My latest Netflix binge is The West Wing, the political drama series that won numerous awards during its 1999 – 2006 run on NBC. While re-reading Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team this week I realized what makes The West Wing so fascinating to me; it’s the phenomenal team dynamics of the group that plays the presidential senior staff team.
Lencioni’s book outlines a model for high performance teamwork in which effective teams start from a foundation of trust and then build a tendency to engage in passionate debate and constructive conflict, which leads to full commitment to team goals, shared accountability, and attention to results. His theory is that teams without trust will fear conflict and members will avoid saying what they really think for fear of ridicule or condemnation; therefore no true commitment to any plan of action can exist, because people have not given themselves the chance to be heard. Team members who haven’t expressed their true beliefs will avoid accountability for team goals that they never really committed to in the first place.
On The West Wing, the senior staffers in the White House chief of staff and communications offices are constantly engaged in passionate debate. They argue vehemently, they make mistakes, and they call each other out on those mistakes. But they don’t play politics with each other and they don’t turn constructive criticism into personal attack. They say what they really think, and then they move forward with whatever has been agreed upon or ordered by the president. When someone makes a mistake they debrief it and move on. No one tries to hide their mistakes for fear of being ostracized or fired, and that’s really where the trust comes in. When C.J. Craig, the press secretary, accidentally tells the press that the president is relieved to be sending troops into a conflict she’s terribly upset with herself, but she doesn’t make excuses to her teammates, and they can see that she’s already beating herself up and therefore they don’t need to make it any worse. The same thing happens when Josh Lyman, the deputy chief of staff, almost loses an important Congressional vote by revealing inside information to his girlfriend, a lobbyist for women’s issues; or when Leo McGarry, chief of staff, is revealed to a be a recovering alcoholic; or when Sam Seaborn, deputy communications director, gets photographed with a call girl. Each time the team debriefs the mistake, debates the options, agrees on a plan to fix it, and moves forward. No one tries to cover up mistakes because the trust is there at the foundation; they feel safe being vulnerable with each other because they all believe that despite mistakes, each member of the team is a talented, worthy staffer who belongs on the team.
As Lencioni himself points out, conflict is what makes for good entertainment. On teams where conflict is avoided, not only does nothing get done but work is also boring, just like a TV show with no conflict would be. And yet so many of our work teams continue to believe that avoidance of conflict is a good thing, something to strive for. We should give those misguided teams some TV watching for homework.