It is widely acknowledged that teams will play an ever greater role in the workplace of the future, as organizations compete globally and need more diverse, agile and collaborative teams to tackle complex tasks and challenges such as implementation of disruptive technologies like AI.
However, teams face a number of risks and blockers that impede their effectiveness. Many of these dysfunctions have been well covered in literature and include things like poor trust, lack of clarity of goals and purpose, unclear accountabilities and breakdowns in communication.
Yet, perhaps the least known and biggest risks to team performance and relationships arise when team strengths go into overdrive and this leads to negative, unintended results. Overdone strengths occur when team members use their strengths in the wrong way or at the wrong time and this unintentionally undermines performance, relationships and results. For example, a team that has a high proportion of team members with strengths in areas like Results Focus, Decisiveness and Initiative might unintentionally end up driving results so hard that they lose sight of the importance of planning, listening to others’ perspectives and reviewing results. Because they are so focused on getting stuff done, they fail to engage external stakeholders to support their plans, leading to lack of commitment and implementation problems. This overdrive behavior from the majority of the team might also lead to breakdowns in trust and communication with team members who are more considered, relational and/or planful in their approach.
So what triggers team overdrive? Some of the biggest sources of overdone strengths in team are as follows:
Lopsided teams: failing to take personal strengths into account when hiring people and assembling teams often results in teams that are lopsided. For example, they might have excellent strengths in Execution, but no team members who are particularly energized by Relationships or Thinking strengths such as Empathy, Critical Thinking and Creativity. Or, team members might be so focused on relationships that they spend all their time building relationships at the expense of getting things done.
Lack of feedback: feedback is crucial in order for team members to understand their ‘blind spots’ and overdone strengths. Without regular, timely and balanced feedback, it is unlikely team members will recognise overdrive behaviours and unproductive habits, many of which may have been successfully applied in past roles. Without this awareness, team members are likely to continue to perform the role as they’ve always done, even when these behaviours don’t work anymore.
Stress and pressure: we see many teams, particularly leadership and executive teams, that go into overdrive because of the enormous pressure they are under from multiple stakeholders, including shareholders and the Board. This causes overdrive behaviours such as Self-confidence and Decisiveness to combine and tip in overdrive, leading to overhasty analysis and decision-making, groupthink (i.e., when teams start to think alike and make decisions that remain unchallenged) and careless risk taking. By all accounts, this was almost certainly a contributory factor in Carillion’s recent demise.
Company culture: freedoms and constraints in the company culture can exacerbate overdrive behaviours. It is hard to forget the example of Enron, where over-confidence was left unchecked because of a lack of company ethics, values and boundaries. This resulted in reckless and unethical behaviour that ultimately led to the well documented downfall of the company.
Teams can avoid overdrive risks in the following ways:
Teams should take steps to become aware of their strengths and associated overdrive risks. Individuals and teams will only learn about their overdrive behaviours when they become more aware of their strengths and how to use these with caution and care across the different situations they face. By using a valid and reliable strengths assessment profiler like StrengthscopeTeam™, teams can build awareness of team member strengths and how these show up when they are in overdrive, as well as specific techniques team members can use to balance out one another’s excesses and avoid overdrive risks.
Overdrive often occurs when a dominant strength or combination of strengths (e.g., Decisiveness and Self-confidence) becomes the ‘right’ way of thinking in the team – the ‘hammer’ the team uses to deal with everything it faces. In such cases, everything starts looking like a ‘nail’ and minority, dissenting team members’ views are steamrollered or ignored.
Teams can avoid this danger by hiring diverse talent and intentionally building more cognitively diverse teams made up of a broad mix of strengths, skills, experiences and different backgrounds (including ethnic and gender differences).
Teams wanting to avoid overdrive risks should build an open culture of feedback where team members are able to provide constructive as well as positive feedback. It takes times and trust before such brave conversations can occur which is why it is always a good idea to bring in an external facilitator from time to time to help equip the team with the tools, skills and confidence to shift to an open culture of feedback. Inviting employees and stakeholders outside the team to provide feedback on team behaviours as well as results can also help guard against excessive overdrive.
Teams that are naturally results-focused and ambitious are far more likely to trip themselves up by going into overdrive when they are over-stretched and in a vicious ‘do-do-do cycle’. This is a particularly dangerous situation as these type of teams allow themselves little time for planning and reviewing work; all their energy is focused on making decision and delivering better results. This lopsided pattern undermines team and organizational effectiveness and often results in burnout, disengagement and unwanted turnover of key talent.
We have previously highlighted the risks of overdone strengths for leaders. Similarly, team strengths can go into overdrive and undermine performance outcomes and damage relationships. Yet, many teams remain totally unaware of their overdrive risks. If these remain unchecked, they can result in major problems, as we have seen in many high profile cases recently, including Carillion, Sports Direct and BHS among others. Organizations should adopt the steps outlined above, starting with a development program to raise awareness of strengths and overdrive risks in all their key teams. Our experience shows the considerable power of this approach, which almost always raises huge ‘aha moments’ as this is something teams find both insightful and immediately relevant in the way they work together and deliver results.
In our work with leaders across a range of industries, we are often struck by how often people are propelled up the corporate ladder due largely to their technical ability in their field. Think in particular of those in ‘creative’ sectors, like design, publishing, advertising, architecture, marketing and so on. Most often, talented people in these industries gain their first career successes by producing noteworthy work and this continues for a number of years, until they are picked for an upwards move as a result of being amongst the ‘best in class’ technically.
And, in most cases, these upwards moves bring line management responsibility. For some, this works out well – they feel positive about the opportunity to manage others and the new role requirements (coaching, motivating, reviewing, giving feedback, structuring work) come fairly easily. But for most, particularly those without support or training (which, let’s be honest, is the majority), this can be a confusing, frustrating and demotivating time. Not provided with a route map for success, pulled away from what they love (their technical work), and where they get their sense of self-worth and work identity, many of these new leaders falter.
Some will take control by requesting training, gaining new knowledge, getting support from colleagues. Others will resist the shift and keep reverting to the technical, seeing the new line management responsibilities as a distraction that they’d rather ignore. The consequences of this for the new manager, their team and the organization are significant: a lower sense of connection and engagement with work for the manager and their team can hit productivity, morale and pretty quickly, performance.
But this situation can be avoided. Here’s how:
Get clear on your career – first of all, management and leadership isn’t for everyone. And in many organizations, you can make a choice as to whether you want to follow a managerial route, or remain an ‘individual contributor’. There are many resources that can help you in making a decision about your career, in addition to gaining hands-on experience for yourself. One of the most useful frameworks we have found is Edgar Schein’s career anchors model which helps you identify which single career ‘anchor’ best describes your ideal career direction. Check out the basic model here. And get clear whether you want to take on the responsibilities of management and leadership.
Get real – these responsibilities are significant. As a manager, you have a ‘duty of care’ to your direct reports. Amongst other things, duty of care involves ensuring that, as far as you can, you are taking steps to ensure your team’s well-being at work. So whatever you do, make sure that you take your managerial responsibilities seriously, it’s the only way you can ensure you have a thriving, high performing team.
Get knowledge – if you do decide that the line management pathway is the one for you, or even worth exploring, you’re going to need some basic knowledge of what line management involves. There are a wide range of resources available, but we would advise against leaving it to your organization to offer you training. It is essential that you understand how to make a success of these new role responsibilities and your organization may or may not provide the support that you need. So don’t leave it to chance. Do the research and get some knowledge.
Get support – it’s definitely worth getting a good support network around you and learning from others’ experiences of management. Most managers have ‘war stories’ and learnings from their own careers which are worth hearing. So find peers, senior managers, ask your own line manager and get talking. There’s no need to feel like you’re going it alone, there are many many people who are in the same position and who would love to share.
Make it ‘you’ shaped – managers and leaders do have similar responsibilities wherever they are. And there are certain things that all of them need to do. But the way that you manage and lead is going to be in most part based on your personality, style and values. So make your career and your management role ‘you’ shaped…built around your own skills and strengths, rather than just playing the role of the manager. Our research has shown that it is far more important for leaders to know and use the unique strengths they have to be seen as effective leaders rather than to have specific strengths. For more information, see here.
So can you be a ‘creative’ leader – someone who combines a passion for creative technical work with the leadership of others who share the same vision? Absolutely. But it’s not for everybody. In following the 5-point plan above, any leader (in the creative industries or elsewhere) can figure out if this is the way they want to go in their careers and if so, how to get the most from their choice. The most important thing here is to take control of your career and make conscious decisions about where you want to take it. So make your career ‘you’ shaped – it’s your career after all.
For find your own leadership strengths, click here for more on profiler, StrengthscopeLeader™.
To read more about leadership and how to become an energizing leader, check out our latest guide here.