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New or Leaderless Teams - 28 March 2013

You may be aware of the scientific theory that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’. In quantum mechanics, it’s referred to as the vacuum state, which basically means there's no such thing as a vacuum.

Let’s say, for example, that you created some kind of glass container closed off to all physical particles. From the outside looking in, it would appear as though it was empty. But really it’s not. That space, at the very least, contains electromagnetic waves and particles. If the slightest piercing were to penetrate the container, it would then be filled with air. And, depending on where the container was located, a slightly larger opening may see it consumed with water or sand or any other substance.

That’s why philosophers like Aristotle have professed that vacuums don’t exist. As soon as we think that one is there, something instantly fills it up.


Such is the case at work – an environment notorious for the vacuums that arise. When there’s a vacuum of information, it’s filled with gossip. When there’s a vacuum of training, it’s filled with mistakes. When there’s a vacuum of opportunity, it’s filled with disengagement.

If we were to look specifically at new teams (or established teams that have been leaderless for a while), there are four vacuums that are especially present: structure, knowledge, relationships, and authority.

Structure: This represents the systems that are in place, the ways in which the team is organised, and the rules that determine how and when the work gets done. A vacuum of structure is often filled with misguided people.

Knowledge: This reflects the collective expertise of the employees, an awareness of their developmental gaps, and the principles that influence their decision-making. A vacuum of knowledge is often filled with costly errors.

Relationships: This includes the level of trust among the team members, the degree to which they understand each other, and the extent to which they like and respect one another. A vacuum of relationships is often filled with conflict.

Authority: This is in relation to the informal power that some employees hold, the credibility of the leader to lead the team, and the ability of the leader to inspire change. A vacuum of authority is often filled with power struggles.

If you’re a leader taking over a new or leaderless team, it’s important to fill those four vacuums before other (unfavourable) elements infiltrate them. As the American writer Tennessee Williams wrote figuratively: “A vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.”

The trouble, though, is that a vacuum doesn’t last very long. Or at all.


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