In a recent team building session, a group I was working with posed an interesting question.  If members are not fully engaged in their team meetings, is that because the topics are inappropriate, e.g. applicable only to certain members?  Or is it because, as we were exploring in the session, they are acting as a “federation” rather than a “tribe,” using the terminology of Gervase Bushe?

Bushe says that a federation is  a group of managers that isn’t really a team in the sense of being fully interdependent, and in which each member oversees separate functional areas that compete for resources and attention.  They have the same organizational goals overall, but tend to lose sight of them because performance is measured and rewarded  by department.  What many organizations want, Bushe says, is to turn their federations into “tribes,” in which individuals identify so strongly with the group that they will put the good of the  community ahead of their own departmental goals when necessary.

So the question we began to ask was, if people are starting to type away on their laptops during team meetings while other people’s programs and projects are being discussed, is that acceptable?  Does it mean we need to restructure the way the agenda is created, or the level of detail at which the facilitator moves the group on?  Or does it mean that something much more fundamental must be addressed, such as that members don’t really identify strongly enough with the group and don’t have any interest in their colleague’s areas of responsibility?

Although we didn’t get any further in the session than identifying the questions and setting some action steps for further exploration, my sense is that this group will come to the conclusion that it’s a little of both.  We all have a different tolerance for detail, but most of us will tune-out at some point if the level of detail is too much for a discussion about something we are not even directly involved in.  On the other hand, if the members of the group work in silos to such an extent that they aren’t even curious to hear what their colleagues are working on, that’s a problem for everyone.  Some basic work around looking at organizational structure and how the parts add up to the whole is probably called for at this point.

Take a family unit as an analogy.  No one expects brother Jake to have the same day-to-day goals as sister Susan, nor to have the patience to listen to a greatly detailed description of her science project every night.  But if Jake wants to leave the dinner table anytime Susan even begins to answer the question, “how was your day?” that’s a family that will have issues beyond not being able to eat dinner together.

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