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Spotting the signs of dysfunction in a hybrid team

Written by: Frazer Thouard is a partner with GatenbySanderson’s local government practice
Published on: 9 Dec 2021

All who work in or with councils will have noted the ongoing change of the guard of chief executives, not least in London as reported in The MJ in November. A change in organisational leadership presents challenges at any time, not least as we emerge from a global pandemic. While managing flux has always been a core requirement of public service senior leaders, the ability to do so within a workforce environment that has completely shifted adds a very different dynamic.

How different the concept of ‘going to work’ is in 2022 versus 2019. Though the world reacted well to the physical and technical adjustment, we may not yet have developed the mechanisms to deal with the ensuing behavioural repercussions or recognise the signs when this new environment isn’t working as we expect.

One of my leadership development colleagues recently introduced me to Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. I must admit it wasn’t one that had previously hit my radar, but it left me with so many thoughts and questions.

The consequences of dysfunction may seem obvious, but they are worth stating. Reduced productivity, poor decision-making, lost time, lost energy, poor focus, a disengaged workforce. I could go on. Fundamentally, Lencioni lists five traits that lead to a dysfunctional team. They are:

• Absence of trust
• Fear of conflict
• Lack of commitment
• Avoidance of accountability
• Lack of attention to results

If we look at each of these individually, through the lens of hybrid working, we will start to build a picture of the new challenges ahead of council leaders.

Absence of trust

Is it possible to build real trust, with colleagues that you only ever see in a virtual world? Some may say yes, others may disagree.

I deliberately used the word colleagues, not team mates, as they are subtly different. It is likely ‘team mates’ will see each other regularly online, will meet in the office occasionally to collaborate, and may even meet regularly to socialise. But what about indirect team mates? Colleagues across the corporate centre, or other directorates? Those you don’t attend meetings with and may not socialise with?

Can you really build trust in a purely online way? How do you encourage, or facilitate, regular inter-team in-person collaboration, without force or stipulation?

Fear of conflict

Can you really read someone’s behavioural reaction on video? Do virtual meetings lead to more people seeking artificial harmony over debating the real issues? As leaders, do we challenge those we meet with to understand whether there is true agreement with objectives and actions, or are we happy that consensus has become easier to find in an online world?

The lack of conflict and therefore real rigour in decision-making can be a dangerous place to be.

Lack of commitment

If behaviour is difficult to read, then energy is harder still. Interviewing executive leaders as I do, day in and day out via Teams or Zoom, this trait resonated with me the most as judging commitment beyond the spoken word is tougher than it once was.

As an organisational leader, how do you judge your team’s commitment levels? Is their energy and commitment palpable, or does a ‘yes, everything’s under control’ suffice? How can you assess the commitment levels of teams outside your direct control, if you no longer see, hear and observe as you once did?

Avoidance of accountability

I’d argue that, on the surface, this is one trait the hybrid world has impacted least – yet. For most, if not all, leaders within the public sector, there is a moral duty to do what is right, and deliver what has been committed to, no matter how hard. I don’t necessarily subscribe to the thought that a hybrid working model makes it easier for people to ‘duck accountability’ or ‘shirk responsibility’. I think if that were true of someone, the likelihood is that would have happened anyway, irrelevant of working habits.

However, what is becoming increasingly clear is that a lack of effective engagement can distance teams and, when combined with the absence of physical presence, reduce the level of shared commitment individuals may feel to team or the organisation. Over time, this could manifest in behaviours that are less an avoidance of accountability but more a slow withdrawal.

Lack of attention to results

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Lencioni looks at the lack of attention on results as being a determining factor in a dysfunctional team. The word that comes to mind here is distraction.

Distraction, distraction, distraction – in an office working environment, more often than not, distraction came from colleagues – and that distraction tended to be connected to work in some small way. Now that, for many of us, the commute is ‘next door’ rather than ‘next county’, we are constantly surrounded by distraction and interruption. The family. The pets. The fridge (yes really). Conversely, a lack of distraction and continuous intense screen time can lead to minds that are almost anesthetised by the end of the day and an inability to identify or respond effectively to important data.

Hybrid working, in this sense, brings new and intricate challenges where black and white solutions do not exist.

These questions are not just my thoughts. They come from our clients and candidates alike. I think at this stage, we need to keep asking questions and not just jump into answer mode.

As we have seen, the implications of hybrid working models are multifarious and still emerging. The answers will not yet be found in a book, but through dialogue – and lots of it.

We are beginning to unpick these topics with many of our clients on the start of this new journey.

Frazer Thouard is a partner with GatenbySanderson’s local government practice