Artificial Harmony and Silo Wars

Does the need to get along trump the need to get results in your organization?
Morale can be defined as a group or team’s cohesiveness or esprit de corps. Strong emotional ties, close relationships, and high levels of trust between members are the hallmarks of teams with high morale. Members of high Morale teams often say they would do anything for their teammates; as depicted in the movies Saving Private Ryan or Lone Survivor members of some combat units become so tight that they are willing to sacrifice their lives for their teams. Conversely, low morale teams have members who will easily sabotage others if doing so furthers their careers.

Morale is a team characteristic that is easily observed by outsiders but team leaders can find hard to discern. The problem for leaders is that many teams can appear cohesive on the surface but suffer from high levels of covert conflict. This covert conflict is due to strong team and cultural norms that require people to be team players even though they secretly despise one another. Members smile, nod their heads, and endorse decisions but resent being part of the team.

The need to get along with others gets stronger the higher one goes in organizations, and artificial harmony is a common malady afflicting C-suite teams. C-suiters never criticize each other in public or during meetings, despite the fact that business strategies are obviously flawed (HP’s acquisition of Autonomy, Target’s expansion into Canada), products kill customers (GM, Toyota), innovation misses the mark (Kodak or McDonalds), and high levels of turnover erode business results (Brookdale Senior Living, Frontier Communications). Most of the individuals at the top are well aware of these problems, yet the need to get along drives self-censorship and prevents teams from having honest, productive dialogues about the brutal facts.

Silo wars are a key indicator of C-suite teams suffering from artificial harmony.  Everyone in the C-suite may appear to be getting along but in private conversations they bitch and moan about their peers. They express their displeasure by using proxies to fight their battles—Marketing staff get their hands dirty battling for control of strategy, budgets, and resources with Sales or Operations staff while the heads of these functions remain above the fray. The Titanic sinks while the Captain and crew pretend all is well.

Unfortunately, many senior leaders seem unwilling or unable to resolve team conflict. Some hear what they want to hear and ignore the rest. Others know that their teams are riddled with conflict but hope it will just go away. Still others may ask team members to participate in team building activities such mindfulness exercises, golf outings, ropes courses, BBQs, etc. Despite the exhortations of Human Resources departments and “Can’t we all just get along” consultants, these team-building events fail to identify and resolve the sources of team conflict and as result have little if any impact on team cohesiveness.
Senior leaders wanting to prevent artificial harmony and silo wars need to do three things:
1. Welcome and encourage conflict.  C-suite teams should be encouraged to have vigorous debates, but the discussions should be focused on strategies, goals, methods, and results rather than team member personalities.  Senior leaders need to actively encourage conflict and productive dialogue to insure team members stay focused on the brutal facts.
2. Identify the root causes of team conflict. Oftentimes conflict results from not having a shared understanding of the situation facing the team, poorly defined strategies and goals, unclear roles, bad decision-making processes, or a lack of accountability. Ropes courses and deep breathing exercises are not likely to fix these issues, and senior leaders need to get better at diagnosing the factors underlying team dynamics.
3. Play the sheriff.  Every team needs someone who will hold team members accountable for agreed upon goals, roles, rules, and bad behavior. Ideally team members will hold each other responsible but more often than not those who go off the reservation are never confronted. This means that leaders need to be comfortable having difficult conversations with team members whose behavior is misaligned with team norms.