3 Optical Illusions That Are Hurting Your Team

Many leaders are seeing things that aren’t there. Many teams are teams in name only, and their executives are under illusions which prevent them from acting in sync, as one, to win.

Team Illusion #1: Team performance is cumulative.

I have had the same surprising conversation repeatedly through the years with executives.

I ask, “Do you have a high-performing team?” The executive says, “Yes.” I reply, “How do you know?” They invariably say, “Well, I have four high performers and two average performers.”

The illusion here is that the executive is looking at his team as a golf team: one that adds up the scores of the individual players. But this is a deadly assumption. A high-performing operations leader plus an average R&D leader plus a high-performing commercial sales leader does not mean you have a high-performing team.

Solution: Define what the overarching mission is that everyone is contributing to and focus fiercely on achieving that rather than the results of any individual.

Team Illusion #2: Because we are friends, we are a high-performing team.

I was speaking to an executive coaching client, Jason, who decided he is through with working 10 hours a day and on weekends. It’s unsustainable. He is on the top team of a successful company that “gets along well.” I’ve been on business trips with them and they laugh, have fun, and enjoy each other’s company. I suggested he tell his friends, the leadership team, about his new goal to balance his life so they could brainstorm ideas on how to better balance the load. He immediately said “Oh no. I can’t tell them. They will judge me as lazy.”

Having fun on a business trip does not correlate to trust in the office. Many teams seem like they are bonded, yet when it comes to difficult conversations, they are missing the trust to bring up those conversations.

Solution: A true team needs to share the same values of openness, support, honesty, and pride in the team. From these shared values comes trust. As Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express, said, “It is amazing what two people who really trust each other can accomplish!”

Team Illusion #3: Personality clashes on teams are personal.

Sometimes personalities on your team don’t mesh, which requires a shuffling of players. But sometimes mishandled issues of responsibility ooze into the public domain and only appear at first glance as “personal issues.”

For example, a new executive at a Fortune 500 company inherited a leadership team with two key people that just appeared to “not get along.” It wasn’t until we brought them all together that it became clear that the leader had not clearly defined roles. These two had separate ideas about who should be doing what. As a result, the public battles occurred, which he and others interpreted as a personality clash. Once this was addressed, the conflict faded away.

Solution: Make sure you are clearly defining roles. If not, superiors, peers, and subordinates will see the conflict play out in projects and meetings, and it might be interpreted as “personality conflict.” It will also give your team a bad reputation.


Lawrence Polsky
Lawrence Polsky
Lawrence Polsky is co-founder of Teams of Distinction, a world-renowned firm focused on creating and enhancing organizational cultures, and building teams that collaborate with near perfect synchronicity. He spent 20 years in OD & Learning, teaching thousands of professionals worldwide. His lifelong education in human behavior began at the age of 9 at the kitchen table. With a Master’s in Organization Development, and post-graduate work focusing on the impact of emotions on communication, problem-solving and relationships, Lawrence prides himself on bringing his kitchen table wisdom to boardroom roundtables. He has helped leaders improve results at technical and scientific companies such as Facebook, Pfizer, Dell, Intuit, Bayer, and NASA. You can reach him at [email protected] or (609)333-0653.

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  1. Excellent post. I have seen all of these in my career and the handling of each is key. The last one is particularly dangerous as sometimes talented people lose confidence in their abilities because leadership doesn’t address the root cause of the conflict. Thank you for your honest assessment.