Up until last week, it seems, those of us who had thought about Theresa May and her public image had assumed her cabinet and team working skills were polished and efficient with a little personal fun; aligned to her media image and choice of shoes. However, as the media coverage has shown us this week, this was very far from the everyday truth. Theresa’s team working skills are far more ordinary and akin to those teams we have all been unfortunate to be part of.
Have you ever been to a daily meeting where the atmosphere would be great if someone was absent? What is it about the presence or absence of someone that influences the performance of a group?
Katie Perrior, Theresa May’s former director of communications, commented that in meetings “Most of the time we would sit there and hear Fiona Hill come up with ideas that were quite frankly crazy and we’d say nothing. But when they weren’t in the room it was a much better free flowing conversation.” – How might group dynamics help us to understand this phenomenon of experienced and talented political professionals whose chosen way of working is through “speaking”, feel unable to speak out in their own team meeting?
Power is clearly at play here; rather than a high performing team where individual contributions are welcomed, diversity of opinion, and decision making. Here we seem to have the opposite situation with an autocratic telling style.
Have you ever stayed through a meeting where you did not voice concern about ideas that were unconvincing for you or worse of concern to you? This appears to have been the norm at the daily 8:30 AM Operation meetings at Theresa May’s Number 10 office.
The media and public seem surprised to hear that Theresa May and her teams are not above this dysfunctional team behaviour and yet, in our work we regularly hear of individuals refraining from or withholding their truth during a meeting, sometimes regretting it afterwards.
What determines whether individuals feel confident or powerful enough to ‘speak their truth’ or raise a concern? Why is it they couldn’t say the ideas were crazy? Is it personality, team dynamics or culture?
Why might people not speak up or challenge the status quo at a meeting? Typical reasons usually fall into one of the following categories:
- Not wanting to look stupid or unpopular
- Wanting to remain in solidarity with the majority
- Fear of jeopardizing future potential for personal reward or gain
- To be liked
- To stick to the rules to stay safe
And in this case where the powerful few run the meetings; it seems to be a team that had just three contributors, Theresa May, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy.
With great regularity, we find that it is a combination of personalities and culture of the organisation that determines how the group functions. Invisible ‘system forces’ get set up from how the structure and distribution of roles, authority and hierarchy in groups are established. As such if this style of meeting is culturally normal; then sensible, intelligent people stay quiet when they have something to say. Because they want to belong to the organisation, and speaking out might jeopardise this. This is often an unspoken rule in organisations, one that everyone gets, but doesn’t talk about.
Group dynamics are complex and can explain why we choose not to act; however, in a government we are asking to work on such grave matters as our exit from the European Union, we would hope for high performing teams where contributions are made from all and where robust conversations lead to decisions and actions that are supported. Additionally, the meeting process would be reviewed every once in a while; where Katie and her colleagues could have said “I experience your ideas as mostly crazy” and have not faced anything more than a curiosity from Fiona Hill.
With regard to the operation meetings at No 10 there’s a sense that the Prime Minister’s co-chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill had tight control and everyone else, including senior cabinet ministers, were frozen out. Katie Perrior, told Radio 4’s Today that the atmosphere in the meetings would be “great” if Timothy and Hill weren’t there and “terrible” if they were.
To utter that the atmosphere was “terrible” suggests beyond inefficiency in the team; and ways of working that are ultimately unsustainable. This was evidenced in the resignation of these two politicians. The roles in which they had been making the rest of the team feel “terrible”; unable to contain their pain from the rest of the team or to lead effectively under the premiership of Theresa May.
However, Katie and her colleagues also chose not to speak out and as such, in staying silent, supported the status quo of “terrible meetings”. They had the opportunity to disrupt this pattern, but chose not to. How often have we chosen not to speak out, to sit through endless meetings, only to do the work outside the meeting?
Broadcaster, Justin Webb asked Katie Perrior, “Was Theresa May unable to understand why that kind of performance doesn’t work? Perrior’s response alluded to hiring in her own image and not appointing for skills that compensate for her own weaknesses; another key skill in building a high performing team is owning your weaknesses and building a team that compliments.
It is unfair for all responsibility for the meeting culture described at No 10 to rest with Theresa May since all members of the meeting contribute to the dynamic created there, including Katie Perrior, who later decided her face didn’t fit. The lesson here could be to understand what it would take for the team to stand up to the barriers to them working as a high performing team.
Reference: BBC Radio 4’s Today