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The Dark Side of Teams 

dark side of teams
Seven lessons businesses can learn from the downfall of Lance Armstrong.

Teams are more than the sum of their parts. Yet when the “dark side” is allowed to flourish — as in the case of Lance Armstrong — great harm can result. “The team is more powerful than the individual,” says Bruce Piasecki, the author of the soon to be released Doing More with Teams: The New Way to Winning. “Teams expand the human experience. Teams extend our wings in practical, pragmatic, and measurable ways,” Piasecki says. “People who would not normally be able to succeed alone — the planners, the doers, those who lack the internal spark to market themselves — can reap the benefits of success in the context of teams.

“Yet many teams have a dark side,” he continues. “When these darker impulses are allowed to eclipse the joyful transcendence that teamwork can bring, great harm can result. Evil deeds flourish. People get hurt. Lance Armstrong is just one very dramatic and very visible example of what can go wrong with teams.”

In his book, Piasecki has much to say about Lance Armstrong, one of the most celebrated cyclists of all time. In January, Armstrong admitted in a TV interview with Oprah Winfrey to doping, using blood transfusions and more. In his book, Piasecki notes a report published in 2012 by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency where 26 competitors (including a deliberate mix of direct teammates and key opposing team riders) verified the doping claims. In particular, 11 world-class teammates from the Lance Armstrong teams documented how all the doping was centered around and for Armstrong.

Similar dynamics play out in the business world every day. And when teams are well constructed with the right mix of talents and personalities — and well governed by leaders who recognize the most important capabilities in their people and facilitate them for the good of all — companies achieve, grow and prosper. Yet when the “dark side” takes over, we see Enrons, WorldComs, Madoffs … and yes, Armstrongs.

Listed below are seven lessons business leaders can learn from the Lance Armstrong saga:

*Fierce individualism has no place in teams. Just the fact that we think of Lance Armstrong’s teams as “Lance Armstrong’s teams” speaks volumes. It was as if Armstrong’s entire team (Team RadioShack being the most recent) was there only for him. When we pin all of our hopes on an individual, we are doomed to be disappointed. This is because youth and ability have a way of fading over time. Youthful arrogance, due to its fleeting nature, is no foundation on which to build a future.

“As leaders, we need to be sure that ‘the MVP syndrome’ is not allowed to define our teams,” Piasecki stresses. “Be always on the alert for individuals who might be losing sight of the team that gave them an identity — the group with whom they worked to produce the fame for which they are now known. It is in such situations that workplace ills such as favoritism, sexism, and even criminal activity like embezzlement tend to flourish.”

Piasecki says companies should seek to hire ‘coachable’ individuals rather than individualist-minded high performers. Do everything possible to promote and reward teamwork rather than individualism,” he says.

*MVPs must not be allowed to dictate to or pressure teammates. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report made it clear that Armstrong was driving the doping culture of his team. It stated, “It was not enough that his teammates give maximum effort on the bike; he also required that they adhere to a doping program outlined for them or be replaced.”

“Here’s what I know: You cannot do more with teams in an atmosphere of intimidation, deception, and contract pressures,” Piasecki states. “You cannot ride into victory more than average with that much weight of secrecy on your mind. You cannot make friends victims as you claim victory. This all goes against the magic of teams.”

*We must be careful not to give victors the benefit of the doubt. In all teams there is an inherent desire to protect our superstars and keep them winning. Armstrong was able to perpetrate his deceptions thanks to, as the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency report states, “the help of a small army of enablers, including doping doctors, drug smugglers, and others within and outside the sport and on his own team.”

“We are all aware of conditions when everyone else was willing to go along with a wrong,” Piasecki points out. “We recall instances in recent history where the politics of fear enabled the Nazis, and where embezzlement seems the norm. Yet it is harder to see when victory shines so bright. Leaders must be mindful of this very human tendency, in themselves and in others, to look the other way, to give our victors the benefit of the doubt. We must be vigilant and ever alert to wrongdoing

*Ceaseless victory is a fantasy. Teams must keep a healthy sense of perspective. Armstrong became a larger-than-life figure because he kept winning races. (Indeed, he won his race against his most formidable foe, cancer.) He was addicted to victory—felt entitled to it, even — and this is what drove him to drive his team to illicit extremes. In the end it was this addiction (to ceaseless victory, not to drugs) that became his undoing.

Piasecki posits that once we’ve accepted that defeat is a part of the journey, there is great fun — yes, fun — in knowing that we will stumble and fall from time to time, yet get up, and try again, with some success.

“The great CEOs, the well-compensated doctors, the best in hospital administrators, and the legendary leaders of colleges are not people known to expect ceaseless victory,” Piasecki says. “They are great competitors because they come to accept that we cannot always win.” Indeed, only through loss can we grow and improve.

*Great teams revel in the pleasure of persistence and the sheer thrill of striving. Presumably, Lance Armstrong and his teams could be satisfied only with an unbroken string of victories. But where else is satisfaction to be found? Piasecki posits that once we’ve accepted that defeat is a part of the journey, there is great fun — yes, fun — in knowing that we will stumble and fall from time to time, yet get up, and try again, with some success.

Piasecki insists that it’s critical to teach teams to be well prepared for assignments and to keep going in spite of hardship. He shares, “When my company enrolls an executive in leadership training, we emphasize the following lessons of teamwork:

  • How to play through pain
  • How to resist the criminal opportunities inherent in becoming an MVP
  • How to keep your feet on the ground despite being a member of special teams with special force
  • How to outlive uncomfortable appointments, such as when your boss has selected you for teams that are a bad fit, and  how to behave when you are chosen for teams you do not want to play on


* What makes teams successful is a sense of commonality, shared values, integrity, and a commitment to one another. In preparing for a team event or in becoming a member of a team, a transformation occurs where team members end their individual associations and create a team identity through sharing with others the experience of that process. Once the team is created, a strong bond is already in place from that preparation, from the obstacles everyone had to overcome to get there.

“We have many ways to create bonding experiences in business,” Piasecki says. “There is nothing wrong with off-site team-building events or weekly social gatherings — the more people are together the better they get to know each other — but there is no substitute for ‘real-world’ work. For example, bring people together often so they can share their progress and brainstorm ideas.

*The right captains can help us build teams strong enough to withstand the dark side. Here, of course, in the choosing and nurturing of captains, is where all of the lessons coalesce. It takes a certain type of leader to create not just a loose affiliation of fierce individualists but a true team. A captain is someone who can rapidly recognize the key capabilities of their team members. They are able to see the capacity for harm and evil and quickly disarm it. On the other hand, captains recognize the capacity for generosity and quickly put it to use in building up other team members and generating momentum. In this way they build teams that balance the negatives in each member, making a stronger and better core.

“Invest in your captains,” Piasecki concludes. “Choose them well and use them wisely. Give them authority to align and make accountable those capable of evil, harm, and generosity. They will bring the results and the profits you are looking for — and along the way they will empower your people to extend their wings and soar in the magic that only teams can generate.”

Dr. Bruce Piasecki is the author of Doing More with Teams: The New Way to Winning, which will be available in March. He is also the president and founder of AHC Group, Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in energy, materials, and environmental corporate matters. Learn more at www.brucepiasecki.com and www.ahcgroup.com.

Illustration by renjith krishnan  at Free Digital Photos.net

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