Leading Teams in Times of Change

Understanding how individuals cycle through change is also helpful to understand some of the major mistakes which leaders make when working with teams. Patrick Lencioni has identified five dysfunctions of teams which leaders should address in order to enhance team effectiveness. Understanding these dysfunctions is helpful in understanding how a first line manager can lead a team more effectively. The five dysfunctions Lencioni has identified, but which are also common to most team effectiveness programs are: 1) absence of trust; 2) fear of conflict, 3) lack of commitment, 4) avoidance of accountability, and 5) inattention to results (Lencioni, 2005, p. 6). Consistent achievement of goals over the long-term is more possible if the team can overcome the five dysfunctions. Each of these concepts also apply to a leader in moving a team through change.

Team members must trust one another in order to be able to depend and rely on one another and help and strengthen each other in ways to improve performance. A team leader must also be able to establish trust with the employees that reports to him or her. As Strebel points out, “Individuals formulate responses to those questions (related to the change effort) in large part by evaluating their relationship with their boss” (Strebel, 1996, p. 88). Within a trusting relationship, there will be more communication, more willingness to listen to concerns and, therefore, less likelihood of the team falling into stages of deep pessimism or resistance.

“Teams that trust one another are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issue and decisions that are key to the organization’s success” (Lencioni, 2005, p. 7) as well as be able to openly discuss difficult issues that may come up as a result of a change initiative. Change will likely bring about difficult and deeply held feelings by members of the team. A team leader who has established a trusting environment where members of the team can openly discuss and debate difficult issues will more likely be able to discuss the difficult issues related to change openly and honestly. Even if these issues may relate to difficult issues like pay, bonus, relocations, or even lay offs, people who do not trust one another will not truly listen to one another, or try to understand feelings, or work for collaborative solutions, but rather will try to win or manipulate the conversation to their own purposes. The leader who engages individuals in discussions of challenges and possible solutions will recognize that this will later lead to their commitment and help avoid and/or prolong resistance later on.

If a leader allows the team to be open with their opinions in a debate about the areas of conflict and that all opinions and feelings and ideas are considered, there is a stronger sense of commitment within the overall team to whatever final course of action is taken. The free and open discussion of ideas helps bring clarity to the minds of the team members and brings about buy-in to the final decisions accepted by the team. Even if outcomes are grave, for example, there will be no bonus payout, or 20% of the team will be terminated, the open discussion helps bring clarity to the situation and eventual understanding or acceptance of the change effort. Even if the leader does not have these conversations with their employees, the conversations are still going on, but rather than happening in an open environment where some positive result may be the outcome, they happen through the informal grape-vine of the company; at the water fountain; or at the lunch breaks. Furthermore, these conversations are more likely to focus on the pessimistic. They may even help entrench resistance or lead to a point where people begin checking out. Only through positive confrontation and conflict can a leader hope to engage the employee and raise them out of the slump.

With the prior steps in place it is easier for a team leader to help the team members “hold one another accountable for adhering” (Lencioni, 2005, p. 7) to the decisions and commitment of the team. In a situation of change, establishing a sense of accountability to implement the changes and to support one another through the change helps move the team out of the bottom of the performance curve and helps to begin to raise them up through renewed hope and optimism.

Finally, “teams that trust one another, engage in conflict, commit to decisions, and hold one another accountable are very likely to set aside their individual needs and agendas and focus almost exclusively on what is best for the team” (Lencioni, 2005, p. 7). Ensuring these steps helps the team move the team through change more effectively.

This model of team work is similar to other types of team building programs available from various training companies and writers on team performance. It is similar to the concept of a leader helping a team move through an evolution of team development, referred to by different names, but commonly known as “forming, storming, norming and performing”, or as Hersey et al describe them as a “team readiness level” (Hersey et al, 2001, p. 325). It would be beneficial to combine these concepts of team effectiveness with the insights regarding change leadership in recommending concepts which could be taught to first line managers regarding a process to help ensure greater success in implementing change.