What Congress Can Teach Us about Teamwork

By Next Step Partners
Partner, Next Step Partners

It’s fine to be unwaveringly committed to goals like opportunity, high-quality education, good health, and security. It’s harmful to be unwaveringly committed to particular ways to reach those goals.

For many, the U.S. Congress is without peer when it comes to organizational dysfunction. Although it is fundamentally a team, it works so poorly that most people don’t even think of it as one. There are many well-meaning members of Congress, but its shortcomings are so big and so dramatic that—just as we can learn from plane crashes, failed companies, and natural disasters—maybe Congress can teach us something about teams.

The top three issues undermining Congress’ effectiveness are almost universal attributes of poor teams. These issues are so stark in Congress that they might help you see them, in a more subtle form, on your teams.

Issue #1: Members of Congress look out for #1.

In the corporate context, to say, “She’s really political” is quite an insult. About members of Congress, it’s so obvious that it’s not worth saying. What does it mean to say that someone is political? Members of Congress put enormous energy into making themselves look good and others look bad. They gravitate to work that gets them noticed. They are highly focused on their own career (keeping their job or getting a better one). They publicly humiliate one another. To put it bluntly: They incinerate trust by caring about themselves more than about any higher purpose.

Signs that it might be occurring on your team: Maneuvering. Lack of cooperation. Lack of authentic dialog about serious issues. Back-channel conversations run wild. Appearance and relationships trumping results.

How to fix it: Clarify the team’s goals and call out – rigorously, consistently, specifically – team behaviors that support or undermine those goals.

Issue #2: Conversations on complicated issues are conducted all out of sequence.

When a big issue comes before Congress, what happens? We get a witch’s brew of rhetoric, positions, facts, statistics, solutions, interpretations, rebuttals, and other ingredients of what is meant to constitute a reasoned legislative process. There is no sequence, no sense that one part of the process is the foundation for the next.

Signs that it might be occurring on your team: The road to decisions is either much too hard (unfocused conversations that ramble, repeat, and disintegrate) or much too easy (people have just checked out). Discussions end only when time is up. The time spent on decisions doesn’t relate to their complexity or importance.

How to fix it: Before taking on a difficult issue in the team, appoint someone to facilitate the conversation. Require the facilitator to outline a logical process first, before addressing anything substantive. It’s a simple process: Is this truly a decision for the whole team? What are we deciding? What are the facts? What is the significance of those facts? With what criteria will we evaluate options? What are the options?

Issue #3: Members of Congress are ideological about the wrong things.

It’s fine to be unwaveringly committed to goals like opportunity, high-quality education, good health, and security. The ideal is to be committed to the ends, innovative about the means, and clear about the difference. It’s harmful to be unwaveringly committed to particular ways to reach those goals. In Congress, both sides of the aisle make this error—for example, the notion that tax cuts are always good, or that more money for education is the sure-fire answer. Perhaps because they have fought these battles for so long, members of Congress have forgotten what they are truly fighting for. It would be heart-warming to hear them say more often, with sincerity, “Well, we all want the same thing here…”

Signs that it might be occurring on your team.

Calcification. Team members become tied to a certain point of view and to the others who support it. It’s not even worth talking about, because you know what everyone will say. Team members are stuck in the same old solutions and approaches.

How to fix it: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Force people to argue the other side. Get the voices of key stakeholders in the conversation to keep the team honest. Hold the team accountable for reaching shared, higher-level goals—not functional or departmental goals. Force people to articulate their assumptions and preconceptions. Set up small, low-cost experiments to test alternatives.



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