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Go team!

Tension between the elected versus the pros is universal. 6/8 Future Shoes hed: Go team! dek: Tension between the elected versus the pros is universal. by Michael Finley

I received an interesting letter from an English university this week:

I am one of many managers of student unions here in the UK. Our problem is that we frequently have conflicts with student-elected boards and officers. Whereas we are trained and experienced in the management of the unions, the elected students may have good ideas but be very unaware of the everyday realities of running a union.

Technically, these students have the say over how the organisation is run, but the reality is that us managers with our years of cynical opinions really make the decisions and run the place. Quite often clashes occur when a 21 year old, elected titular head of a multimillion-pound organisation, and technically the employer of over 400 staff, believes he is actually the manager of it.

And, vice-versa: sometimes a manager believes that, because he has all the experience, the elected officer has no right to throw his weight around. It is fascinating to watch the annual cycle each year, but hardly a lesson in efficiency or teamwork.
-J.C., Bournemouth University

I’ve been observing the same dynamics here, at the electoral level. A city councilperson is elected and promptly undoes all the work of not only his predecessor, but (more importantly, from the standpoint of teamwork) also of the civil service staff that he must continue to work with. From the staff’s perspective, the politician is overstepping his bounds; from the politician’s perspective, the staff may be the enemy–the very bureaucrats he was voted in to thwart.

What a tormented way to form a team! It violates all the canons of teamwork: that a team requires consensus on who is in charge, and clarity on what the goals of the team are. Politicians plus career staffers are almost inevitably an adversarial combination.

My gut reaction is to side with staff. They are the ones who have to live with the mess that revolving-door politicians create. They are the professionals. They know what they are doing. But it is important to remember why we have elected officials. They provide a counterbalance when the professionalism of the staff draws them too far afield of the public weal. We saw this in Minnesota in the past year, when a local politician challenged the freeway metering system, which to many people seemed excessive, causing unnecessary delays. (Minneapolis/Saint Paul for some reason has the most meters of any American metro area.)

The traffic team was aghast that its professionalism was called into question, but they swallowed their pride and allowed a lengthy independent study of metering patterns to take place. The findings of the study were that both sides were right: Yes, there was too much metering, but also, some degree of metering is better than no metering at all.

Democracy can be the enemy of team success when it so burdens the process that decisions become impossible. Every single action cannot be voted on. But a team without some degree of democracy–a team whose members’ opinions don’t count–is no team at all.

I suspect we are stuck with the promise of future tension. My suggestion is that staff members and elected managers need to concede that they are a team. They do work together with a common mission, each person contributing unique expertise. Once you agree you are a team, a big chunk of the equation falls into place: the need to consult, the need to flush out and address dissenting views, and the need to maintain a healthy degree of comity and respect.

The alternative dynamic, a blame-a-thon between whining civil servants and chest-thumping politicians, is too unpleasant to contemplate.

Mike Finley is co-author of “The New Why Teams Don’t Work,” from Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

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