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Government Shutdown and How to Bring a Dysfunctional Team Back to the Table to Work Together


Having worked with all sorts of teams for nearly 30 years and written three books on team-building (and a soon to be a fourth), the “need” that continues to come up is around team repair and restoration.  How do you get teams back on track when they have derailed?

We are all by now familiar with the United States government shutdown that occurred at 12:01am on Tuesday morning this past week.  Mired in hidden agendas, a lack of trust, anger, fear, ideology and rhetoric it’s no wonder the government failed to reach any compromise or at least agreement to keep the government open.  However, this is not so different from the gridlock and unfinished plans and projects we see every day in organizations with their work teams.

I get asked from time to time, because of my background in building high-performance teams, what I would suggest or instruct this group of dysfunctional government representatives to do in order to get everyone back around the table to work together.

Here are some thoughts:

1.  Teams must agree on a common goal.  In government right now different factions have different goals and are simply using a strong-arm, push-pull process to see who can win.  Many Americans interviewed on TV have suggested a common goal of – for the good of the nation – but that hasn’t seemed to work either.  Ultimately, House majority and minority leadership coupled with the President will need to agree on a goal that everyone can support, even if it’s temporary.  And then they each have to require their supporters to fall in line behind the common goal.  Ironically, for just a brief hour or two on Thursday when Capitol Hill was in lock-down people united around a common goal of safety.  In some ways, Congress has brought our country into “lock-down” and are “holding it hostage;” they just don’t recognize it.  Perhaps that’s the goal:  release the lock-down hold on our nation.

2.  Once the teams have a common goal, they have to agree on a common-approach for achieving the goal.  We’re likely to see another battle on this front as well.  Hopefully, they will have learned from the techniques used to achieve a common goal and will use those same techniques to achieve a common approach.  When a team is dysfunctional and there is trust bankruptcy, it requires strong, respected leadership to be the voice of reason.  There are strong leaders on Capitol Hill (I think of our own Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont) who could work to broker an agreement between the factions.  Hopefully, they’re doing that behind the scenes already.

3.  In teaming, there is common agreement that a team goes through stages in its development.  This current stage with Congress might be considered the “storming” equivalent, where the attacks become personal and everything is about jockeying for power and control.  At this point in a team’s development, it needs a strong coaching presence – an individual who can articulate a vision that the team can accept as well as draw limits around poor behavior.  Ideally, President Obama should be that coach; however, he has a tendency as an introvert to create distance rather than collaboration.  Imagine if Obama left the White House and went to Capitol Hill and started meeting with Congressional members in small group discussion or one-on-one – for the sole purpose of resolving the impasse and moving us forward.  In other words, sometimes with teams we have to do unusual behavior to cause people to sit up and take notice and react differently.  I’m reminded of that scene in West Wing where fictional President Bartlet walks to Capitol Hill to meet with the Speaker and then sits down and waits for the Speaker to let him in.  That’s what a great coach does, isn’t it?

4.  Team members hold each other accountable for performance, rather than pointing the finger at management or expecting that others will hold people accountable.  This accountability to each other as well as to their constituencies seems lost in Congress.  Our government is structured to bring representatives together to function as a unit to move the nation forward.  It requires not only a loyalty to those back home, but also a loyalty to those they join on Capitol Hill to protect and preserve our nation.   It seems they are aligning to their “small, hometown” agenda (defeat Obamacare, reduce the deficit), but not aligning to their larger purpose as a governmental entity.  When women and children (the WIC Program) can’t buy formula or the military commissaries are closed, or government workers are furloughed indefinitely, that is not performing their role as a governmental entity.  Americans are especially irked then when they continue to get paid for not performing the role.  In business that would be entirely unacceptable.

All of this angst is a symptom of something far deeper going on with our traditional institutions:  we are losing our respect and admiration for leadership; we are detaching from behavioral norms that encourage collaboration and unity – making it an every-person-for-him/herself nation.  Years ago I remember manning a barricade at Syracuse to protest the Vietnam War.  The other night listening to the news of the shutdown and feeling so frustrated again, I turned to my husband and suggested that it might be time to march again for what we know if right and true…a government for the people.  That the “larger team” (Americans) needs to tell the “smaller team” (our representatives) that they are off-base and need to course correct.


Deborah Mackin is the author of 3 highly-acclaimed teaming books including The Team-Building Tool Kit, 2nd Edition.  Deborah is considered to be an international authority on implementing and coaching work teams.  She has worked with various clients including Coca-Cola, Delta Faucet, Sanofi Pasteur and the U.S. Navy.  Deborah is currently working on a 4th teaming book due out in 2014. Talk to Deborah about teams>>

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