“Why Do I Have a Dumb Team Full Of Smart People?”
You’ve Got A Team Full Of People As Smart As Crick And Watson. So Why Does It Perform Like Dumb and Dumber?
“One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork.” – Edward Abbey
While sitting in his mahogany-clad boardroom a frustrated executive blurted out to me, “Some of the brightest people in our industry sit around this table. But you’d never know it from our performance. It’s embarrassing. What the hell is wrong with my team?”
He was wondering, in essence, “Why do I have a dumb team full of smart people?”
He was asking himself a question asked by millions of frustrated managers around the world: “Why do I have a dumb team full of smart people?”
It’s a thought-provoking question about a pervasive problem: teams full of brilliant individuals all-too-often fail to add up to the sum of their parts. As the executive pointed out, they may be full of bright, well-intentioned people, but judging by their performance you’d be hard pressed to prove it. Staffed smart, they operate dumb. It’s a conundrum reflected in everything from derailed strategies, bad decisions, feeble meetings, muddled change, stunted projects, toxic conflicts, gross misunderstandings, and lost opportunities.
Dumb Team Syndrome (DTS)
When I say a team is dumb, I am not suggesting it’s full of stupid people, but that their collective behavior renders them less effective than expected given the bright individuals that comprise it. Individual team members can be as brilliant as Crick and Watson yet work together like Dumb and Dumber – a syndrome that manifests itself with some or all of the following characteristics:
- It underperforms. Weighed down by defensiveness and dysfunction, the team is unable to align their smart intentions with their actual behavior. People may have a clear game plan but they’re unable to behave in ways that support it. An executive team at a large financial services firm, for example, wanted to successfully institute a breakthrough strategy, but fierce infighting and Machiavellian politics crippled the team’s ability to enact it.
- It’s blind.They have lots of blindspots so they’re often caught off-guard by events they should have seen coming. This blindness is often caused by two things: their arrogance prevents them from exploring different points of view, and their defensive behavior limits their access to critical information.
- It’s out of balance.They spend little time working in that productive conversational space I call the “sweet spot,” where candor and curiosity are in equilibrium, and where the exchange of ideas is open-minded, responsibly rigorous, evidence-based, and learning-focused. In the very circumstances they most need to maintain this precious balance, they tend to lose it by dropping candor and becoming overly guarded and cautious, or by dropping curiosity and growing arrogant and argumentative. Often both reactions simultaneously, with some people starting to argue while everyone else shuts down.
- It’s miserable.People in the team are frustrated. No one gets up in the morning thrilled at the prospect of another day of under-performing. Working in a dysfunctional project, team or organization is a discouraging, stressful, life-sucking experience that the leeches the energy, focus, and confidence from its every activity.
- It’s over-confident.Team members are over-confident in their team’s abilities because they overrate their own smarts and under-rate the smarts of others. It takes competence, in other words, to recognize incompetence. Researchers refer to this as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a phenomenon in which incompetent people are blind to their incompetence so they actually believe they are more competent than other people. In a similar way, a dumb team is often too dumb to know it’s dumb.
- It’s stuck.Thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect there’s also a disturbing gap between a team’s ability to work and learn together and the demands of the predicament it’s facing. Why? Hindered by the flawed assumption that they’re smarter than they really are, they put little effort into getting smarter. They respond poorly to unfamiliar situations because they’re anemic learners in situations where robust learning is needed.
- It shows.A dumb team can’t hide its problems, so it’s reputation suffers because it’s perceived as dysfunctional by outside people and groups.
- It knows.Team members often know there is a problem but they don’t know what is causing the problem, much less what do to about it.So they usually just blame each other, outside circumstances, or both; unfortunate reactions that merely exacerbate the dysfunction.
What’s the flaw? How is it possible that a team’s collective IQ can be so dramatically lower than the sum of it parts? What dumbs them down? What do they lack as a group that retards their ability to turn their individual smarts into team smarts?
What’s lacking is a pivotal competence that helps people turn their intelligence, education, experience, and knowledge into collaborative learning and team effectiveness. This missing piece of the puzzle is – you guessed it – conversational capacity – the ability to orchestrate open, balanced, learning-focused dialogue about difficult subjects and in stressful circumstances.
It’s a make-or-break capability. A team with high conversational capacity can work smart and perform effectively even when dealing with their most troublesome issues. A team lacking that capacity, by contrast, can turn dumb and perform poorly in the face of even a petty disagreement.