Guardians of Disunity

Guardians of the Galaxy 2  features the obligatory chase scene through an asteroid belt. This seems to be a Thing in science fiction movies: Han Solo was almost eaten by a giant space worm flying through an asteroid belt to avoid Imperial ships in The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek did a version of it in Wrath of Khan (okay, it was a nebula, but oddly enough there were asteroids bumping the ship), and so on. In this particular version of the classic asteroid chase scene, our heroes, while trying to avoid getting blown out of space by their pursuers, are also busy fighting over who should be controlling their ship. This does make the Guardians version of the chase just a bit different from the usual. Normally, when confronted by an outside threat, particularly one trying to blow you out of space, teams pull together instead of pulling the controls in different directions. The resulting disaster is both predictable and comical.

Using an outside threat to unify a team is hardly new. Organizations have been doing it for a very long time: sometimes the outside threat is another company, sometimes it’s competition with another department, sometimes it’s just the threat of failing to meet a deadline. No matter which option is used, the results are fairly similar: if the team believes the threat, they put their differences aside and work together. Well, sort of.

When a team faces an outside threat, quite frequently the size of the threat makes the team’s own internal disagreements seem small and unimportant by comparison. This may then cause the members of the team to cooperate instead of arguing with each other. Of course, the disagreements haven’t actually been addressed nor have they magically gone away. They’re still there, waiting to spring back to life like the killer robot in Terminator. If the outside threat weakens, or the team just doesn’t take it seriously, the internal disagreements come roaring back with a vengeance. This can leave the team worse off than it was before.

What if the team does believe the threat? Well, that is still something of a mixed blessing. The good news is that the team may well hold together for a while, sometimes long enough to get the job done. If the external threat is an impending deadline, though, what will often happen is that the team will become so focused on avoiding conflict that they keep failing to hit the deadline. Not hitting the deadline becomes a way to keep conflict at bay: when the team does eventually deliver, then they’ll have to address all those long-simmering issues. Handled properly, experiencing some success may enable the team to do just that.

However, there are some other side-effects to using external threats to hold a team together: team members become less willing to argue with one another about anything, and, hence, are less creative. The conformity encouraged by the outside threat can easily get out of hand. Team members become so unwilling to argue that they start making nonsensical or stupid decisions. This rarely ends well. Even when the team doesn’t go down the full groupthink highway, their decision-making and inventiveness still suffer compared to teams that are unified through inspirational leadership. And, at some point, those disagreements still need to be addressed.

As a way of unifying teams, outside threats have their drawbacks. Getting hit by an asteroid may well be the least of them.

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