Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 1;   January 4, 2023: The Politics of Forming Joint Leadership Teams

The Politics of Forming Joint Leadership Teams


Some teams, business units, or enterprises are led not by individuals, but by joint leadership teams of two or more. They face special risks that arise from both the politics of the joint leadership team and the politics of the organization hosting it.
Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein as Frankenstein's monster

Promotional photo of Boris Karloff from The Bride of Frankenstein as Frankenstein's monster. Image by Universal Studios , NBCUniversal, 1935. Courtesy Wikimedia.

When we designate a group or team as joint leaders of a task force, project team, business unit, or enterprise — even temporarily — we're committing the entire organization to a different kind of path. Those who work within the unit itself or those who interact with the unit must operate in ways that differ from the ways they work when a single individual leads the unit. Because so much of the difference arises from relationships between and among people, I find organizational politics to be a useful perspective from which to gain understanding of how units led by joint leadership teams (JLTs) differ from others. And one appropriate place to start is understanding the role of organizational politics in forming joint leadership teams.

A word might be in order first, to state clearly what I mean by organizational politics:

Organizational politics is what happens when we contend with each other for control or dominance, or when we work together to solve shared problems.

Let's begin.

Tuckman's model of small team development

Unless a Joint Leadership Team (JLT) consists of people who have worked well together in the past, and who are already working well together at the time they are designated as the JLT, the JLT is likely to follow the stages of small team development described by Tuckman, commonly known as the "forming-storming-norming-performing model." [Tuckman 1977] That is, following initial designation, there will be a period of rocky performance. I'll address the details of this risk for JLTs in future posts. For now, it's enough to say that a newly formed JLT must attend to its own development at first, and this can distract it to some degree from its eventual formal responsibilities.

Moreover, whenever there is a change in the membership of a JLT, that JLT is likely to retrace some or all of the stages of Tuckman's model. For these reasons, some of the advantages of JLTs compared to individual leaders are offset, and JLTs can be at a disadvantage in the short term relative to qualified individual leaders.

But beyond that phenomenon, how the JLT comes about can determine much about its future effectiveness. Consider two common origin stories: what I call Frankenstein's Monster, and a second one I call Placating the Politics.

Frankenstein's Monster

Some Those who work within a business unit led
by a joint leadership team, or who interact
with the unit, must operate in ways that
differ from the ways they work when a
single individual leads the unit
organizations lack a single individual who has the knowledge, experience, and support desired to lead the unit in question. The organization is actively searching externally to find someone. Meanwhile, to meet the immediate need, they've established a JLT temporarily. What they're trying to do is assemble what they need from the parts they have in house, just as Henry Frankenstein assembled his monster from parts he found in fresh graves or recently hanged criminals.

Risks of the Frankenstein approach
This "Frankenstein's monster" approach is usually a bad idea. Even if it works — which is far from certain — it disrupts the units from which the "parts" are harvested. For this reason, the "donor" business units from which the "parts" are drawn are often the weaker units politically. And sometimes the "parts" they donate aren't the most capable people the organization has to offer.
Moreover, when the newly hired individual leader finally arrives, the new unit is disrupted, according to Tuckman's model. And when the parts are returned to the positions from which they were drawn, those donor units are disrupted once again.
Any gains produced by imposing a JLT on the new unit temporarily might be offset by the disruptions in the new unit and the donor units.
Some organizations try to avoid the donor-unit disruptions by having the "parts" perform dual roles — as members of the JLT while simultaneously carrying out the duties they had before they were designated as members of the JLT. Rarely does this double-duty approach work out well, because it's a rare person who can handle two full-time jobs successfully.
A modified Frankenstein approach
An alternative that can be more practical in the interim is to retain a qualified consultant who can act as interim unit leader until a permanent leader can be found. This isn't ideal, of course, because the unit in question undergoes two changes of leadership in (hopefully) a short time. But this approach has the advantage that there are no disruptions in donor units, as there would be in the unmodified Frankenstein approach, because there are no donors. This would seem to be an opportunity (probably already exploited) for major consulting firms, solo experts, or recent retirees to offer a valuable short-term service, because the value provided is of the order of the sum of the value of the leadership provided plus the avoided cost of disruptions in the donor units.

Placating the Politics

When we charter a new team, task force, or business unit, we're usually free to choose an individual leader. But in some cases, we choose a JLT anyway, because political factions in the hosting organization contend for control of the new unit. And from time to time, it's necessary to replace an individual leader of an existing unit, because of a voluntary or involuntary departure, retirement, promotion, or reassignment. This situation can also expose political rivalry, and when it does, the JLT approach seems to be an attractive option. Seems to be is the operative phrase.

Risks of organizational politics
When politics is a dominant factor in determining the choice of leadership structure (that is, individual vs. JLT), politics is likely the dominant factor in determining the success of that choice. When we choose a JLT to lead the unit, we must give due consideration to the political assets of the candidates we consider for JLT membership. That is, we choose the members of the JLT, in part, according to the constituencies they represent. The unfortunate result is that politics is wired into the operation of the JLT itself. The activities of the unit are thereafter skewed by politics until an individual replaces the JLT, or until the political rivalry that led to the JLT is resolved.
Mitigating the risks of organizational politics for JLTs
To best ensure success of the unit and its JLT, senior management would do well to attend to — and resolve — the issues of political rivalries in the hosting organization. After resolving (or at least moderating) the political rivalries, the pressures that led to adopting a JLT tend to subside, and an individual can displace the JLT.

Last words

Many JLTs are designed with an odd number of members, to avoid tie votes if votes are ever taken. In small teams, consensus is always preferable to majority rule, because it avoids creating a permanent, excluded, minority faction, which can lead to destructive conflict. When conflict within the JLT turns destructive, the smaller the JLT, the more intimate are the personal attacks. That's one reason why members of JLTs would do well to acquire conflict management skills. Among these is the ability to distinguish situations that call for the assistance of a conflict professional. Go to top Top  Next issue: Joint Leadership Teams: Risks  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Tuckman 1977]
Bruce W. Tuckman and Mary Ann C. Jensen. "Stages of small-group development revisited," Group and organization studies 2:4 (1977), pp. 419-427. Available here. Retrieved 22 November 2022. Back

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