Can Synergy Be Negative?

Yes!! And How to Avoid It!

The almost universal move toward more teaming inside organizations is based on a simple, even self-evident premise: several minds working on a problem together are better than one. In addition, everyone starts out initially intending to create teams with synergy: where the cooperative actions of team members produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of what the team members could do by working individually. This implies that what one person does stimulates others to do even more, and to do it more wisely than they could ever have invented or motivated themselves to do on their own.

NEGATIVE SYNERGY All who’ve been members of teams have had the experience of teams that didn’t work. Since the widely used term “dysfunctional” is too general and covers such a multitude of team problems, we offer a simpler concept: “Negative Synergy.” This is a case where the cooperative action of the team members produces a total effect that is less than what the team members could have produced if they worked individually, as recently demonstrated by a multi-disciplinary, multi-national team responsible for a project that would affect the yearly revenues of many countries. A team for 9 months, they had never met in person; they made progress, but slowly. Assigned a new team leader with no cross-national experience and with little understanding of the overall nature of the task, they were given four days face-to-face. The team leader’s insecurity soon engaged with the insecurities of the other members, and his need to control soon clashed with the experienced members representing specific disciplines. Within two days, the entire team was caught in negative synergy and remained there the entire time. Upon parting, all reverted to what they had individually been doing previously. The new pattern of negative synergy which had been established continued to prevent effective action until the team was reformed with an experienced team leader.

How can you tell if a team is creating negative synergy? In a way, every team effort starts out at a deficit—or in negative synergy. The time spent in team meetings and “learning to be a team” is important but not accomplishing deliverables. At executive levels, the cost of a single management team meeting can be thousands of dollars. The resulting deliverables must be improved enough to more than make up for the time and productivity invested in meetings. If teams are not producing increased clarity and significantly increased efficiency (everyone working smarter) so that the resultant work overcomes the cost deficit, the investment in teaming may be a net drain. A company would be better off without it.

We suspect that most teams know when negative synergy is occuring. They know when team meetings are poorly planned and run, when discussions about problems are endless and circular instead of inspiring and productive, and when long-established positions prevent open-minded consideration of what to do next, or differently, to eliminate a problem. But most team members collude in avoiding the confrontations and changes required to make meetings have positive synergy. Jerry Harvey’s book, the Abilene Paradox, examines such collusion.

For our purposes, we’d like people to begin to use the concept of “negative synergy” in examining all team functions in their organizations. Calculate what a meeting costs per hour, demand a results ratio that produces a return on investment of several times the cost for any meeting, and insist that every team member be held accountable for not colluding in allowing negative synergy to continue.