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Volume 23, Issue 2;   January 11, 2023: Joint Leadership Teams: Risks

Joint Leadership Teams: Risks

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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 the organizations that host them, from the teams they lead, or from within the joint leadership team itself.
New York Fire Department Deputy Chief Joseph Curry calls for rescue teams at Ground Zero three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks

New York Fire Department Deputy Chief Joseph Curry calls for rescue teams at Ground Zero three days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Some contexts demand that a single individual rather than a joint leadership team lead the effort. Firefighting and hazardous materials spills are two examples. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Preston Keres, courtesy Wikimedia.

As defined in the first post in this series, a joint leadership team (JLT) forms when an organization decides "…to delegate jointly to more than one person primary responsibility for a business unit, task force, or project." JLTs are usually small, consisting of about two to seven members. Although they're small, their operations and their effect on the hosting organization can be dramatic, especially if the hosting organization fails to acknowledge the risks that attend JLTs. The purpose of this post is to alert readers to some of those risks.

Those most affected by JLT risks are the people who work within the unit the JLT leads, the people and units that must interact with the unit the JLT leads, and the members of the JLT itself. What follows are six examples of the risks they face.

Risk of slow response
When rapid accommodation to changing situations is required, JLTs are at a disadvantage. For important issues, it's usually necessary for the members of the JLT to converse. Bringing them together can take time. Even if they convene virtually, the virtual medium can reduce the effectiveness of the exchange, and lengthen the time required to reach consensus.
JLTs are workable, and they do provide advantages. But if agility is required, the relative awkwardness of JLTs can be a disadvantage. The critical indicator of this risk for the JLT form of leadership is the rate of change of the environment. If it changes more rapidly than the JLT can respond, the JLT form is high-risk.
Risk of confusion
When only Although joint leadership teams are small, their
operations and their effect on the hosting
organization can be dramatic, especially if the
hosting organization fails to acknowledge the
risks that attend joint leadership teams
some of the members of the JLT are in communication with some portion of the world outside the JLT, information within the JLT is unevenly distributed. Distribution will remain uneven until the JLT members can "sync up." In the meantime, the risk of confusion is elevated, because the left hand won't know what the right hand is doing.
Bring the JLT members together (virtually or otherwise) frequently. Allow them enough time to close any gaps in information or understanding. This need for frequent get-togethers can seem like a drain on time and resources, but those costs are small compared to the cost of confusion. If you don't have time to bring the members of the JLT together to exchange information and perspectives, the JLT structure presents a high risk of confusion.
Risk of discord due to external rivalries
Some JLTs are comprised of representatives of other organizational units. This is common in groups called task forces or red teams. In these cases members of the JLT often regard themselves as delegates who represent the interests of the groups they hail from. That might be one reason why groups such as task forces and red teams are more likely to be led by JLTs.
If there is rivalry between two or more of the represented organizational units, there is a risk that that rivalry might also play out in the JLT, which can cause the JLT to exhibit a dysfunction analogous to that found in the larger organization. In these cases, what's happening in the JLT is a symptom of a deeper problem. Addressing it at the level of the JLT is unlikely to resolve it. The root cause lies in the hosting organization. Work on that.
Risk of decisions based on internal power politics
A power differential risk arises when one member of the JLT (I'll refer to that one as A) is more powerful politically than the others (I'll refer to the others as not-As). A's power advantage can derive from many factors, including, for instance, superior rank, a more politically powerful personal network, longer tenure, or the stature of A's profession.
When A and any of the not-As disagree, there is a risk that the not-As might defer to A for political reasons rather than for substantive reasons related to the matter at hand. If a pattern of political deference establishes itself, it can bias the effort by generating a string of political decisions not based on substance.
This risk is "longitudinal" in the sense that it's persistent. Even if the members of the JLT begin the mission as approximate equals politically, the risk remains. If at any time one of the JLT members is promoted or recognized, a political power differential can develop within the JLT. If that happens, biased decisions can occur.
Recognition rather than promotion is perhaps the greater source of risk. Recognize all members of the JLT or recognize none. Promote all members of the JLT or promote none.
Risk of destructive conflict
Destructive conflict is conflict that mainly focuses not on any substantive issue, but instead on personal attacks among the participants. In JLTs, disagreements are inevitable. They can even be constructive. But personal attacks are destructive. Destructive conflict usually harms relationships among the participants, which can then threaten group productivity.
One factor that can inhibit destructive conflict is the presence of uninvolved witnesses. But in a two-person JLT, the necessity for private meetings of the two partners ensures that they will spend significant time together alone. This practice exposes them to an elevated risk of destructive conflict.
But JLTs of all sizes face elevated risk of destructive conflict. The nature of "shared primary responsibility" is in itself a source of risk, because it provides the members of the JLT with repeated opportunities to work at cross-purposes and undermine each other. Blame games can proliferate.
Joint leadership teams would do well to meet regularly with a trusted third party (such as a supervisor) who can monitor the health of their relationships.
Risk of differences in understanding and misunderstanding
When the members of the JLT disagree about an issue, the differences between or among them, in profession or background or biases, are most often an advantage of the arrangement. In diversity is strength. And as noted above, differences between the two leaders can trace to differences between the information each has about the matters at hand.
Still, resolving disagreements is more than a matter of passing information from one to the others. Because of differences in background or current information, one JLT member might understand the full import of a piece of information, while the others might not, or might understand it differently. Or all might misunderstand it, but differently. Just about anything is possible.
Sometimes the gaps between members of the JLT can't be closed until the members of the JLT can have a serious conversation. Gap-closure conversations can be easy or very difficult. And some can take time, spanning several sessions.

Last words

These risks are just examples. You might have seen some of them materialize, and you might have seen others not described here. Whenever you notice one, call attention to it. Conduct a mini-retrospective so that everyone can learn about it. It almost surely will happen again. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Tuckman's Model and Joint Leadership Teams  Next Issue

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