How Unilateral Control Can Damage Teams and Working Relationships

By Roger Schwarz

Effective leaders want productive relationships inside and outside their team. Effective teams improve the way they work together over time.

But when team members operate generally from unilateral control, working relationships deteriorate over time instead.

When your team doesn’t have strong working relationships, then members try to minimize working as a team or collaborating with other members. They see the team as a hindrance to accomplishing their goals. They see team meetings as wasting their time, and so they disengage, figuring it’s the leader’s job to come up with any group-wide answers.

Thus, unilateral control decreases commitment, strains working relationships, reduces team learning, and also promotes inappropriate dependence on others.

Over time, you may lose some of your best talent. As the old saying goes, people take a job because of the organization and leave a job because of their boss — but it’s probably their boss’s mindset that does the damage.

Lower Commitment

You need your team’s commitment to implement key decisions. But when you and other team members push their own solutions without incorporating others’ concerns, team members whose organizational needs aren’t met become less committed.

Commitment also drops when team members believe they haven’t been given all the relevant information. They say they will follow through on decisions, but they don’t.

When commitment drops, you’re likely to find yourself monitoring team members to make sure they follow through on their responsibilities. That means that the burden of extra time and effort shifts to you. Over time, as the effects of decreased commitment add up, your team gets solutions that don’t stick, and implementation time goes up.

Decreased Trust

When team members believe they are right and those who disagree with them are wrong and have questionable motives, they don’ t inspire trust in one another.

When they withhold relevant information and keep their reasoning to themselves, they privately question each other’s actions and motives, generating stories about how others aren’t acting in the team’s best interests. They see information as power to be shared with those they trust and withheld from those they don’t, rather than a way to create common understanding and action. All of this tears the social fabric that gives the team strength.

Reduced Learning and Unproductive Conflict

The faster your leadership team learns, the faster it can anticipate or respond to changing conditions, both outside and inside your organization. If your team isn’t continually learning to work together to create better results, then the team and the organization are not getting a full return on its investment.

Where unilateral control prevails, teams don’t learn from their experience and find themselves rigidly repeating mistakes. Members simply seek to win and focus on their own positions.

When they assume they understand and are right and that others who see things differently don’t get it and are wrong, they have little interest in learning from others. Instead, they treat their own assumptions and inferences as facts, which adds to misunderstanding. Because they see their feelings and behaviors as justified and not contributing to the difficulty, they blame others for mistakes and defensiveness.

Simply put, members get into conflict when two or more of them pursue actions or solutions that are inconsistent with each other. Operating from a unilateral control mindset, they see conflict as something to win rather than as a puzzle to solve together.

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Teams that can’t engage in productive conflict either avoid it, smooth it over, or end up in battles. If they address the conflict at all, they end up with stalemates, escalating conflict, or compromises in which everyone is dissatisfied — and losers disengage or seek to even the score.

You’ve probably seen what happens when there is unproductive conflict in your team. You need a meeting before the meeting to plan how to deal with team members you think will want to take the team in a different direction. Then you need a meeting after the meeting to make sure that they will keep their word or plan how to further influence or neutralize them if they haven’t come around to your point of view.

All of this effort does not resolve conflicts — and it weakens your team’s ability to work together in the future.

Inappropriate Dependence on Others

In teams with healthy working relationships, team members appropriately depend on one another. Team members manage their working relationships directly with each other, rather than depending on the leader or anyone else to serve as intermediary.

A framework of unilateral control breeds inappropriate dependencies within the team, as members shift their burden onto others — including onto the leader.

If Sean and Marla are on your team and Sean comes to you frustrated that Marla is not supporting his group, you might agree to talk to Marla for Sean instead of having Sean directly resolve the issue with Marla. If you do this, you contribute to unnecessary and inappropriate dependence on yourself and reduce Sean’s accountability for his behavior.

If you find yourself spending too much of your time managing relationships for your team members, and not having enough time to meet your own goals, you’re probably accepting the burden that others are trying to shift to you.

As a result, you’re likely to be frustrated with those members and with yourself. This further strains working relationships.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results by Roger Schwarz. Copyright © 2013.

Roger Schwarz is a recognized thought leader in the realm of team leadership. An organizational psychologist and President and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates, he is a sought-after advisor to global companies, federal government agencies and international non-profit organizations. Clients include American Airlines, American Red Cross, the World Bank, TransCanada, Chevron and the US Department of the Interior.


1 Comment on “How Unilateral Control Can Damage Teams and Working Relationships

  1. Interesting piece, Roger, and I agree with you – if leaders are not mindful of the degree of control placed on their staff, commitment can decrease, working relationships can become strained and dependence is inappropriately placed. My company, Mom Corps, a national talent acquisition and career development firm, operates 100 percent virtually with a remote staff. Our management strategy is a results-only work environment (ROWE) which focuses on work produced and employee performance. ROWE is not about relinquishing control, rather it is a shift in focus from controlling when, where and how people work to holding people accountable for results. -Allison O’Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps

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