Leadership teams: why they go wrong

Peter Bernik/

In this article, I look at seven factors that predispose leadership teams to disharmony, making them hard to manage and change.

Andy Milward Ph.D.


Cliques, coalitions, and conflict.

Anyone who has been a member of a leadership team in a large organisation will recognise  these debilitating issues.

Just as frustrating are failed efforts to restore team harmony.

Chronic team problems occur when members put their own interests first, overriding the collective interests of the team.

These problems occur because internal conditions within the team and the wider organisation, unless carefully managed, set a ‘context’ that makes self-interested behaviour a likely outcome. (For more on the idea of Context see https://andymilward.comthe-context-of-behaviour-in-organizations/). Also, see Why Teams don’t work by Diane Coutu

I discuss below seven factors that may throw some light on why leadership teams have problems, and resist efforts to change them.

1.  Competition for top jobs

The higher executives climb, the less places there are for them to go.

This means, in leadership teams, there is intense competition among members for a small number of top jobs.



 Team members constantly look for opportunities to progress, putting them under pressure to compete against their colleagues.

Even if executives are not in direct competition with one another, their efforts to get noticed deflect them from their team responsibilities.

If not managed carefully, this tendency toward self-interested behaviour can weaken members commitment to the team and threaten cohesion.

2.  Norms – expected behaviour

Norms are unwritten rules that regulate the way people behave.

Leaders shape and reinforce norms through their own behaviour, and the administrative practices they implement.

Those who do not fall into line with norms will feel out of place.

For example, in discussions with executives team members in several organisations, I have heard the following remarks:

“They give presentations telling us to share resources and so on to take pressure  off other sections. But then we’re given incentives to do the opposite. I mean the budget share for each department is based on its performance. So why would we risk our bottom-line to help other areas out? No-one shares with us. That’s why we are in silos?”

“Live by the sword, die by the sword. That’s how the boss behaves so I’ve got no choice have I if I’m going to survive?”

“Since we went public the new CEO keeps telling us that shareholders come first. But what about us? The staff come last. R & D expenditure has been canned so I can’t start  new projects. I’ve worked here for seventeen years but I don’t get much job satisfaction any more. I’m looking around.”

It is very clear; people take notice of what their leaders do, not what they say.

Leaders may urge people to cooperate, but if they behave in self-interested ways, or impose procedures that promote self-interest, they send signals to others that this behaviour is the norm.

These norms regulate behaviour throughout the organisation, including within leadership teams at every level.

3. Role Interdependence 

Leadership teams vary in the extent to which members depend on each other for work inputs. For example, area heads might depend on inputs from functional heads, but may depend on each other less.


Paul Fleet/

Sometimes interdependence is so low that members see the team as a mere reporting group.

Low interdependence makes it less likely they will see themselves as a group of people with a shared purpose.

This conflicts with efforts to encourage the group to integrate their efforts as they strive collectively to achieve goals.

As there is nothing to strive for collectively, members are more likely to pursue their aspirations through self-focused behaviour.

4. Matrix structures

There are many types and levels of leadership team.

These include teams that run areas, teams that cross over area and functional boundaries, and teams that run product or service lines.

Team members may include heads of area units, product lines or functions. They may have a dual responsibility to their area or function, and to the leadership team.

They often have a dotted line to their team leader, and a solid line to another executive.

They may also sit on more than one leadership team.

These complex structures can lead to split loyalties.

Members may use the matrix to press their own interests by aligning themselves with others who may aid their own careers.

This behaviour reduces trust between team members.

The absence of trust has a devastating effect on group dynamics.  Members become reluctant to share information in case it is used to their disadvantage.

 5. National culture

In global firms, executives necessarily come from many countries.

People from different cultural backgrounds vary in their attitude to group membership, relationships, authority, and in their tolerance for uncertainty.[ref]Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., Minkov, M. (2010) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Third Edition, New York: Mcgraw-Hill Professional.[/ref]



These differences cause conflict if executives are not alert to them.

While I was consulting in Sweden for a business that had a UK-based parent, a Swedish executive remarked to me:

“The British leadership mentality of command and control doesn’t work in this country.”

Sweden is a country with a very inclusive approach to decision-making.

Foreign executives working with Swedes must adjust their style if they are to fit in to the team, as Swedes must if they are to work abroad.

Executives should also be sensitive to differences in language ability.

As English is the working language in most global organisations and a second language for many, misunderstanding is a potential outcome.

Words may mean different things to people from different cultures.

For example, when working with nationally diverse groups, I have found it fascinating how the meaning of the word ‘friend’ seems to vary so much according to nationality.

6. Remote working

Distance means leadership teams meet infrequently.

In-between these meetings, they keep in touch by phone and email.



Much research shows that limited social intimacy puts an emotional distance between people causing a fall in empathy.[ref]eds. Kruglanski, A.W., Arie, W., Tory Higgins, E. (2007), Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles, Second Edition, New York: The Guilford Press[/ref]

As members are unmoved by the impact of their actions on others, they are more likely to behave in ways counter to others’ interests.

It is interesting to consider whether emotional distance explains the the reckless behaviour of bank executives, or even the practice of internet ‘trolling’. See this Guardian article for an interesting discussion:

7. The behaviour of team leaders

The most obvious cause of disharmony in senior leadership groups is, of course, the behaviour of the group leader.

Some team leaders are a catalyst for disharmony, even though they sometimes do not see that they are part of the problem.

If a team leader has been promoted into position in preference over other members of the team, or, if they have been ‘imported’ from a different part of the organisation, they will need to win the hearts and minds of their people to overcome resentment.

Whether they accomplish this depends upon how well they manage the interaction between the factors listed above.

Competition between members, low interdependence, remote working, complex matrix structures, cultural differences, and normative press is a heady mix for a new team leader to manage.

To win the allegiance of their team members, the new team leader has the challenge of building a shared purpose for the group that satisfies the short term personal interests of team members, as well as the medium to long-term interests of the organisation.

This is the only way to keep members’ attention and promote group harmony.

However, some team leaders pursue a more perverse strategy, and use their position as executive team leader to build their own power-base.

While ostensibly ‘managing’ their team, their real intention is to ‘corall’ team members to neutralise any threat they may pose to their own career progression.

This will reinforce norms for competitive behaviour and make cooperation within the group highly unlikely.

The message for leaders………

Leadership teams play a crucial role in allocating, integrating, and managing resources to meet organisational goals.

However, the conditions I have set out above interact with one another predisposing team members to promote their self-interest at the expense of team harmony.

To avoid drawing attention to themselves, team members try to strike a balance between self-promotion, and cooperative behaviour.

They have to choose: do I collaborate with my colleagues  or do I emphasise my own interests and just give the team cursory attention?

In choosing what to do, they compare the pay-off they think they will get from each approach.

This creates a highly charged environment where team cohesion is fragile and the threat of disharmony is always present.



The challenge for leaders is to find a way to link the self-interest of team members with the achievement of organisational goals.

This will make cooperation the more attractive option.

Leaders are unlikely to do this unless they understand the complex pressures on team members.

They must work with their teams to surface these issues and win commitment to change.

If they can facilitate this process skilfully, leaders are better placed to manage the complex causes of behaviour in leadership teams.


 Andy Milward

 Andy Milward Ph.D. is founder and principal of Milward, a consulting and research firm specialising in Strategic Leadership.

©Andy Milward and Milward: Consulting in Strategic Leadership: Latest Thinking, 2014-2015.

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andy Milward PhD and Milward: Consulting in Strategic Leadership: Latest Thinking with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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