Sins against Synergy | Sunday Observer

Sins against Synergy

16 January, 2022

Teams are in high demand. In the worlds of sports and business alike, this is the case. We often hear the news on the actions and reactions of members of the same team paving the way for conflicts. What is so special in a team? What derails team success? Today’s column will shed light in dealing with the magical factor in teams, synergy.


Why teams? Can’t people work as individuals and achieve results? Let’s take a situation. Imagine one’s house is on fire. Father does one thing in panic, and the mother does something totally different, also in panic. The son and daughter are thoroughly confused and run around. Obviously, the house cannot be salvaged. That should be a coordinated effort. That’s why teams are essential in facing turbulence. 

Teams and groups are often interchangeably used to describe a set of people working together. In perusing through the literature of Organisational Behaviour, veterans such as Stephen Robbins and Fred Luthans have identified a group as a set of two or more people interacting and interdependent on each other in achieving a common objective. A team is one step ahead. I would simplify a team as a group with synergy.

Synergy in focus

The term synergy comes from the Greek word synergia, meaning “working together”.

Stephen Covey, in his bestseller “seven habits of highly effective people”, describes synergy as follows:

“Synergy means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It shows that the relationship, which the parts have to each other, is a part in and of itself. It is not only a part, but also the most catalytic, the most empowering, the most unifying, and the most exciting part.”

He also says that synergy is everywhere in nature. If two plants are placed close together for growth, the roots improve the quality of the soil so that both plants will grow better than if they were separated.

In short, one plus one equals three or more. The challenge is to apply the principles of creative cooperation, which we learn from nature, in our social interactions. The essence of synergy is to value differences – to respect them, to build on strengths, to compensate for weaknesses.

I have seen that most of the leading business organisations in Sri Lanka promote teamwork as a core value. It is easy to wear a t-shirt showing that one belongs to a particular team. But is team work only confined to the t-shirt? The issue is how much emphasis is paid on the concept of synergy, in consciously moving beyond a mere group of employees. This is more relevant in turbulent times where the need to cling on to each other for survival is high.

Seven sins

A team can easily decay to a state of a group. That is when synergy is absent.

How can it happen? What could be such possible contributors? I would propose to call them “sins”.  They are the acts of violating the proper way of doing things.

Let’s discuss seven such sins against synergy. They are associated with seven Cs, confusion, confrontation, contamination, convolution, compartmentalisation, collusion, and corruption.

1.  Sin of Confusion

This is all about not knowing the means to the end. Clarity of goals is one key aspect, to avoid it. There should not be any “social loafers” as Stephen Robins calls the category of people who are mere “passengers”. Every team member should do their best to make their team the best team.

The Sri Lanka cricket team which won the World Cup in 1996 is one such example. They had a clear goal. Without any confusion they went ahead. In the game of business, employees should be clear about why they do what they must do, and how best they should do it.  

A creative writer in an advertising team who has a sense of pride in his or her work with freedom to make decisions is one such example.

2. Sin of Confrontation

Conflicts are a common feature when people work together. Yet, how they successfully overcome such conflicts indicates the path to progress. When confrontation becomes the norm, the process of working together will not run smoothly to achieve results.

I have seen how egos of different team players clash in search of supremacy and dominance. Some find it difficult to give up for others to take over. The result is inevitably a losing team.  This may be true for corporate managers and public administrators alike.

3. Sin of Contamination

Teams must have what I call a T–T match. This is about tasks and talents. The right person handling the right task in the right possible manner. We can anticipate the results if Mahela becomes the opening bowler and Malinga becomes the opening batsman in our cricket team. That’s where contamination can occur.

Whether the team members have a set of specified tasks with needed autonomy to carry them out is important. For that to happen, tasks must be well designed with set goals in mind. The team members should identify themselves with the tasks and see the significance of such tasks. In a cricket team, a wicket keeper should know exactly what his role is to win a game.

4. Sin of Convolution

This occurs when a healthy mix of diverse role players are not included in the team. As we know, the five fingers of a hand are different, yet they are all parts of the same hand.

Diversity is a key factor of team effectiveness. Meredith Belbin did a fair amount of research on team roles and came up with nine team roles. Ensuring that people with appropriate personalities fit to the required tasks is essential in this respect.

Flexibility of team members in moving beyond the specialised tasks for the betterment of the team is another important aspect.  A specialised bowler of a cricket team should be a good fielder and a satisfactory batsman. That is all about flexibility. In a business setting, the ability to attend to a colleague’s duty in case of need is handy with a true sense of multi-skilling.

5. Sin of Compartmentalisation

There must be a climate of trust for team work to foster. As the old saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together”. Scientists say migrant birds fly in a ‘V’ shape formation to exert less energy, by way of thriving on higher aero-dynamic power. It is simply, trusting one another. When it is missing, people get into their narrow compartments.

Leadership plays a vital role to avoid compartmentalisation. The team leader should be able to rally the team around a common vision, and a common set of goals. Vision must be shared with the team and supported by the team. In the field of Cricket, we have seen rise and fall of teams under different leaders. The same is true for business.

6. Sin of Collusion

This is a subtle aspect where the team members overtly show support and respect to each other but not in a real sense. They might have a “back-stabbing culture” as someone described their corporate setting. You artificially smile while keeping the dragger behind and waiting for an opportunity to stab.

The key team aspect associated here is team efficacy. It is the belief of the team on its ability to achieve the desired results. In the sporting world, the losing teams lack team efficacy. The team that has a high degree of self-efficacy can turn a game from the grips of losing. We saw that happening in many one-day cricket series involving Sri Lanka. There are many instances where sales teams of local organisations with high team efficacy have beaten their multinational counterparts.

7. Sin of Corruption

This can be the most acute enemy in damaging synergy. The key factor is the use and abuse of resources. Much has been stated about such in the political scene both in east and west alike. Values are more in the breach than in the practice. Exceptions are becoming the norms. Volumes have been written on this, yet the practices continue to thrive.

True enough that a team cannot have all the resources in the world, or for that matter, all what are nice to have. Optimum level of resources is what should be aimed at. You cannot build great wall without solid bricks and mortar. Waste cutting instead of mere cost cutting is what is pragmatic. 

Success sans sins

As we saw, seven Sins can result in dire consequences. What we require instead is to sustain synergy in having team effectiveness; it will be a worthwhile exercise to assess your team about its effectiveness. You may identify the bottlenecks in one or more of these elements. Making key decisions and taking appropriate actions is the only way forward in strengthening team effectiveness. As Aristotle said a long time ago, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” This applies to team effectiveness very much.

It all should begin with the right positive attitude towards making your team a winning team.

Synergy in fact must be the mindset of team players. We need it as corporate managers and public administrators alike.  When the task demands a team approach, the need is a collective, coordinated and a committed response. As the maxim goes, Together Everyone Achieves More.