I happened to be in New York on the day when, for Americans, the world changed dramatically. Donald Trump was unexpectedly President of the United States. The morning of 9 November 2016 was akin to being in the vortex of a storm. As New Yorkers made their way through the rain to work, there was an eerie silence. Hushed conversations were taking place on the corners of the blocks. People wearing Pence badges had no air of jubilance, they just kept their eyes down. Even the traffic seemed quieter.
As a result, I have developed a fascination with the Trump story, and so when Michael Wolff published his book ‘Fire and Fury’ I couldn’t resist buying it and I read it pretty much in one sitting. It made for an interesting read, but I couldn’t help wearing my ‘professional hat’ and observing the behaviour of the Trump team.
The team in the election run up
Setting aside personal views, let us analyse the team’s effectiveness during the run up to the election. In terms of a team process, it looked pretty text book.
The team had a clear purpose, which was to win the election. This was broken down into clear goals; tour the country and speak at large political rallies. The aim being to deliver a very clear message that would engage the people they were targeting. They were also playing to their strengths. They were experienced fundraisers, PR experts, good sales people. They knew what they were trying to achieve, and they knew how to do it. They didn’t get complacent, they persevered and believed in what they were doing. It has to be said, these are the ingredients of good team work and it certainly paid off.
The team on arriving at the White House
However, as soon as they arrived in Washington, that was all about to change. Within weeks, the team would turn from a well-oiled campaign team, to one that was fragmented, lacking direction. The trust would be all but destroyed, cohesion would be replaced by cliques and bitter rivalry. People would start hatching plans against one another, there would be public slanging matches, people would walk out disillusioned and angry.
So, what the Hell happened?
Depending on your views on Trump, will depend on whether you care or not. However, if even a fraction of this behaviour were happening to your team, you would surely want to know?
Here are some of the contributing factors.
Wolff suggests that the presidential campaign team had never envisaged winning the election, so had no strategy planned in the event of actually ending up in office. On arrival in Washington, the team were now completely on the back foot. They knew how to win an election, but they sure as heck didn’t know how to run a country. They had no expertise in politics, and they needed direction from their leader to understand their purpose, which was seemingly not forthcoming. Their leader was apparently unable make any decisions around recruitment, goal-setting, strategic direction. In the absence of any leadership presence, everybody was just ‘making things up as they went along’.
Because nobody had a clear role, it turned into a bit of a ‘free for all’. People were just grabbing whatever tasks they fancied based on their own self-interest. Communication had broken down, so nobody knew what anyone else was doing. There were no processes in place, and there was no-one overseeing the operation. The press had a field day.
The scourge of any team is too much ego. Certain team members were very power hungry, wanting to control things with their own professional gain in mind. As a result, the trust within the team was crumbling rapidly and sabotage was rife. There were multiple leaks to the press, with the sole intention of damaging reputations.
There was fear in the team too. They had a leader who was unpredictable, prone to emotional outbursts, who was reportedly only interested in hearing a sanitised version of the truth. People either created a bubble to shield him, or modified their behaviour to avoid coming under attack. If the leader bawls people out, this is then gives licence for the team to do the same, hence the increase in public slanging matches. As they say, ‘behaviour breeds behaviour’.
So, looking at this objectively, what could this team have done differently?
Lesson 1: The leader needs to be present and available.
When embarking on something new, the team is at its most vulnerable. It requires the leader to be visible, available and audible. Even if the leader doesn’t know the answers, the last thing they should do is disappear. The team need holding while things get figured out. They need to feel a sense of ‘we’re in this together’. This will help maintain cohesion. The added benefit of being highly visible, is that it keeps those egos in check (provided the leader’s ego isn’t the problem).
Lesson 2: The team needs a clear purpose.
This team’s problems appear to have started once the purpose became unclear. Coming together at the start of a project and working out ‘what is our purpose’ is the best way to engage everyone. If a team create the purpose together, they create shared ownership and a sense of greater engagement. A wise team will also regularly check in against their purpose to make sure they are still on track, or to check the purpose is still relevant.
Lesson 3: Goals and roles need to be clear.
Decisions about who is doing what need to be made as quickly as possible. Getting the right kind of expertise in place is critical. The start of a project could also be a good time to ask each individual in the team what they want to be involved in and exploring how they can be developed to grow into a role. This can lead to greater engagement and retention.
Lesson 4. Trust.
Loss of trust is the worst thing that can happen to a team. It creates a toxic environment, which will undoubtedly lead to stress. A good leader will encourage the whole team to be open and honest. A team will know high trust exists if it gets to the point where constructive feedback is being given, received and acted upon, without it being taken personally. By keeping the purpose clear and the egos in check, trust has the best conditions to flourish.
Lesson 5. Behaviour.
Everybody needs to have clarity about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour, and everybody needs be responsible for managing it. This starts with the leader. The most effective way to deal with this is to create a ‘team charter’, a set of behavioural guidelines by which the team lives. Again, coming together to create this allows for greater mutual accountability.
Lesson 6. Creating a healthy culture.
If people are stifling their behaviour, or telling the leader what they want to hear, then a fear culture exists. The only way to short circuit this is to communicate to the team a desire to hear the truth at all times, and a consistently calm reaction when bad news comes. The best teams will also invite conflict. Not the interpersonal kind, but encouraging people to share opposing views. It is from these conversations that ideas breed and ‘group think’ dies.
I think it would take some doing to have a team as dysfunctional as the teamwork described in Wolff’s book. You can probably take huge comfort from knowing your team will never get to this state. However, even the best teams I have worked with have occasionally taken their eye off the ball for a split second, and it is at that point that they are momentarily vulnerable. It’s worth referring to this check list from time to time to make sure your team is running at its best.
With that in mind, make sure you invest in regular team development activities. This can range from just getting out for a team sports day, bar drinks or a meal. Team building type activities can help you and the team understand the personality mix, and how to maximise on your strengths. Team development can help you all look more closely at your purpose, goals, roles and strategic direction. This often benefits from having an external facilitator.
Get in touch if you want some help with any of these things. I’d be more than happy to help you think through some ideas that you could try.
References: ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’, Wolff, M. (2018) Little, Brown, United Kingdom.