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75% of Cross Functional Teams Are Dysfunctional

Given the complexity and torrid change of the digital age, leaders from across organizations are increasingly gathering in cross functional teams, or pods, to solve today’s problems or to realize current possibilities. As a gathering of leaders with a variety of expertise, such as IT, finance, marketing, operations, HR, etc., I would argue that even executive teams and startups can be considered cross-functional teams of leaders.

While we see cross functional teams forming with more frequency, commonality doesn’t always equate to functionality. As the Harvard Business review reports in the title of an article: ‘75% of Cross Functional Teams are Dysfunctional.’

Synonyms for dysfunctional include sick, broken, decayed, and flawed. Its definition is inseparable from its Greek prefix “dys-”, which “destroy[s] the good sense of a word or increasing its bad sense” [Liddell & Scott]. A dysfunctional team destroys what is good about a team (ie camaraderie, trust, innovation, insync execution, etc.).and increases what is bad about a team (ie egoism, suspicion, undermining, indecision, etc.). See example in HBR article. If this critical mass of teams is ignored or tolerated, not to mention rewarded, the egoism, suspicion, undermining, and indecision can spread throughout the organization.

What causes this dysfunction in three quarters of cross functional teams? How can those causes be addressed and prevented?

Leadership theory and practice assumes that leaders lead followers. Some define leaders as those who have followers. Certainly this definition plays out within the hierarchy of a traditional organization. However, cross functional teams are a gathering of leaders in which leaders attempt to lead leaders as followers. Leading leaders is a different game than leading followers, requiring different definitions, processes and skills. Unless new methodologies and skills for leading leaders are introduced in this context, leaders impose their habits for leading followers onto leading leaders. Herein the dysfunction formulates, festers, and, if not addressed, eventually becomes contagious.

How do you transform the dysfunction within cross functional teams into functionality that cultivates fun, flow and fortune?

It falls back to the reality that one bad apple will eventually ruin the entire barrel. Teams that tolerate egoism, suspicion and manipulation within its members become mediocre at best. To maintain functionality, agreements need to be made and all members must collectively hold each other accountable to those agreements. When leading leaders, functional, fun, flow and fortune result when, and only when, everyone practice the process. One person not doing so stymies the entire process.

Dysfunction is not inherent to a group of leaders, but the interactions of these leaders. In fact, further HBR research indicates that teams that are ‘hot or ‘on a roll’ are a group of leaders who, often miraculously, make it work. But is it miraculous?

If leaders lead each other as followers dysfunction ensues; if the lead each other as leaders team work evolves to team flow.

For more on an expanded definition of leader-ship and how to lead leaders with Simultaneity™, the leading AND following in the same action, see my blog “Leadership is Evolving. Are you?”

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