But We’re not Really a Team…Are We?

It’s something I come across quite often. They feel frustration, a bit of consternation, and an uncertainty of how to put it into words, but it is definitely there.  It’s the conflict between the desire of the leader for his/her team to function as a “team” and the team members’ unspoken feelings:  “But we’re not really a team!”

Increasingly, I think, City Managers want their executive management team to interact together both at staff meetings and outside of staff meeting, as a team.  To borrow from Patrick Lencioni, the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, these City Managers want their direct reports to take off their “specialist” hats and put on the “generic team member” hats, so that they can function as a team.

I don’t claim to know all of their motivations for this, but I believe they see it as one way to respond to the ongoing pressure that the public sector faces to do more with less.  Working together as a team is one way to compensate for this new reality.  Not only that, but it is easy to recognize that if someone has the experience to serve as the head of a department, he/she has accumulated a fair amount of wisdom and savvy along the way about municipal organizations.  So, I can completely understand why City Managers want their team to function like a team!

However, I notice that it often feels counter-intuitive to the Department Heads for several reasons.  First, many of them feel that they did not rise to their position of leadership by being a generalist.  They got there by being a specialist.  They have stayed in their lane, worked hard, and kept up with trends in their area.  Second, they often feel that if they give too much input about another person’s area or idea, it will be taken as an insult.  In addition, since staff meetings may be the only time in which they interact with each other, the team chemistry may not be as strong as it is within their respective departments.  Therefore, to many Department Heads it seems best to be cordial to others, (and helpful if needed) but to basically interact with the City Manager one to one, just like the rest of the Department Heads do.  As one man said to me, “We have enough work already.  I don’t want to create more work, just so we can work together.”

An astute City Manager fully recognizes all of this, but I think his/her response might be summarized by the adage, “What got us here, won’t get us there.”  The question is, “Given the nature of the situation, how can executive teams function most effectively?” I’ll tackle that issue next time, but in the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts and perspective on this issue.


Mike Mowery

Written by:
Mike Mowery
Director of Leadership Development, Strategic Government Resources

8 responses

  1. Mike. I sometimes wonder if leaders’ insecurities interfere with team development.

    1. Andy, I think you are right. We can feel too insecure to interact with different ideas, and also, we can be too insecure to give people a chance to develop by taking on areas of leadership. Somehow we fear that if the people under us can do things as well or better than we can, that we will lose value to the organization. However, I think it’s just the opposite. If you can develop the people under you to do things, your value to the organization goes up, not down.

  2. Mike,

    I’d like to offer a slightly different approach toward making one’s department heads work as an efficient team…. The challenge is to make each department head feel that they offer equal value/worth to the success of the team. While each department bring a different piece [work product] to the table it imperative that each department see the value of their work product. Like a jigsaw puzzle, if there is a piece missing the puzzle will never be complete. Just so with an organization, if any department head is made to feel that their work product is less in value than other departments they will not feel as a true member of the team. If it appears that one department is getting more attention [in terms of resources] than other departments, the other departments may not feel as important and not see the members as a real team..

    Management team members can not be directed to have positive interactions with other team members. This occurs only when there is a mutual respect and trust among the team members. This respect and trust can only be developed when each member knows and feels they have equal value or worth. How to get to that level is a whole other story, but once achieved you will see truly positive interactions among team members both within the staff meetings and outside the meetings. The efforts to get to this level must be ongoing as everyday obstacles will arise that will challenge the dynamics of the group.

    Thank you for your articles, they are thought provoking.

    1. Thanks, Victor. I’m glad you enjoy the articles. I think you make some interesting points. I totally agree that mutual respect and trust must form the foundation for solid teams. I often tell leaders that trust may not really be the issue in a low-performing team, but the leader should approach it as if it is. I say this because if trust is the issue, there’s nothing else you can do to compensate for a lack of trust. It starts with trust and you have to both protect and build on that trust continuously.

  3. I have to approach this from a small town viewpoint. Our town has 4,442 pop. We don’t have many levels of management. each of our supervisors have to wear many hats to provide the services needed. Having said that, even here we have people who need a push to work closer together. Many times they want to go through the Mayor when they want something. I especially see that gulf between Public Works/Utilities and Police/Ambulance. So part of my job is to help bridge that divide and encourage these supervisors to talk to their counterparts. I encourage email for this, because many lack the personal skills of one on one contact. My vision is that if I am not here, they need to be able to work with one another to solve a problem and let me know what is going on. I think you accomplish this by setting up personal contact outside the job. Also Council members have to be part of the solution in that they have to think about the whole city, not just there ward.

    1. Sounds like you have done a great job of leading. I thin that setting up personal contact outside of the job is an important thing, too. Keep up the good work!

  4. Harold Q. Thomas | Reply

    This article is right on. As a former Chief of Police, not only was I pressured to participate with the leadership team, my entire department was pressured into participating in City Employee events. Those, although very professional in their assignments and cordial, were put down, including being marked down in their evaluations, for not participating.

    1. Thanks for your input, Harold. It sounds like that was a rather difficult situation.

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