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You can’t help but think, when you read that title, of five block-thinking, dysfunctional members of Collingwood Council. But, relevant as that description may appear in our political sphere, it is actually the title of a book by Patrick Lencioni, about how teams fail to coalesce and work together. I found it at a local bookstore this week and read it in a single night. Unlike many of the self-help books on management and leadership I’ve read over the years, this one actually made sense and explained itself well.
As I read it, I realized quickly that Lencioni’s model of team dysfunction applies equally well to politics as to business. And, of course, it applies to Collingwood council as much as to any management team in the private sector. Everyone but the sycophant bloggers observing this council recognize that ours is a highly dysfunctional council. It is not a team, as much as it is a collection of angry, inept ideologues. And it suffers greatly from the dysfunctions Lencioni has outlined.
Now, I’ve long said that in non-partisan municipal politics, we elect a group of individuals, not a team. A team is built, not elected or appointed. Creating a team takes work and commitment, neither of which is in great quantity at council, with a couple of notable exceptions who had some previous experience on council.
As much as the groupthink slate of candidates tried in the campaign to present a coherent platform, all they really offered was ideological opposition to everything the former council stood for. Those who gained a seat in the election have proven both calamitously unable to collectively articulate – let alone implement – a vision for the community, or practice any sort of leadership. They flail, they flounder, they bluster. They have no common, shared vision. They do not function as a team.
Back in 2007, I wrote on my old blog comments that have relevance today:
There’s no real sense of teamwork here because we weren’t elected as a team. Personally, a municipal team at the table is the pig’s ear while the individual freethinkers is the silk purse.
Despite what some special interest groups imagined they were getting when they promoted a slate of what they assumed were their pet candidates, they didn’t get a team. Personal agendas, private goals, independent visions all come into play to make this more like a nine-person tug-of-war. Sure, sometimes we all tug in the same direction, but that’s not necessarily a sign we’re a team, merely that we collectively agree at that moment that the direction is the most appropriate.
Management consultants often like to raise the metaphor of a sports team when trying to build a team from a group such as our council. In Collingwood’s case, imagine if you will its members each wearing the gear of a different sport – one in hockey gear, another in football, one in cricket, one with an oar, another with a bat… then put blindfolds on them all, put them in a room full of balls, pucks, nets, hoops, bases, trampolines and wickets, and tell them to figure out what the rules are. The winner is the last one standing.
That’s the sort of “team” we have in this council. Most of them still haven’t learned the basic rules of procedure yet and blunder about, doing more damage to our municipality than good.
Take a look at the image on the upper right. That’s the pyramid of the five dysfunctions from the book. Now while you may be tempted to apply a particular member’s name to each level – and I know how easily it lends itself to that exercise – try to resist and apply it collectively as a group description. Let’s look at each step and see how it does.
First, on the bottom: absence of trust. This in the book is described as,
The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.
Consider council’s newly proposed “code of conduct.” It is a document that screams distrust. Clearly its authors and its advocates mistrust one another – as well as themselves – to behave in an ethical, moral and legal manner unless they are bound by 16 additional pages of rules and restrictions above and beyond the weight of the provincial legislation that binds them.
Absence of trust forms the basis of this council’s relationships with its own and the foundation of this group’s dynamic interactions with one another and with the public. How can a team be formed of people who suspect one another of wrongdoing even before they have started working together?
Only people with trust, Lencioni says, will take risks. As one blogger comments on the pyramid:
The foundation of this dysfunctional pyramid is “Absence of Trust.” The lack of trust injects a disease up the pyramid and crippling the potential strength from a well-functioning team. Without trust, genuine discussion and productive conflict are absent. A fog of harmony exists that conceals the trouble brewing just out of sight, but everyone feels the tension. Since no one actually discusses areas of conflict decisions are made without full commitment. There is little buy in despite agreement in meetings. Without a clear plan of action people will fail to confront their peers on behavior that is counterproductive to the mission. Finally, the only thing that matters is your own ego and results. The mission of the company does not matter. When everyone is looking out for their own interests, the interests of the customers and company diminish.
The second rung is fear of conflict, which the book describes as:
The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive ideological conflict.
Lencioni makes a really good point in his book that people who trust one another aren’t afraid to disagree or engage in debate. This group’s artificial consensus is a pretence: if it looks like they’re getting along, in reality, they’re afraid to challenge one another, to express different ideas, to step outside the Borg. This also leads to dull, non-dynamic meetings in which nothing gets done. Last term, a two-hour meeting was long and we got a prodigious amount accomplished. This term, five- and six-hour meetings accomplish little more than consume precious oxygen.
Their apparent agreement is actually based on their mutual distrust and their well-deserved fear that if they disagree or speak up, they may suffer the same punishment Councillors Doherty and Fryer were dealt (being the brunt of an Integrity Commissioner’s lambasting with no support from their alleged allies). Plus, of course, mired in an inflexible dogma means there will be no real dissent, let alone healthy debate, even over contentious issues.
Conflict, Lencioni tells us, is healthy, while artificial consensus isn’t.
George Cuff, in Municipal World, wrote that,
One of the greatest enemies of good governance is the notion that a successful council or board is marked by the absence of dissent… For some reason, we have a number of councils and councillors who have bought into the silly notion that arguing against a position that has been recommended is akin to treason… …normally clear-thinking adults parking their brains at the door of the chambers in order to ‘keep the peace,’ as though that were a higher goal than representing citizens.
He also wrote that,
Speaking ill of the prior council is cowardly, and is not reflective of mature people.
An argument without facts is ignorance; a challenge to the proffered position, based on solid thinking, is discussion. A healthy council features differing opinions, heated discussion from time to time (based on the issues not the personalities), and a decision that may be determined by a vote with some still in opposition. Democracy is based on the foregoing assumptions. Leaders are comfortable proceeding on the basis of healthy, comprehensive, and sometimes painstaking discussion and decision making.
Fear of conflict has also allowed administrative staff and their pet consultants to take over the agenda and run the town: most councillors are too afraid of conflict, have too little trust in their own judgment, to challenge them. Staff eagerly fill the leadership vacuüm.
Dysfunction number three is lack of commitment:
The lack of clarity or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they will stick to.
This council has several times put on hold its responsibility to this community to lead and be decisive while it dawdles about, waiting for an outsider-driven “strategic plan” (which it isn’t – it’s just a woo-hoo list) and a yet-to-be-discussed-or-even-approved waterfront master plan. No commitment is too small to be avoided by this lot. But they will paper the walls with their plans.
And what little this council has committed to – such as the destruction of the 150-year-old relationship with Collus, the dismantling of the utility board, the freezing of the waterfront, the freezing of development at the airport, raising taxes to give themselves a raise, extending the interim CAO’s contract – has all been negative and potentially harmful to the community.
Those who pledged good financial management during the campaign have already reneged on that promise by raising taxes and water rates, while giving themselves a pay hike, and then throwing $40,000 at “Senator” Jeffrey to fly all over the country, wining and dining at taxpayers’ expense. What sort of commitment to good fiscal policy is that?
Lack of commitment also stems from a collective atychiphobia – the fear of failure so intense that they choose not to take risks:
It’s an ailment that’s serious enough to affect the long-term survival of many organizations… Atychiphobia (or fear of failure) is not just a fear of failure but an irrational fear of literally everything… it can terrorize an organization so strongly that leadership will refuse to do anything without absolute assurance of success…
Hence the obsessive need of some council members to plan everything in advance, to paper the walls with reports, studies and consultants’ advice before making a decision. They are so afraid of taking even baby steps that they retreat to passivity instead of committing themselves to action.
The fourth step is avoidance of accountability:
The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable.
If you’ve read the proposed “code of conduct” one of the things that will strike you is the provision to limit the Integrity Commissioner’s ability to investigate pretty much everything he’s investigated to date about this council. The Borg don’t want to be accountable to his scrutiny.
This council passed a budget without having the complete budget document, in meetings where questions were not permitted. Despite this flawed, secretive process, they raised your water rates, raised your taxes and gave themselves a pay hike without fully understanding the impact of their decisions. Now, how accountable is that?
Accountability also means holding other team members accountable for their words and their actions. That means calling someone out – even a friend – when they fall out of line, or make inappropriate remarks. But to do that you need the previous platforms: trust, healthy debate, and commitment.
You can’t be accountable to something if you don’t commit to anything. And you can’t commit to anything if you have no vision to guide you.
The fifth and topmost dysfunction is inattention to results:
The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.
Here it is collective results that matter, not individual accomplishments. Convincing council to giving you $40,000 to accomplish private political goals and party across Canada isn’t a collective result. That looks to me mere personal greed.
Council has little if anything to which they can point as a positive, collective success, nor so far to claim collective responsibility for anything worth bragging about. But there is no end to the grandstanding at the table as personal goals and private agendas are pushed forward.
To have results, you need to have a vision, not simply an ideology. Being against everything is not a substitute for that vision. Results have to be measurable, quantifiable. The woo-hoo twaddle being compiled in the deputy mayor’s inappropriately-named “strategic plan” are merely feel-good epithets and cannot be measured. And if they’re not measurable, they’re just more hot air.
There are, of course, results from their current actions. Or perhaps they are best described as side effects. Public distrust is one. Cynicism about council and its overt hypocrisy is another. Disinterest in local politics. Suspicion and bad feelings in the development community. Disappointment among the voters who expected better.
In the end section of his book, Lencioni lists several behavioural features of teams (I would merely call them groups) with an absence of trust, including:
- Conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another;
- Hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback;
- Hesitate to offer help outside their own areas of responsibility;
- Jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify them;
- Fail to recognize and tap into one another’s skills and experiences;
- Waste time and energy managing their behaviours for effect;
- Hold grudges;
- Dread meetings and find reasons to avoid spending time together.
All except for the last item, that fits this council to a ‘T’. The block-thinkers (aka The Borg or The Politburo) do spend time with each other, careful not to include those not in their collective. They meet in secret, in private, outside official meetings. A couple have already become infamous for snubbing other members of council – those outsiders from The Borg – at events, not even showing basic civility. They exude mistrust.
But they clearly love meetings because they extend them to as long as six hours, three to four times longer than last term’s meetings, without actually accomplishing anything.
As a counterpoint, here are some of the features Lencioni says are indicative of an effective team:
- Are comfortable asking for help, admitting mistakes and limitations and take risks offering feedback;
- Tap into one another’s skills and experiences;
- Avoid wasting time talking about the wrong issues and revisiting the same topics over and over again because of lack of buy-in;
- Make higher quality decisions and accomplish more in less time and fewer resources;
- Put critical topics on the table and have lively meetings;
- Align the team around common objectives;
- Retain star employees.
This council has already lost a couple of the town’s star employees. This council replaced a provincially-respected employee on the Collus board with an administrative staff person who lacks the equivalent experience and knowledge. They hold five and six-hour meetings and accomplish almost nothing during that time other than prattle to hear their own voices or reiterate what was said at a standing committee meeting. They shut out those outside the Borg collective. Their meetings are painfully slow and insipid. They bleat about trivial issues, but don’t even comment when one of their own is being chastised. They have no common goals or objectives, aside from demeaning anything the previous council accomplished.
One of them gets so lost in the meeting that he appears dazed and confused when called upon and often reads the wrong motion. Another arrives bare moments before every meeting, clearly unprepared and shuffles through the paperwork anxiously to try and figure out what’s happening. One speaks out of turn constantly, unaware of the very basic rules of meeting procedure. Most look glassy-eyed at one another and raise their hands in response to their leader’s gesture during a vote; whether yea or nay, these bobbleheads couldn’t tell you why afterwards.
No one, not even their NINJA remora, would call this council effective, except satirically.
Perhaps the best way to describe this council is in through comment I recently heard about politicians in general:
Striving for mediocrity but continually failing to achieve the target.
But, as French essayist Joseph Joubert wrote,
Mediocrity is excellent to the eyes of mediocre people.
Oh, and the book that started all this is an excellent read for anyone interested in team dynamics.
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