There’s no room for ego driven Machiavellians in your startup team

One of the key drivers of an effective startup is the alignment, collaboration and shared values of the team. There is no room for slackers, know-it-alls, passengers, backstabbers or Machiavellian egos. But what happens when the behaviour of one individual puts themselves and their personal interests above the business and team?

We all know the damage and acrimony they can cause to a team’s morale and reputation, but how do you repair and recover from the destructive action of such an individual? Boris Johnson is a good example of such a renegade. He’s always stood outside from his collective responsibility, even at the top table in Government as Foreign Secretary. With his cultivated air of toffish buffoonery, he was a man out of time and place with C21st team oriented culture.

Last week he saved us further damage from his grotesque incompetence, showing flagrant disregard for cabinet collective responsibility and exposing himself as a self-serving charlatan, making even his resignation a set piece of rhetorical bombast for the British public.

A man of remarkable gifts, flawed by an absence of conscience or scruple, his ambition and superficial charm far outstrip his judgment or principles. Characterised by a calculated appeal his own self-worth, he will always be remembered as the man who made promises on the side of a bus that he had no intention of keeping. The casual dishonesty has had devastating consequences.

His resignation serves as a perfect metaphor for the tragedy and hypocrisy of Brexit, leaving the Government and its strategy up the proverbial creek, a recklessness that looks like courage in the eyes of his supporters, but which destabilises and sabotages the work of policy making and diplomacy.

Johnson has a long-proven record of mendacity, duplicity, dishonesty and careerism – he merely saw another opening in his Ophidian career and took it, never knowingly taking a leap into the abyss. Just as a fragile basis for Brexit negotiation emerges, his selfish drive for attention threatens that.

So how do you counter this sort of behaviour if it was to happen in your startup team? Say your maverick sales leader, always temperamental and prone to doing their own thing and frequently at loggerheads with you, storms out over a spat over pricing on a sizeable deal – the final act of a dysfunctional relationship, claiming a ‘disagreement over strategy’ yet in reality, the intimacy of a startup required more humility and collegiate thinking.

It creates unrest and destabilises the team – just like the Government, a bunch of people who are individually all smart and competent, but somehow as a team just aren’t together. So why is it that things come off the rails? The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational politics and team failure, and identified five dysfunctions of teams:

  • Absence of trust: an individual is unwilling to be vulnerable within the group, and creates a sense of self-imposed isolation from the team
  • Fear of conflict: seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate, ultimately is not bought into the team based decision making process or outcomes
  • Lack of commitment: feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organisation – everyone knows it, but it remains unspoken, thus creating discord and fractured trust
  • Avoidance of accountability: ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behaviour, which sets low standards – again, looking to protect their own position and not sit alongside colleagues
  • Inattention to results: focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

Recognise these traits? So how do you regroup and reunite the team when a rebel causes such a self-destructive explosion? For me, whilst it’s the individuals operating with different mindsets within the team that causes the dysfunctional schisms, the place to start is with results.

Talk to your team about the results that they need to be getting that it isn’t getting, removing discussion about the disruptor, and you develop agreement among the team on the outcomes, which is what a team is all about – working together to achieve something. And then you get to ask the question, what’s happening in our team that prevents us from getting the results that we all believe we need? You need to instigate a transparent dialogue on performance.

So, you start to work backward, and from results you go to the question of behaviours: how are we acting in a way that is preventing us from getting the results we need and the work relationships we need? You start to identify the behaviours that are associated with an ineffective mindset.

Then you work backward one more step, which is to help the team identify how the mindset that they’re operating from is generating these behaviours which is getting them the results different from the results we’ve agreed we all want. So it’s a two or three step process, but it starts with the results.

Leaders are generally better at being transparent than they are curious in terms of looking to address these mindset issues, better at sharing their point of view than expressing curiosity about how other people think about the situation, or what they think about what the point of view is that they’ve just expressed.

The reason that it’s so important to ask questions is that’s the way in which you begin to surface what is on everyone’s minds, helping shape and opening up the new team culture as to what their concerns and motivations are. If you don’t do that, you’re just guessing that what you have in your head about your team is right, and if you plan a strategy based on that, it’s very easy to be off the mark and for your strategy to fail.

Part of being transparent is sharing what you’re thinking, and sharing how you got there, essentially, making your private reasoning public so people can share their reasoning with you and react to yours. Having removed a poisonous ego from the team, don’t replace that ego with yours. Leadership is about helping the team identify where they need to go to next, not imposing your own solution.

Having started an open dialogue to repair the broken culture, you are on the way to reestablishing trust in the organisation. Trust is everything, it is the bedrock when building a high performing startup team. Trust is the knowledge that people can be trusted to do the right thing when things go wrong.

Creating a culture where bravado is absent builds a continuous self-appraisal and peer review of how things are being done, and is a powerful way to increase accountability that will drive performance and trust. As the leader you want to get the balance right – you are taking charge without taking over, giving a sense of purpose. There are some specific actions to accelerate the recovery into your startup, such that the walk out of a big ego is soon forgotten.

1. Set the vision, and establish milestones to achieving the vision As leader, it’s down to you to set the goal for the group. It doesn’t have to be a vision with a capital ‘V’, just paint a picture of what you want to accomplish over the next few years.

You don’t want you’re team saying what the heck are we doing? Where is this leading us? The vision also needs milestones. People want to know how they’re doing in relation to their goal. Milestones let you tell them.

2. Agree on ‘rules of the road’ Basically, how are we going to run his business now we’ve got the bad egg out of the way? Try out new ways of talking and listening, routines and styles. Refresh to remove the old chunky ways of working, put some personal freedom of voices, choices and space into the working environment and set a new rhythm, whilst also focusing on the results everyone has signed up to deliver.

3. Build new structures and processes that enable creative collaboration When attempting to carve new realities, explicitly encourage your startup team to start experimenting again with different thoughts, relationships, and actions in order to learn what happens and what works. The emphasis is less on getting things right the first time and more on being attentive to feedback, adjusting, and trying again. Put learning back into the heart of the business agenda.

4. Think of your work as a craft, not an assembly line Maybe things had got tense and too serious, and the pressure valve opened up as a result of pent up anxiety. In describing China’s transition toward a socialist market economy, former Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping used an evocative image of discovering, rather than planning and solidifying everything before starting: We are crossing the river by feeling for stones.

This is a lovely analogy of thinking about progress, so maybe take a step back and refocus more on creativity and innovation than simply ‘getting stuff done’ and scaling.

5. Sense and respond In a startup it’s important to ‘feel the pulse’, being in touch with everyone to have a sense for the hidden and silent things. Schedule regular informal face time with each of your team, don’t underestimate the importance of ‘checking in’. When it doesn’t happen, you can see the team start to gradually drift into their own quiet corners.

In a startup team there is a high degree of flux at any moment in time. There is no paradigm, no precedent, there is nothing. You have to carve it. To carve a new world means to bring forth something new by patiently and gradually working, with a sensitive hands-on connection, with the particular reality in front of you. It means the opposite of imposing a fully formed idea of what you think must be. Don’t lead the metaphorical charge, lead the thinking.

When we collaborate, by sharing ideas we strengthen relationships, joined up thinking creates momentum and a sense of purpose. Working together, we achieve so much more. Losing a Machiavellian personality, no matter how selfish and destructive they are, will cause immediate challenges and uncertainty, but in reality, many like Boris Johnson are energy sappers, not energisers to the team. But you can recover, and move forward.

Everyone matters in a startup. If you’ve got a Boris Johnson in yours, just reflect on their real impact on results, morale and teamship. Read the signals above the noise. Remove the egos. For Boris, what passed for disarming eccentricity was ultimately exposed as cringemaking incompetence. Long ago, it became that the veneer of faux levity and badinage encased no hidden depth in a constant night of the long knives. His ego saw himself in Churchillian terms, whereas for me, I cast him as a character for a remake of Blackadder, in a blond wig.

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