Weaponizing Team Building

“There’s going to be some TEAM BUILDING around here!” bellowed the manager.

Another team leader and I met with this manager to discuss better communication and coordination between our teams. Our teams were new, and we were going through the usual growing pains in creating roles and responsibilities. However, our manager interpreted the friction between teams as a direct challenge. The call for team building wasn’t about creating high-performing teams. Instead, the manager wanted to build teams that unquestionably obeyed … the manager.

In 2005, I created a general framework for analyzing organizational failure where weaponizing team building was a critical factor.

Deindividuation — Weaponizing Team Building

According to Dr. Paul ‘t Hart’s book, “Groupthink in government: A study of small groups and policy failure”, “deindividuation” is when an individual is pressured to accept the team as “their main point of reference than their individual perceptions, opinions, and interests” .

When a team member becomes deindividuated, they:

  • Have difficulty monitoring their behavior
  • Have difficulty monitoring the behavior of others
  • Lose their sense of ethics
  • Lack self-correction in their behavior
  • Lack foresight
  • Lack concern over future punishment

Deindividuated teams can appear to have high cohesiveness, but this is an illusion. What is happening is that the team members are practicing anticipatory compliance, where team members give in to avoid being pressured by an autocratic manager. Team members will not question the direction of their bosses because groupthink has set in.

Deindividuated teams also tend to fight with other teams to solidify the group identity over the individual team members’ identities. The more dissimilar the teams, the more intense the team rivalries will increase the silo effect in organizations.

The Risky Shift

Deindividuated teams often make bad decisions because they “escalate their commitment to a previously chosen, though failing, course of action in order to justify or ‘make good on prior investments,’” Dr. Hart argues that deindividuated teams are entrapped into making high-risk decisions (risky shifts) because the team believes in the inherent superiority of the group. As a result, the deindividuated team members do not question the team’s decisions and encourage the team to take high-risk actions. Think of the times you’ve been on a team where you thought a decision was risky but didn’t speak up. That is the risky shift in action.

Is it Teambuilding or Deindividuation?

I have conducted numerous team building training and coaching sessions. Before approaching the session, I speak to the team leads about the dangers of deindividuation, including the corrosive effects on employee engagement and organizational health. Teams are the heart of our government work, and healthy, high-performing teams make government serve citizens better.

Thus, promoting a healthy group identity is vital while allowing team members to question the ethics and wisdom of group decisions. As a team leader or government manager, you want team building to create high-performing teams where team members enthusiastically blend their contributions and identities into a shared goal. Be on the lookout for deindividuation, risky shifts in decision-making, and entrapment.

Dr. Bill Brantley works in the U.S. Navy Inspector General Office as a Senior Training Specialist where he is leading the project to build the Office’s first learning portal for nearly 1,000 employees in the enterprise. He has been a program manager for the Emerging Leader Program and Supervisor Certificate Program at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. He also managed the Executive Coaching and the Career Coaching Programs. Dr. Brantley was awarded the 2019 Emerging Training Leader by Training Magazine and is an IPMA-HR SCP, a Certified Professional in Talent Development, an ROI certified professional, a certified data scientist, and a Certified Professional in Training Management. He is a certified Project Management Professional, a certified agile project manager, a certified professional in business analysis, and is certified in Disciplined Agile. He has completed over 200 hours of coaching training from the Neuroleadership Institute, the American Confidence Institute, emotional intelligence coaching, and the Global Team Coaching Institute. Dr. Brantley is an adjunct faculty member for the University of Louisville (20+ years) and the University of Maryland (8+ years). He is the author of the “Persuasive Project Manager” (2019) and “Four Scenarios for the Future of the Federal Government” (2019).

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