The nut island effect explained

The Nut Island Effect begins with a homogeneous, deeply committed team working in isolation that can be physical, psychological, or both. Pitted against this team are its senior supervisors, who are usually separated from the team by several layers of management. In the first stage of the Nut Island Effect, senior management, preoccupied with high-visibility problems, assigns the team a vital but behind-the-scenes task. This is a crucial feature: The team carries out its task far from the eye of the public or customers. Allowed a great deal of autonomy, team members become adept at organising and managing themselves, and the unit develops a proud and distinct identity. In the second stage, senior management begins to take the team’s self-sufficiency for granted and ignores team members when they ask for help or try to warn of impending trouble. Management’s apparent indifference breeds resentment in the team members, reinforces its isolation, and heightens its sense of itself as a band of heroic outcasts. In the third stage, an us-against-the-world mentality takes hold among team members. They make it a priority to stay out of management’s line of site, which leads them to deny or minimise problems and avoid asking for help.

The isolation leads to the fourth stage of the conflict. With no external input on practices and operating guidelines, the team begins to make up its own rules. The team tells itself that the rules enable it to fulfil its mission. In fact, these rules mask the deterioration of the team’s working environment and deficiencies in the teams’ performance. In the fifth stage, both the team and senior management form distorted pictures of reality that are very difficult to correct. Team members come to believe they are the only ones who really understand their work. They lose their ears when well-meaning outsiders attempt to point out problems. Management tells itself that no news is good news and continues to ignore the team and its task. Only some kind of external event can break this stalemate. Perhaps management disbands the team or pulls the plug on its project. Perhaps a crisis forces the team to ask for help and snaps management out of its complacency. Even then, team members may not understand the extent of their difficulties or recognise that their efforts may have aggravated the very problems they were attempting to solve. Management, for its part, may be unable to recognise the role it played in setting in motion this self-reinforcing spiral of failure.

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