Three Ways Even the Best Leaders Kill Team Spirit

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The most elite teams have it and we’ve all felt it. It’s that tangible energy that surrounds the highest performing teams. Research shows the most innovative teams have it far more than others, and it’s strongest when there’s a reciprocated positive emotional bond between each team member. It’s not too difficult to facilitate, but really easy to shatter.

Bad leaders do lots of obviously harmful things such as pitting employees against each other, playing favorites, and giving unfair advantage, but even good leaders do their share of damage. Here are three common ways I often see leaders kill team spirit in organizations:

1 – Reward Those Who Outshine – I recall working with a really smart guy, Carl, who was very competent at his job but went out of his way to outshine his team-mates. For example, in meetings he had the habit of re-stating his team-mate’s points in a manner that was more eloquent yet didn’t add any new value. These tactics didn’t do anything for his relationship with his team-mates, who would either smirk in irritation or feel inadequate around him. But his bosses were impressed with his displays of intelligence, and they helped him get promoted. Yes, as leaders, we all like to have smart employees, but why reward behavior that is clearly geared towards self-promotion?

2 – Conduct Individual Performance Reviews – It’s considered good practice in most organizations to review performance at the individual level. But by its very nature, it doesn’t help bond a team. I recently worked with an IT development group where we modified the annual performance reviews to be based primarily on team performance, so all the members of a team were rated on how well the overall team met its goals. There were obvious benefits in collaborative behavior, but the real shift was in team relationships. Employees who used to see their team-mates as competitors to be out-done suddenly reconsidered those relationships, and long-standing rivalries between team members began dissolving. Why focus on individual performance when it’s really team performance that we want?

3 – Artificially Limit the Number of Leaders – Once when I was appointed the leader of an IT organization, I found that most job categories had “lead” positions that commanded higher pay and authority, but they were limited in number, so employees competed for them. For example, we had about thirty Project Managers and five of them were Leads. The idea was that the five Leads were the best of the thirty and would be responsible for establishing best practices for the entire group. However, it created a spirit of competition where they were all contenders for the few coveted spots. So we removed the limits on how many people could become a Lead, yet made the criteria to earn a Lead position very challenging. In order to earn one, a person needed to demonstrate a history of establishing best practices that helped the entire organization. For example, if a Project Manager came up with a better method to estimate project timelines, and if they had a history of sharing such improvements across the company, they would earn a Lead title. This model inspired the highest performance, but it put the focus on collaboration rather than competition. Why artificially limit the number of people who can play a leadership role in your organization?

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, including research references, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.



About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a writer, speaker and consultant helping organizations strengthen agility and performance by shaping emotional energy. She is a thought leader bringing to light the new science of group emotional energy and connecting it to business performance. She has had a 28-year award winning career as a C-level Fortune 500 executive and Big Four consulting firm professional.
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  1. Christina Lattimer  November 5, 2012

    Thanks for sharing Jackie. Those three ideas are such common practices, and when you look at the impact of team-working, I can see clearly how they can “Kill team spirit”,

    I think in themselves the practices aren’t poor ones, if carried out with integrity, but quite often they aren’t. Judging when to reward or give feedback to individuals as part of a holistic engagement strategy is key. The third point about limiting leaders is powerful. I think it takes a particular kind of person in a “leadership role” to make all the people in their team feel like a leader in their own right. It can be done, but isn’t often achieved.

  2. Scott Ward  November 5, 2012

    Amen to the individual reviews obsolescence! We win or lose as a team. Only the team should do individual comments on each person’s contribution.

  3. Ashwin Baindur  November 19, 2012

    So true. #1 usually happens where managers don’t understand the technical details of the work going on and value presentation over substance. #2 is made even worse in organizations where the performance reviews result in stack ranking to conform to a bell curve and compensation is then determined based on this ranking.

  4. Micheline Daoust  November 19, 2012

    Good article!

    I agree with #1 and #3, but #2 (Why focus on individual performance when it’s really team performance that we want?) should come with a warning.

    If you evaluate your best employees and your not so good ones all together, evaluating all of them on the overall Team’s Performance, you will lose the very hard working ones.

    I think that a combination of both is needed.

  5. Lloyd Laperdon  November 19, 2012

    good comments. there is a measrement called the “happiness quotient”. how happy is your team who you lead. the higher the quotient the better performance of the team. all the factors mentioned and more equate to the measurement of the happiness quotient.

  6. Jackie Barretta  November 19, 2012

    Lloyd, what’s the basis of measuring happiness in a team, or can you point us to reference material? I’m kind of skeptical about aiming for happiness because it seems like it would be different per individual.

  7. Lloyd Laperdon  November 19, 2012

    Jackie, the happiness quotient was an observation by a group of us who had jobs as multi unit retail managers. it was an intuitive measurement. how to create or develop it is a topic for another discussion. but what was observed is that the teams who we gave a higher quotient, performed better at achieving their goals. although a team with a lower quotient could outperform a higher quotient team for many other reasons, even that team would perform better if they had a higher “happiness quotient.” we asked all the team members individually to give us a number on how happy they were at work and what needed to improve so they could be even “happier”. this gave us some data to work with. and yes it was different per individual but there were surprisingly many similarities. but even without that data, you could close your eyes, feel into the sense of how that store felt, and give a number for each team.

  8. Ian Bush  November 19, 2012

    The most common practices in business do not support teams. So, what do people do? They call working groups “teams” when they are not teams. Let us not fall into believing the words only, we must observe the behaviours to confirm we are actually a part of or observing a team at work. With the popularity of teambuilding and leadership in the 1980s and 1990s, the terms have been used unterchangeably with or replaced groups and managers respectively in the common business parlance since then. Yet, what we have is business as usual, with new, inappropriate names used.


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