by Bob Lewis

Team dysfunction the combinatorial way

Feb 02, 2011
IT Leadership

A team can look healthy, until you do the math. That's when you see the level of dysfunction. Here's the magic formula.

A team can look healthy, until you do the math. That’s when you see the level of dysfunction. Here’s the magic formula.

ManagementSpeak: Team Player

Translation: Someone who can bludgeon, bribe, cajole, threaten, intimidate, wheedle, sweet talk, pressure or otherwise coerce coworkers into assisting with a project.

This week’s anonymous contributor didn’t need to engage in any forceful persuasion. Submitting this excellent entry proved he was, in fact, a team player.

Fun with PowerPoint:

Draw a circle for each of your direct reports, arranged in a ring. Color the solid performers green and those who present challenges yellow. Your problem children? Red.

Next: Connect every pair of circles with a colored line — green for good working relationships, yellow for those with some friction and distrust, red for pairs who would fight about whether Han shot first. (He did. Don’t argue.)

(Do you need a fourth color — do you need to color any circles or lines gray because you don’t know? Make a note: Unless you’re new, you shouldn’t need gray.)

When you look at the whole picture, what’s your overall impression … how un-green does it look?


Imagine it looks like Figure 1. Without the picture you might think to yourself, “I have a couple of problem children, and a few points of friction, but all in all it’s a pretty good team.”

Figure 1

With the picture? There’s a lot of not green. You have work to do.

The seven people who report to you are doing the work of about four, figuring Colonel Mustard nets zero, interfering with as much work as he contributes, and that Miss Scarlet, who doesn’t have a Clue (sorry), delivers nothing herself while reducing everyone else’s effectiveness.

Another view: Your team is only 38% as effective as it could be. How does that math work? Your team is composed of 21 interpersonal relationships (n*(n-1)/2). A dozen are healthy. Count the five coded yellow as neutral. The four red ones actively interfere with team functioning, so you subtract them from the total. That’s (12-4)/21 … 38% in round numbers.

Which is a problem. What’s the solution? It’s obvious. Miss Scarlet has to go. Her effectiveness is in the red, and her only positive working relationship is with Colonel Mustard — himself a marginal performer. He gets along well with Miss Scarlet because they recognize each other as fellow outcasts. The rest of the team probably bristles at having to work with substandard colleagues.

That very well might be the case. It also might not, because while correlation frequently does indicate causation, it doesn’t tell you what is cause and what is effect.

Miss Scarlet might not be the source of the problem, any more than the frequent presence of fire trucks  near burning buildings justifies the conclusion that fire trucks cause fires.

It might be that for any number of reasons your apparently strong performers just don’t like Miss Scarlet and don’t make a secret of it. Having to work in an oppressive work environment can take a toll on anyone. The negative working relationships might be the cause of her poor performance and not the result of it.

What might cause otherwise strong performers to act this way? We all know the answer: Sexism isn’t unknown among technical professionals. Or, if Miss Scarlet is overweight or simply unattractive there are plenty of people who allow physical appearance to influence their interpersonal relationships. Or, she might belong to a racial, ethnic, or religious group some of your staff don’t happen to like for reasons of simple bigotry.

She also just might be a newcomer to a long-established team that doesn’t welcome newcomers.

Any or all of these factors do sometimes come into play, whether we like it or not.

Or, Miss Scarlet might just be an incompetent, unpleasant dink — an energy-sucking vampire who drains the energy out of everyone she works with.

Which is it? Usually, the manager knows the answer. He might not like the answer, but he knows the answer. If the problem is bias, the manager will have heard the jokes and unkind remarks. If the manager is she rather than he, she might have been on the receiving end of some of them.

If the problem is incompetence, most managers can tell quite easily as the employee explains what hasn’t been accomplished, and why. If she’s unpleasant, the manager does know; if she’s a sycophant everyone else resents, the manager ought to have spotted this, too.

Deep down, most managers know the answer. Many also share the deeply rooted desire to avoid dealing with it, because that generally means telling people something they don’t want to hear. On any given day it’s easy to figure one more day won’t hurt, and might lead to the problem taking care of itself.

So ask yourself: How many more days would you accept 38% as good enough?

You know the right answer.


Bob Lewis is author of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Bare Bones Change Management: What you shouldn’t not do, and six other books on business, information technology, and where they intersect. He is president of IT Catalysts, Inc., a consultancy specializing in these and related areas.