On dysfunction of very senior teams

Lots is written about the dysfunction of the team that Trump has assembled: backstabbing, turnover, intrigue seem to be common. Not very surprising and not very new.

This post will spell out a few reasons why I believe that dysfunction is so frequently  “built into” the genetic code of very  senior teams. Severe dysfunction at the most senior level is something that I expect. I am very surprised when this is not the case.

First however, a small historical anecdote.  At the beginning of the 20th century, very senior competing officialdom in England botched up the middle east for more than one hundred years by issuing in parallel conflicting and diametrically  opposed policies such as the  McMahon-Hussein correspondence  and the Sykes Picot agreement. This dysfunction has caused endless chaos and countless wars. We are not anywhere close to extricating ourselves from this mess which was caused in great part to the most severe senior dysfunction at the senior level of the British administration.

Jumping forward in time, I will provide my observations about why very senior teams have such severe dysfunction.

  1. Senior leaders have limited time, so gatekeepers have more power than experts, a critical component for creating severe friction.
  2. It is VERY common for the guy at the top to be an extremely paranoid player who plays one team member (and interest) against the other as a default. It is very hard to get to the top if you don’t have this skill. Those who float to the top are a special breed; they are extremely adept political animals who shift blame with great skill. The glory (when created) goes to the leader; the blame is shifted downwards. So there is often nothing to gain and much to lose by being a team player. 
  3. People who work with senior leaders learn to be sycophants who please the leader almost to the exclusion of all others.
  4. Many senior leaders want the people around them to churn  out of the organization every so often, thus eliminating the creation of alternative power bases. So they create a rotating exit door to keep the power of others at bay.

The sun rises, and the sun goes down,and hastens to the place where it rises.


From Wiki-Help Britain fight Turkey and gain independance


Sykes Picot (from Wiki) Divide the Middle East between England and France per “areas of influence”



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9 thoughts on “On dysfunction of very senior teams

  1. While reading this, Allon, it reminded me of some of the senior level teams I have known. While outwardly charming in many cases, most of these people are cunning. Their self intetest is their main concern. While you are useful to them, you are kept around.

  2. A most common myth in OD (fueled by North American mental constructs re team work) is that executive assemblies ought to work as teams. Hogwash! Most executive assemblies rarely can and rarely should operate from the basis of team discipline. Aligned individual leadership is another matter, better suited to executive assemblies for most of its issues. It is the CEO’s job to clarify which issues will require team discipline and which ones are better handled through aligned individual leadership. Such a distinction is key in avoiding group think and allows the ever so difficult balance between the interests of the « I », the « We » and the « Us ».

  3. Another piece (related): When the decision makers physically move out of the location(s) where the organization’s operations take place, the organization loses most of it’s chance of operating effectively. Once the decision makers are no longer exposed to the day-to-day operations, the effectiveness of their decisions is reduced drastically.

  4. Your point #1 sounds like a case for more dispersed power/authority in organizations – towards the experts rather than the gate keepers, and the other 3 points sound like reasons that that case will encounter a lot of resistance.

  5. .issued reading this one before. But the essence still remains in teams with limited, finite worldview mindsets. As usual your observations are astute, accurate and perspective shifting.

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