The impact of the broader context on team performance is vastly underestimated.
USUALLY WHEN a team is not performing, we try to fix the problem at the functional level. Is each person doing their job right? Are they following the process? Does the process need improvement?
Most often this is done from the ground up, by looking at the individual team members – or the individual processes – first. This reflects a belief that the individuals and the processes make up the collective the same way that bricks make up a building.
This is perfectly true and we should not neglect these individual elements. However, it’s also true that when a building has a crack, you can’t just fix those bricks that have been affected. The solution may lie in the foundations – and those may be affected by something happening a mile away.
Often, managers and coaches don’t want to do this because they fear that team members may be all too willing to play the blame game, instead of taking responsibility for their own responses.
In my office building a few months back, the roof trusses of an entire wing collapsed. It seemed more than coincidental that a few weeks before, a building over the road – one that had spanned an entire city block and whose parking went four floors underground – had been imploded.
Predictably, the demolition contractors denied that their work could have had anything to do with the roof collapse. Agreed, it would be difficult to prove, despite the obvious fact that our building had stood for a decades until the great hole of Kimberley opened up, overnight, only ten metres away.
If we wanted to know the cause, those contractors would have us go and look at the individual bricks, trusses, tiles of the existing building. In other words, they would have us treat it in isolation from its context, just because they said so.
Anybody can see that this would not be rational.
Why then, do we so often look at team performance by looking at the individuals, without taking into account its context?
And this is not to make excuses, but to broaden the enquiry.
Team performance in sport
Let’s move the analogy to sport, which is always useful for team performance, mostly because (a) it’s an intense microcosm of the performance imperative, and (b) it’s so visible.
How often have we seen poor team performance having its roots in poor team administration, for example?
One can think of the once-revered West Indies cricket team, which has faded into also-rans. Many of the former players have made the claim that a good part of the cause lies in the way the game has been managed.
Similarly, Springbok rugby has suffered at the hands of an administrative structure that serves political agendas more than it does the players. Conversely, the ongoing success of the New Zealand rugby team can be attributed in part to the consistency and maturity of their administrative teams and structures.
The concern is valid, and the answer is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
To zoom out even further, one can see that the broader South Africa sociopolitical context is also having an impact on the performance of the team: players are being lured overseas for money; the pride that used to keep them at home has faded, and this has leaked into the team performance.
So, when a team is not performing, it doesn’t make sense to only look within. The operating context – that within the company and also what’s happening the market as a whole – must be interrogated.
Often, managers and coaches don’t want to do this because they fear that team members may be all too willing to play the blame game, instead of taking responsibility for their own responses. Some coaching styles can be quite hardcore in this way.
This concern is valid, and the answer is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
One approach is to look outside and use discernment to decide what you can do something about and what you need to navigate your way around. If there is a lot that you can’t act on right now, but have to accept, then this may be a case for even more – not less – responsibility by individual members of the team.