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The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes...and Earth's Worst Team?

(posted: August 12th, 2019)

Actually, they are not unusual.

The Avengers, as seen in the first two movies, "The Avengers" and "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" are struggling to come together and work as a team, even though nothing less than the fate of the Earth is at stake both times!

I'm sure you recall my previous post in which my daughter and I used our "people reading" skills to identify the DiSC styles of the six core Avengers. It was fun to take a group of pop culture characters and apply the DiSC principles. I hope it gave you an idea of how the DiSC personality assessment offers insight into the behaviors and preferences of different people.

Now let's take our intrepid heroes and evaluate how they function as a team. Keeping in mind that they are fictional characters, and that they are subject to the poetic license and plot manipulations of the filmmakers, they nevertheless offer a great public group that we can assess for effective team skills.

Bringing Together Extraordinary People

In the first two Avengers movies teamwork and collaboration are an important subplot. Like many teams in the real world, The Avengers is an attempt to bring together individuals with complementary skills and strong personalities to accomplish big goals.

As SHIELD Director Nick Fury says, "I pinned my hopes on another idea: Bring together a group of remarkable people and see if they could become more; see if they could work together when we need them, and fight the battles we never could."

And, like in the real world, the individual team members struggle to sublimate their own desires, goals, and even natural tendencies for the greater good of the team and the team's goals.

This group has a lot of challenges, and the crises and villains they face are the least of them. The individuals are big personalities with egos to match, or are used to working alone, hyper-focused on their own tasks. Their differences and egos are more of a threat to their cohesiveness than the actual villains.

To make matters worse, the villains take advantage of the conflict and instability of the team, playing on each hero's doubts and insecurities to pull the group apart, making them less effective.

Bruce Banner/The Hulk sees the problem early on in the first movie:

"What are we? A team? No. We're a chemical mixture that makes chaos. We're a time-bomb."

Making All the Mistakes: The First Avengers Movie

The Avengers' Worst Enemy? Themselves.

This group encompasses almost every challenge a team could face!

  • Personalities: There are big egos that don't bend easily to the team dynamic (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America). The other members are accustomed to working alone, solving problems without input or help (Dr. Banner, Hawkeye, Black Widow).
  • Lack of Communication: They are not used to letting others know what they are thinking, or discussing their plans, or voicing their concerns and fears. It does not come naturally to most of them, except maybe Captain America.
  • Repetition: Instead of discussing options and coming to a decision, they go around and around, bickering and repeating themselves.
  • Unhealthy Conflict: They don't know how to discuss IDEAS. They can't communicate clearly in the first place, so their conflict becomes unproductive personal attacks.

Plus, they have negative external influences (namely, Loki). In the real world you probably don't have a villain at a competing company masterminding ways to ruin your team, but you may still be influenced by external pressures.

In this first film, the villain manipulates the fragile new team so that they lose what little cohesion they had and are less effective. They focus internally while the villain is reaping success elsewhere. They are too consumed with their internal struggle to notice, or to mount an effective offense when they do.

Their leader uses the death of a favorite agent to refocus the team on their purpose. He reminds the group that "Agent Coulson died believing in this team, and believing in the idea that this unique group could pull together to accomplish outrageous goals."

If they were better at communicating, and especially if they were better at letting down their defenses and saying to each other, "Hey, I don't have all the answers, let's work this out together," they could have nipped the strife in the bud and maybe stopped the invasion before it happened.

Of course, then there wouldn't have been a movie!

Trust Your Teammates: Avengers, Age of Ultron

You'd think our super heroes would have grown as a team by now, and in some ways they have. They are more likely to trust each other physically, knowing from experience that team members will defend and protect the group. But there are still big issues with vulnerability-based trust and communication, and that is the key to the events that unfold here.

Motivated by fear, Tony Stark (Iron Man) makes a big decision without consulting the team. "We don't have time for a city hall debate. I don't want to hear the 'man was not meant to meddle' medley." Dr. Banner raises some objections, but Tony rolls right over him.

If the team were more cohesive, Banner would have been comfortable insisting that they consult the team. Tony was driven by fear of a future he couldn't be sure would happen. If the team were able to be vulnerable with each other, he could have talked about his fears, presented his idea, and maybe the team could have come up with a different solution. By not giving the rest of the team the opportunity to weigh in on his brilliant idea, Tony is eroding what little trust the team had.

And it has dire consequences--Tony creates a glitchy machine (Ultron) that immediately becomes the villain of the movie.

The Definition of Insanity...

...is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.

And then, amazingly, Tony suggests trying it again--creating another artificial intelligence! To be fair, he has the innovator's mindset--fail fast, learn, fix the problems, do it again. But he still doesn't want to get the team involved.

For various reasons out of Tony's control, it is different this time, and the new team member, Vision, provides an eye-opening example of both kinds of trust.

He says to the team, "I don't want to kill Ultron. He's unique and he's in pain. But that pain will roll over the Earth. So, he must be destroyed....We have to act now. And not one of us can do it without the others...I'm not what you are, and not what you intended. So, there may be no way to make you trust me. But we need to go." With that he picks up Thor's hammer and hands it to him.

No one but Thor can lift Thor's hammer. It can only be wielded by one who is "worthy".

With one thoughtful statement and one unplanned action, Vision has gained the entire teams' trust.

The Avengers and the 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

In the first two movies, the team does eventually succeed, but it's a struggle. From my perspective, they would have been much more effective if they had worked on their team skills, especially those that make up the 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team.

Can you envision the six super heroes, and their outsize personalities, sitting down and earnestly digging into their development as a team?

Steve Rogers (Captain America) nearly always has his team, and teamwork, in mind. That makes it even more of a breach of trust when Tony takes on a major project without input from the others.

Tony, referring to the alien invasion in the first movie, and his reasons for creating Ultron: "That, up there, that's the endgame. How were you guys planning on beating them?"
Steve: "Together."
Tony: "We'll lose."
Steve: "Then we'll do that together too."

What would the 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team say about The Avengers?

Here's my take.

This is probably the most difficult behavior for The Avengers. The big egos, super-human abilities, and individualist tendencies make it hard for this group to be honest and open with each other. They all have some trouble with this, but Tony/Iron Man is the poster child for lack of trust. His energy, intelligence, and charisma make that even worse, because people tend to look to him for leadership. All of the team members would benefit from acknowledging their weaknesses and asking for input and help.

Productive Conflict
This is also problematic for The Avengers, and the trust element plays into this. If the team were more comfortable being open with each other, they would be able to have productive discussions about ideas and solutions. Rather than making snide remarks about each other, and making assumptions about intentions, they could talk about all the different approaches to solving the problem and maybe even compromise on a path somewhat less risky than Tony's "murder-bot". Of course in their case that would have made the movie about 30 minutes long!

The team is actually pretty good at this. To some extent that's because the circumstances tend to force them into a decision and a course of action. But no matter how much they disagreed, when it comes time to do the work they all participate fully.

This is a bit of a mixed bag for The Avengers. As we see when Tony creates Ultron, Bruce/the Hulk is not especially comfortable disagreeing with him. Bruce makes an attempt to get Tony to bring in the rest of the team, but backs down quickly in the face of Tony's relentless forward motion. On the other hand, Steve has no problem making it clear to Tony after the fact that his behavior was not just inappropriate, but that not bringing everyone in could be dangerous. Tony sidesteps the real issue, saying that if he had been successful it would have been the end of the team, which would mean that the world was safe. Of course, that's not the point. He acted unilaterally and the whole team paid a price for that.

Interestingly, this team does get results, in spite of their other problems. However, if they were more focused, especially Tony, Thor, and Dr. Banner, they would have much better results, faster, and with fewer casualties. Again, though, with this team their problem with results ties back to some of the other behaviors, like trust and communication. If they would be more open and discuss both their fears and their solutions, it would be easier to keep their eyes on the end goal. They do have Nick Fury to remind them of their joint goals. "Hope for the best, make do with what you get. I got a great team."

How Does Your Team Compare?

I find it fascinating that even a team composed of super humans, with skills and abilities that only exist in the imagination, can still be so flawed and dysfunctional. They continue to develop their team skills. In the next couple of movies they revisit some of their issues, for example, in Infinity War Tony can't quite bring himself to contact Steve, even though the world is under attack from aliens, again. It's sort of understandable, since the last time they met it was as opponents in Civil War. Yet, Tony has been through enough of these situations that you would think he'd know better, that he would be able to put aside his pride for the sake of the larger goal, but he apparently continues to struggle with transparency, communication, and humility.

Now that we've dissected The Avengers to understand their strengths and challenges as a team, and assessed them through the lens of the 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team, it's your turn. First, let me know what you think about my Team Avengers assessment, but then I'd also love to hear your take on your own team.

"Here we all are, back on Earth, with nothing but our wit and our will to save the world. Ultron says the Avengers are the only thing between him and his mission. Whether or not he admits it, his mission is global destruction, all this laid in a grave. So stand. Outwit the platinum bastard."
~ Former Director Nick Fury

Challenge Yourself
  • How do you increase the vulnerability-based trust on your team?
  • What is your most effective method for "marshaling your troops"; bringing your team together and getting them focused on the goal?
  • As an individual contributor, what do you do to become a better team player?

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