How many times have you seen a Team With All Star Performers Fail ?

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failures of star performers

‘Star’ constellations may eclipse bright chances of success.

As managers and as team members, we all seem to gravitate towards high performers and the stars in an organisation. And with good reasons. We have all heard the saying that ‘birds of a feather flock together’, meaning that the company you keep reflects your personality. A smart person surrounds himself or herself with other smart people. It is not unnatural to want to associate yourself with high performers and to want to put a team together full of stars.

Consider this: how could a movie starring Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Catherine ZetaJones, and Julia Roberts, directed by Steven Soderbergh, get tepid reviews and gross less worldwide than the star-free My Big Fat Greek Wedding? That movie was Ocean’s Twelve.

Take tennis as another example. Year 2010. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, No 1-ranked tennis player + No 2-ranked tennis player = doubles team unworthy of ranking. The tennis dream team crashed out in the first round of the 2010 Rogers Cup in Toronto.
Closer to home, in 2014 Indian Premier League, Royal Challengers Bangalore boasted a lineup that included big names such as Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, Yuvraj Singh, Mitchell Starc, Yuzvendra Chahal, Albie Morkel, and Chris Gayle; they finished at 7th position out of 8 teams.

Failing all-star teams have been a challenge facing businesses for years. Companies want a superstar leadership team and end up tumbling. How else could a Fortune 500 company run by a brilliant former McKinsey consultant, paying fat salaries to graduates of America’s elite business schools, dissolve into fraud and bankruptcy? It happened at Enron.

If somebody tells you that you are being recruited onto a dream team, then maybe you should run. In our team-obsessed age, the concept of the dream team has become irresistible. But it is brutally clear that they often blow up. Why? Because they are not teams. They are just bunches of people. Look at Enron … superstars from the top down, and what happened there?

Generally speaking, someone is selected to an all-star team because of the talent displayed in the ‘work’ environment. This can be a sports field, a sales industry, or a manufacturing environment.

When one assembles an all-star team, they may be susceptible to a few pitfalls. Let us explore a few in the following paragraphs.

Groupthink

Wikipedia defines groupthink as a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome. The group members try to minimise conflict and reach a consensus without critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating themselves from outside influence.

As a result, decisions are made quickly with little consideration of alternatives; often, the practice leads to fiascos that appear totally improbable after the fact. Some of the symptoms of groupthink are:

Illusion of invulnerability

The team starts to think and behave as if it is invincible. This is often marked by an implicit faith in its own wisdom, a high degree of esprit de corps, and an extraordinary sense of optimism that allows the group members to feel overconfident about the rightness of their decisions.

Whitewash of critical thinking

The group members discuss only a limited number of solutions, ignoring several other possibilities; they fail to consider the unwanted consequences that could follow their most well-liked course of action; and more often than not, they end up quickly dismissing any alternatives that, on the surface, appears to be unsatisfactory.

Negative stereotypes of outsiders

‘Good guy/bad guy’ stereotypes emerge wherein anyone the group considers an outsider, who disagrees with their decisions, gets labelled as the bad guy. These bad guys are perceived as incompetent and malicious, whose concerns are unworthy of serious consideration.

Direct pressure

Due to the abovementioned factors, no one disagrees, but when a team member actually does voice a concern or questions the direction in which the team is headed, direct pressure is applied to the dissenter. He or she is reminded that speed is of utmost importance and that the aim is agreement, not argument.

Bureaucratic bypass syndrome

An all-star team often works with a degree of self-sufficiency and independence. They often have sanction to get things done without the usual multi-level approval processes or protocols that are followed in the organisation. Bypassing the bureaucracy has a certain appeal in terms of quick turnaround and responsiveness. But before you realise, bypassing the bureaucratic channels to become autonomous becomes a way of life. It leads to the rejection of the very policies and procedures, which serve as the framework for the overall organisation. Such a team that operates in parallel to the organisation may cause dissension among other workers who are bound by the organisational norms and procedures; subsequently, some of these outside bureaucrats will find ways to throw roadblocks or even sabotage the all-star team.

Team becomes obsessed with itself

A high-performance project team and its members experience a high degree of personal satisfaction. The adrenaline, visibility, and the sense of importance that get generated by working on a challenging project can be an exhilarating experience. Some experts even go so far as to say that the team experiences a high, similar to the one felt when people are in love. They become obsessed and enamoured with the challenge posed by the project and the people around them. The drive to succeed can leave in its wake lost professional and personal relationships that ultimately cause burnout and disorientation upon completion of the project.

Going native

Going native is a phrase used to describe people who adopt and imbibe the customs, values, and prerogatives of another place as the natives of the place do. In olden times, intelligence operatives did so to blend in and they did so to the point that they were no longer representing the best interests of their own government but rather those of the natives.

The same happens within the all-star teams working abroad or those that work with clients/ suppliers who begin to relate with their assigned groups. Summarily, the adopted groups’ interests take precedence over the parent organisation’s interests. This change in loyalties and perspective can lead to unnecessary scope creep, and flouting of corporate policy and interests.

As leaders and managers, the first key step is awareness for prevention. The next step is to act pre-emptively to reduce the occurrence of these pitfalls. For example, managers can seek to dial down the isolation of such a team by creating a nexus of inter-connections by mapping work-related connections outside the team.

These interactions naturally occur in a matrix environment wherever members are on multiple assignments and maintain ties with their original department. Likewise, the isolation of dedicated project teams may be reduced by the timely involvement of external specialists. In either case, the active involvement of relevant team members of the parent organisation in project status conferences will facilitate maintaining the link between the project and the remainder of the organisation. If the team appears to be suffering from groupthink, then the project manager can encourage productive conflict by donning a devil’s advocate hat to encourage dissent in a structured problem-solving way just like the nominal group technique.