If today's Mail on Sunday is to be believed, tensions have surfaced in the relationship between the two co-creators and presenters of award-winning BBC comedy Little Britain. Allegedly, Matt Lucas and David Walliams have disagreed on the future direction that the show should take and on how their partnership should develop. These disagreements have, the paper claims, extended to the question of who should be credited with the show's success.
Whether or not there is any truth in the specifics of this story is not the issue here. What this story highlights, though, is the paradoxical nature of all team-based relationships, which most conventional discussions of the subject ignore.
The paradox of teams
When splits arise in successful, high profile teams, the only surprise is that people continue to be surprised by it! The very dynamics that enable team members to collaborate and excel are the same as those that can cause them to split apart and fail.
One of the well-worn clichés of the team-development community is that there is no 'I' in team. The intended message to team members is that they need to suppress their egos and individuality if the team is to function at its best. On the contrary, the most successful teams are those in which individual excellence combines to produce collective success. When teams succeed, they do so because of the individual differences and idiosyncrasies of team members, not in spite of them. These differences provide both the potential for the team to achieve extraordinarily performance and, at the same time, the means for undermining that performance. The ultimate challenge for all teams is to ensure that the inevitable conflicts and tensions that these differences in perspective, ambition and contribution spawn are managed productively rather than destructively.
The value of difference
Too often, so-called team building efforts and related development programmes seek to eliminate difference and contention. Consultants advocate moving to the seemingly higher ground provided by consensual decision-making, identikit behaviours and 'we're in it together' camaraderie. Unfortunately, this more rarified atmosphere starves the team of the 'oxygen' it needs to stay 'alive' and at the cutting edge of performance. The emphasis instead should be on surfacing and celebrating the differences and tensions that exist within the team, not denying their existence or trying to eliminate them. Recognising and embracing difference is vital, if a coalition of co-operative effort is to be built around high-performance outcomes that resonate with a broad constituency of people. A colleague of mine refers to the required dynamic as one of "healthy competition."
Lucas and Walliams work successfully together precisely because they are different. They have diverse personalities, they aren't afraid to disagree with each other, no doubt they each behave in ways that sometimes grate with the other, and they might even express their dislike for each other from time to time. Handled constructively, in the spirit of healthy competition, these are just the characteristics needed to ensure that their shared objective of producing leading-edge comedy continues to thrive. Their combined success means that there will inevitably be a clamour for them to pursue other projects, many of them alone or with others rather than together. These solo adventures can either be used as a source of new learning, to 'raise the bar' for Little Britain and enrich its successor programmes, or else they can lead to polarisation of perspectives and a split in the relationship.
Although the effects of polarisation in a two-party team are more immediately visible, this potential for positions to polarise and sub-groups to emerge is at play in all team-based relationships. In the context of multi-member teams, embracing paradox and making it liveable for staff is therefore a critical component of effective team leadership.