Identifying Team Critics and Maximizing Team Wins

May 14, 2019 |Posted by Jared Simmons | Innovation

We’ve all been part of internal politics on a cross-functional team. Finance thinks that Sales is the issue; Sales thinks that Marketing is the issue; Marketing thinks that Supply Chain is causing all the problems. To a certain degree, this is inherent to the structure and basic definition of a cross-functional team. It is the tension between the various stakeholders that makes a truly cross-functional solution so powerful.  These inherent tensions are also what make team wins so satisfying. 

The challenge in these circumstances is to ensure that each function remains focused on the team win. But what happens when team wins are so difficult to attain that the individual functions begin to lose faith in it?

In these situations, focus can quickly shift to what they believe to be the next best thing: an internal win.  Internal wins can only be achieved at the expense of team wins.

How internal wins destroy progress

Someone must publicly (or privately to leadership) predict the eventual failure of the team, identify the “problem,” and then gather proof to support their claim. All of this requires quite a bit of effort, thought, coordination and energy, so the person’s effort to support the team must be reduced dramatically. This results in missed deliverables and reduced quality work, which reduces the overall effectiveness of the team.

Once team effectiveness suffers, the story the critic has told to leadership is validated and the group or individual they’ve labeled as the “problem” is blamed. Now everyone is trying to solve the wrong problem, further diverting focus from the objective and reducing team effectiveness. 

It’s only a matter of time before the team is deemed a failure and the critic’s prediction comes true. The individual win is achieved. Meanwhile, the business has been moved away from its original goal. And the team is doomed to blindly repeat the cycle, believing that the root cause has been addressed.  Internal wins are the subtle thief of progress.

They make heroes of critics and blame those in the arena for the dust and sweat that stain their faces. Leaders must recognize these critics’ telltale signs before they are all that remain in their organization. If not, they will find themselves telling the same story about why their team didn’t deliver and how they addressed it…over and over again. 

Red Flags – Signs of a Team Critic

Team critics can often be identified by a few tell-tale behaviors. They tend to:

  • Talk more about other team members’ responsibilities than their own. 
  • Bring issues directly to you without involving the team. 
  • Deflect assigned tasks to other functions or label them as unnecessary or unreasonable. 
  • Fixate on smaller issues that aren’t relevant to the team goal (but serve to reinforce their own narrative) 
  • Have an explanation for everything. 
  • Take credit for identifying problems without offering solutions. 

You cannot solve a business problem with a team member who is focused on an internal win.

Capital investments, reorganization efforts, new product launches, and new hire onboarding all fall prey to this type of thinking. In fact, if you look back at your last failed initiative and ask yourself who won as the team and the business lost, I’ll bet you won’t have to think long for the answer.  This is free advice from someone whose career you cannot influence, whose bonus isn’t at your discretion, who isn’t gunning for your job. I don’t even know you. But I do know cross-functional teams…the good, the bad, and the ugly. So, if you can’t trust me, who can you trust? 

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Jared Simmons


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