly. How are we doing against these rules? What are the sanctions for people who breach them? Be merciful because some backsliding is a condition of being human.
Next, it is helpful to learn how to listen, and I mean authentic listening, not the 'I-hear-what-you-say' variety, invariably followed by a 'but'.
If someone knows they will be heard when it is their turn, it generally makes them less impatient with other people's apparent waffle.
Finally, make it okay to express feelings. It is easy to analyse logically; to dream up new wonder-systems. But what wrecks so many of these noble projects is feelings, and human beings have an infinite number of ways to sabotage here. Do the unusual thing ó ask about feelings as well as logic and facts, and get them out in the open. That way they stand a better chance of being managed.
If you do just one of these things, it will lead to better team health.
Jenny Rogers is an executive coach and director of Management Futures.