Consulting to Leaders and Teams

by Angus Strachan, Ph.D.

Published in the Los Angeles Psychologist, March/April 2000 Issue

Jim had had a very successful career, first as a brilliant engineer (he helped design the control systems to put the first man on the moon), then as a manager of large engineering projects, then department-head and finally as general manager of a division of two thousand engineers.

Unfortunately, he faced a dilemma: two of his department heads were not working together effectively. In fact, they were sparring and their respective departments were ‘stove-piped’ (not collaborating). This problem was causing severe difficulties because they shared a major customer in common. This dilemma was complicated further because Jim had grown up in the company with these two men as peers and they had been friends for twenty years.

How can a psychological consultant conceptualize this problem and develop a strategy to intervene? Is this a leadership issue or a team issue? What do we know about the features of effective leaders and teams?

Qualities of effective leaders:

Traditional thinking in organizations emphasized individual qualities of the leader such as assertiveness, creativity and decision-making. More recent thinking emphasizes the tone that the leader sets for the company and how he or she influences others in the top team and throughout the organization. In this new paradigm, the central tasks of the leader are:

  1. To define clearly the vision of the company and to articulate this vision frequently and cogently, and
  2. To choose great people and then encourage, support and coach them to be successful.

Warren Bennis (1989), who has studied leadership extensively, emphasizes that leaders also need to ‘know themselves’: to be effective, they need to be able to monitor and manage their internal states. My experience as a consultant echoes this: as people reach higher positions in organizations, their personal qualities become far more important than their technical skills or knowledge. In particular, their interpersonal skills become crucial: how well can they respond to others and influence others? As psychologists, we know that our interpersonal abilities are enhanced by our intrapersonal abilities - how well we can perceive and manage our own perceptions and emotions. These concepts have been put together in the work on ‘emotional intelligence’ stimulated by Goleman (1995).

Qualities of effective teams:

What do we know about effective teams? There are three main areas which contribute - the quality of group process, the characteristics of team members, and the nature of the task.

1. Group process variables: Early small group research gave us a vocabulary for understanding group process - ‘norms’, ‘roles’, etc. (Cartright and Zander, 1960). These concepts have had a major influence in improving team process. For example, Blake and Mouton (1985) with their concept of the Managerial Grid outline these crucial areas for effective team functioning:

  • Initiative - individuals vigorously making things happen
  • Inquiry - listening and probing skills
  • Advocacy - cogently putting over ones own point of view
  • Decision making - planning with involvement, and
  • Critique - giving feedback to individuals and the team.

Team-building frequently involves coaching teams to improve their abilities in these areas. For example, Hewlett Packard recently improved the effectiveness of their operations through a major initiative to improve the conflict-resolution skills of their workforce.

2. Team member personality: Research has also been done on the characteristics of effective team members. The most useful research has focused on the mix of personality characteristics in a team. Belbin’s work (1985) describes a variety of crucial team-roles including coordinating roles, implementing roles, strategic roles and interpersonal roles. An effective leader therefore is one who has an effective mix of complementary personalities in his or her team.

3. Aspects of the task: Finally, the excellent work of Katzenbach & Smith (1994) emphasizes that successful teams have a clear and compelling goal for the team: a goal which the team as a whole can strive for; a goal which forces the team to confront differences; and, a goal that compels them to use individual’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses.

So, how could these concepts help Jim? We had already got a clear picture of how Jim operated with his management team through a 360-degree feedback process I had conducted with his team in conjunction with personality questionnaires. From this, he had learned that his strength was as a strategic decision-maker, sorting the wheat from the chaff among the ideas which bubbled up from his imaginative staff; he also understood that his main weakness was his avoiding confronting people directly about their shortcomings. We discussed the mission-critical importance of solving this problem and devised a multi-staged strategy.

Jim knew that he had to use all his leadership abilities to confront his two department heads directly and to involve his top management team in solving the problem. The first step was to meet with each manager separately to give them feedback: Jim started these meetings by disclosing his internal conflict between his duty as a boss and as a friend which smoothed the path to a frank discussion of how each contributed to the problem. In the second step, we met with both managers together. In the final third step, we held an off-site retreat with the senior management team to consider the broader problem of the structural conflict inherent in the way the organization was organized. We discussed how to re-organize relationships so that the two departments were working towards a common goal.

Although this process was uncomfortable for Jim at first, he was very gratified that it led to a successful outcome. The two departments and their heads began to work together much more collaboratively from then on. This example illustrates how concepts about leadership and teams are both useful in solving problems in organizations.

Angus Strachan is a clinical and organizational psychologist in Santa Monica, California. He specializes in resolving conflict in the workplace and in families. He consults with leaders, teams, partnerships and family businesses.


Belbin, R.M. (1985). Management teams. London: Heinemann.
Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Blake, R.R. & Mouton, J.S. (1985). The managerial grid III. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.
Cartwright, D., & Zander, A. (Eds.). Group dynamics. Chicago, IL: Row, Peterson.
Goleman, D. (1985). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
Katzenbach, J.R. & Smith, D.K. (1994). The wisdom of teams. New York: Harper-Collins.