Chairman Rishi and his Team from Hell

November 3, 2022

Watching the decisions coming from Rishi Sunak’s team in its first weeks, reminds me very much of student teams I have come across, struggling to make sense of the problems they are facing.

The theory of team development still taught to students is one associated with a model developed by the American psychologist Bruce Tuckman, over sixty years ago.  It describes a series of stages assumed to be found in teams of all sorts of purpose.   After an initial formation stage, team members experience an uncomfortable period of accommodation with each other. That’s where Team Rushi seems to be after a few weeks of its existence. From the outside, decisions criticised as U-turns are suspiciously frequent and rapid.

The same could be said of the short-lived team that was Liz Truss’s cabinet, which did not last long enough the get beyond the storm stage.

According to this theory, storming leads to personal adjustments which result eventually in stable norms of behaviour,  when the team starts to perform effectively, without self-destructive or dysfunctional behaviours. 

However, there is a twist to the story. The work with student teams I mentioned earlier, suggested a refinement to the Tuckman model. What happened if a team was unable to escape from the storming stage? Ever?

Teams from Hell

Once the question was asked, the answer becomes clear.  Some teams all working on the same task never escaped the conflict-loaded storm stage. We described these as Teams from Hell

Further work on a large number of business teams confirmed our suspicions. Over time, we collected results from hundreds of teams with over a thousand managers in them. They came from all sorts of work settings, and from different countries around the world.

Based on these experiences, I suggest that tat very least, the Truss experience might have come from a Team from Hell. Informed reports ‘close to those involved’ suggest that there had never been adequate discussion of decisions within the team. Eventually, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng, became the fall-guy and left, closely followed by total collapse of the cabinet and resignation of the Prime Minister.

The signals of disarray coming from Team Sunak are showing disturbing similarities to the replaced Team Truss. A new team member, Suella Braverman arrives with a lot of reputational baggage. The decision to re-appoint her after being removed from Team Truss and her subsequent performance dealing with her brief have both attracted news headlines. She poses difficulties for her new team leader if she remains, or if she suffers the indignity of a second removal from a senior ministerial post.

The evidence may be tenuous, but it seems to point to a dysfunctional team, struggling to demonstrate its competence in its earliest weeks of action. 

The evidence is only that the period of storming is influenced by the tasks the team has been constituted to carry out.

The critical question

However, the critical question remains. Are we now watching a Team from Hell, with a possibility of its further clumsy treatment of the daunting task of, well, running the country? Before self-destructing?

Comments welcomed, particularly from anyone who can relate to the sort of teams I have been describing.