Collaborative Leadership Blog

5 Guidelines to Avoid the “Team Trap”

The Senior Vice President was increasingly frustrated with the output and dysfunction of her management team. She had tried everything she knew to get them working well together: new team leadership, training, an outdoor experience, and performance incentives. Nothing seemed to make a difference. Morale was down, as was trust. And there was increasing pressure from her leadership to either have a significant improvement in 60 days or team members would have to be replaced. Something had to give—no pressure.

Many company teams find themselves in what could be called the “Team Trap”—there are negative internal team dynamics that are being treated with external solutions—and little happens except a deeper sense of frustration. Then, the hammer falls, and no one is happy.

How can we get out of the Team Trap? Lasting team effectiveness develops from the inside-out, not externally driven programs. It is about choices team members make, the team’s culture, and the ability to agree on a common way of working together. That requires the hard work of coming together as a team and learning how to truly collaborate. It is not about “forming-storming-storming” which results in  not-performing. To get out of the trap and build the trust needed to sustain high performance over time, here are 5 guidelines to consider:

  1. Leadership Direction is Essential: Senior leadership understands that to gain individual commitment to a team mission, it must come from within the team; and they make that possible
  2. Have a Common Set of Rules: Teams need to own their own rules for how they work together, and that is more than a chart in front of the room. It involves a deeper process of working through their differences to agree on a set of operating agreements like decision-making, communications, and confidentiality
  3. True Consensus for Strategic Decisions: The key to unlocking trust is for every team member to know that on the big decisions, absolutely everyone is on board 100%; no “can live with” strategic decisions; they will ultimately backfire
  4. Resolve Conflicts/Disagreements Quickly: There is always disagreement and conflict—inherent in our differences is our creativity, unless you sweep them under the rug. Move beyond conflict management to conflict resolution, and do so as close to the conflict as you can
  5. Work Toward Self-Accountability: This is the Blue Angels principle—these fighter pilots, flying in formation at 800 mph and 36” wing separation cannot afford to make mistakes; when they do, they hold themselves accountable to the team, or they’re off the team. We need this level of self-accountability in our teams—which will result in few mistakes being made

There is a way out of the Team Trap. It comes from the inside-out, critical governance work, and choices team members own, resulting in team members knowing they can trust and count on each other.


*Dr. Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; he is an ICF certified executive coach, Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of Building Trust at the Speed of Change. You can contact him at:,, or  (919)265-9616