Why Teams Fail

L’enfer, c’est les autres” is Jean Paul Sartre’s famous quote that one could easily say is a rebuke of teams. Workers dislike teams for many reasons. Teammates are often assigned, not chosen. Teams work in meetings, and ineffective meetings mean wasted work time. Supervisors have been said to "meet for a living."

School teams of faculty members are notoriously low performing. Required monthly faculty meetings are generally unpopular. Many teachers take partial personal days and sit in their classrooms and work instead of participating. Teachers agree on neither the content nor the methods to best teach the same children, so it is little surprise that they do not enjoy working together on projects. At the extreme, there have been some teachers in the same department who disagree and have not spoken in years. 

A curriculum written by a faculty committee is usually watered down. No one owns it, and it is not the creative act of an individual. The idea of a “committee” itself conjures up negative images of routine bureaucracy and gray, uninspired and obligatory gatherings. The word “routine” in French is always pejorative. Americans will occasionally talk about “a healthy routine” but not the French. For them, routine is always humdrum. Support for another’s curriculum is rarely as energetic as support for one’s own creation. 

Teams at work, especially committees, suggest obligation, drudgery and compliance, and leaders often match this energy. Most administrators are technocrats. They work as neither innovators nor leaders but rather technicians and compliance officers. These are administrators that view their role as merely enforcing the rules passed down to them. Technocrat administrators lead teams in the same humdrum, routine, bureaucratic way they perform their work. Many of them are uncomfortable even being called “leaders.”

The dislike of teams among adults in schools is no surprise given that faculty and staff teams do little more than go through checklists. Checklist Manifesto was a popular book a few years ago among administrators embracing this leadership-as-compliance perspective. Checklists catch errors but ignite little enthusiasm.

Humans acting as humans and not mere workers crave self-expression, uniqueness and principled action. As long as work teams fail to reflect those needs, Sartre was right: hell is other people, especially when they are forced to be on your team.

Next time, how to create great teams. 


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