It’s a well known maxim: an effective team is greater than the sum of its parts. How can that be? Well, it’s fairly simple really. When you’re dealing with a team, you’re not just dealing with a relationship between you and the number of people in it. You’re also dealing with the relationships that each of the individual members of the team has with each other.

Anyone who manages a team of two or more will recognise this, though they might not articulate it. So, for example, if your team comprises John, Susan, Fred and Mary, your management role is not, as might seem at first glance, four relationships consisting of one between you and each of them: it’s many times more than that, because you also have to manage John’s individual relationships with the other three, and so on for the others. Maths isn’t my strong point, but I make that sixteen relationships which you need to manage!

If there are difficulties amongst those relationships – for instance, if Mary is a loner who prefers to do things her own way – then the management role may be problematic. But when there are strengths – for instance, if John works especially well with Susan – then the team can become more effective, and better than the sum of its individual parts: think of that glue that needs two separate tubes of sticky stuff to combine before you get a strong bond. And the next time you watch the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race, keep an eye on the crew when one of the oarsmen loses his rhythm, or when oars collide with the other team’s oars. They need instantly to readjust, as the Cox monitors and gives instructions: the essential element here is mutual respect and faith in each other’s ability.

So what happens when relationships really break down? Enter Mr Kevin Pietersen, international cricketer. A spectacular cricketer, Pietersen arguably has unique skills. But he’s also demonstrated some wayward habits, and selective attitudes towards teammates and managers. Gradually these began to cause friction in the team, as he apparently played one man off against another, and as he began to do things his own way off the field as well as on it. He chose to fraternise more with the opposition than with his own colleagues, and he used Twitter and texts to send disparaging messages about some of his colleagues. He criticised coaching staff, and was disinterested and bored during team meetings. Perhaps revealing his true colours, he showed a clear preference for lucrative foreign tournaments.

Inevitably, opinion amongst his teammates became polarised, and relationships began to crumble in the way that I described earlier, as they feared for what he would do or say next. When his on-field performance deteriorated, some (notably the popular media) highlighted the relationship problems.  His support within English cricket dwindled, and any semblance of respect he might have had as an effective team player disintegrated. Despite his unquestioned talent, his bosses took the hugely controversial – but probably correct – decision that he had to go in order that the team could rebuild without his disruptive influence.

In reality, this was all about trust. Author and consultant Patrick Lencioni addresses the issues that teams face as they try to work in harmony. He asserts that although fear of conflict, a lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results are all dysfunctional characteristics that pose a serious threat to team-working, they can all be overcome so long as trust exists between the players. If trust breaks down, as it did in the case of the brilliant, charismatic – but flawed – Mr Pietersen, even successful teams will cease to function.

Submitted by Ray Palmer, Consultant at Mitchell Palmer. 

See Ray's LinkedIn profile here

[i] Lencioni, (2010) The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, pub. Wiley & Sons