Leadership Barometer 46 Addition by Subtraction

April 16, 2020

The title of this article came from a student in one of my online classes on Team Dynamics. He got the phrase from an “extraordinary” Chief Master Sergeant named Jim, currently serving at the Pentagon. I really love the phrase because it is so simple, yet so profound.

We are all familiar with some of the problems that occur when working in teams. In this article, I want to focus on the impact that can be made by a single person who is a misfit in the group and slows down all team progress.

I need to be careful to describe the phenomenon correctly. Normally, I am an advocate of having diversity of opinion and styles within a team. Reason: respectful differences in outlook or opinion are healthy because they usually lead to more creative and robust solutions.

If you have a team of clones who all think alike on most issues, you have a mono-culture that may seem to work well, but it will probably lead to myopic solutions. In general, having “different” people on a team is a good thing.

Unfortunately, we have all had the experience of being on a team where one individual simply stops forward progress on a regular basis. The root cause may be a personality deficiency or some kind of chemistry problem between members.

The person may become moody or bellicose and derail group processes at every opportunity. In rare cases there is an intent to stop the efforts of a team, sort of like a sport.

I am not writing about a person on the team who fills a Devil’s advocate role from time to time in order to prevent the group from slipping into a dangerous group think. Nor am I referring to the person with a concern or observation who voices it in a polite way.

The person I am describing is one who habitually takes a contrarian view and refuses to accept the fact that he or she is derailing conversation rather than fostering a balanced discussion.

I advocate that any team should have a written and agreed-upon set of expected behaviors. These statements indicate our agreement on how we will treat each other along with specific consequences for members who do not comply.

If peer pressure and body language fail to convince the person to stop the disruptive behavior, then it is time for the person’s manager to do some private coaching. Sometimes that can make at least a temporary improvement

However, some individuals just cannot or will not change. Stronger measures are required. The solution is rather obvious. The person needs to find some other way to get entertainment, and should be excused from the team.

This surgery is really “addition by subtraction.” Reason: once the problem person is removed, the entire team will breathe a sigh of relief, because now decisions and progress can occur more easily.

I recall removing a disruptive member of a team years ago. Grateful team members came to me with tears of gratitude in their eyes saying, “Oh thank you! Removing Frank from the team took some courage, but we are so grateful to have the ability to navigate without him. Life will be so much better for all of us because of your action.”

Removing a problem person from a team is often a painful process. Egos can get bruised or there may be an ugly scene. My advice is to take the action, but only after you have exhausted all remedial efforts.




Bob Whipple, MBA, CPLP, is a consultant, trainer, speaker, and author in the areas of leadership and trust. He is the author of: The Trust Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online, and Leading with Trust is Like Sailing Downwind. Bob has many years as a senior executive with a Fortune 500 Company and with non-profit organizations


Competition Friend or Foe

July 12, 2012

Is competition between individuals or teams at work good or bad? The answer is “yes.” When taken to extremes, it is easy to see that cut-throat competition where one group works to succeed at the expense of another group will lead to poor performance or even sabotage. If you doubt that, just start watching The Apprentice on TV. I have not watched it in a few years, but it used to be based on taking 1000 bright business students and creating 999 losers and one winner.

On the other extreme, we know that pit crews are amazingly competitive in a good way. They will work for days to shave a few tenths of a second on a pit stop. They are seeking perfection, and the friendly competition between teams creates an atmosphere that breeds excellence.

How can you know if you are creating the kind of competition that is healthy? Here are some signs that you have crossed the line from useful competition to the detrimental variety.

1. Teams plan activities that advantage their group but disadvantage another group.

2. People manipulate numbers in order to win out over the competition.

3. People try to raid personnel from a different team.

4. Gossip or rumors about another team take on a hurtful tone.

5. The formation of cliques becomes an egregious activity.

6. Team celebrations become disruptive or dangerous.

7. Teams fail to share resources that were intended to be used by multiple teams.

8. Teams demonstrate a lack of trust.

9. Team members refuse to be cross trained.

10. Teams hold information back or become secretive on some issues.

Monitor your teams at work, and look for the signs of unhealthy competition. In general, some friendly competition is a good thing, but when it is carried to an extreme, really bad things can begin to happen. If the competition is fostering some of the symptoms above, here are seven remedies that can help.

1. Clarify the goals. Remind people in different groups that they are all part of a larger effort.

2. Reinforce people who demonstrate healthy competition, and counsel people who are on the other extreme.

3. Cross-pollinate members of the teams so it becomes harder to draw on historical loyalties.

4. Hold team building activities for the larger team and intermingle the groups to build chemistry.

5. Be sure stated goals do not encourage silo thinking by ensuring alignment with the larger organization.

6. Celebrate success of teams in the larger environment to create a winning culture.

7. Remove team members who exhibit poor attitudes toward other teams.

Many organizations use contests or other overt methods of encouraging team competition. These can be helpful or hurtful depending on how they are administered. Make sure the competition in your organization is enhancing overall performance rather than fostering bad blood between groups. Use the tips above to keep competition healthy.