Imagine…the Incredible Possibilities when People Work Well Together
Four Lessons from the Beatles Breakup that Can Help Your Team Today
By Dr. Mike Patterson
As much as any leader or political movement of their time, the Beatles changed the world. While their incredible music is ever present, it’s important to recognize that the band was together only a little more than a decade—with the last few years filled with anything but peace and love. It makes me wonder what these fabulous, but flawed, young men might have accomplished had they been able to work well together for the long haul.
The demise of the famous foursome is recounted in a classic Rolling Stone article that offers insight into what went wrong. These lessons—presented here as what not to do--can also help the rest of us trying to build high-performing teams that stand the test of time. Here’s what we should avoid:
Spending too Much Time Apart
In 1966, after years of touring, John, George, and Ringo persuaded Paul that they should stop performing live shows. They went from constant contact to months of no contact. With routines abruptly upended, the members of the band wrestled with issues of identify and uncertainty about the future. The group did reassemble to create Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, viewed by many as the band’s most significant work, but the complex and fraying relationships made the effort far from easy.
The old adage absence makes the heart grow fonder probably doesn’t apply to rock bands or teams. Of course, an occasional vacation to refresh and refuel makes sense, but when we intentionally separate ourselves from colleagues, imaginations can kick into overdrive, and we assume the worst. Even the incredibly talented John Lennon began to wonder whether his bandmates might be plotting against him.
There is something within each of us that can cause the formation of dark thoughts about others—especially when they are different or distant. To combat the tendencies to make others into villains and ourselves into victims, we need regular opportunities to connect, compare notes, and hear from each member of the team. Remote work makes this more challenging, but regularly scheduled, virtual meetings with cameras on can go a long way.
Failing to Effectively Address Big Changes
On August 27, 1967, the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, died of an accidental drug overdose. A strong guiding force in all things outside of the studio since 1962, his untimely death was a huge blow to the band. However, instead of pausing to process the tragic loss, Paul convinced the band to immediately dive into the Magical Mystery Tour, a film and musical project that consumed the remainder of that year and was ultimately panned by BBC critics.
What the band might have done differently—acknowledge and grieve the loss, while mindfully creating a new path forward—can serve as a guide whenever we face the loss of the familiar. In his excellent book, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, William Bridges offers practical advice for navigating the psychological aspects change. He emphasizes the importance of letting go of the past, as well as pausing before charging into something new.
Change initiatives large and small often fail to address the psychological needs of individual employees. Instead, organizations charge headlong into new strategies and processes without providing time or space for the people involved to make the necessary journey from old to new. This could be a primary reason that a McKinsey study discussed in Harvard Business Review found that 62-70 percent of change efforts fail.
Assuming what’s good for one is good for all
Well known to even those casually familiar with the Beatles’ history are the challenges created when Yoko Ono entered the picture. By the time they began to work on their final release, later titled Let it Be, John was head-over-heels in love with Yoko and brought her into every meeting. He later explained that she was an extension of himself.
Never before had the Beatles allowed anyone other than a producer and recording engineer into the studio—and the creative process was always the sole domain of the band. The situation became intolerable—even explosive--for the other band members when Yoko initially spoke to provide feedback on a vocal performance. John pushed back even harder in her defense and from that point on, the great songwriting duo of Lennon and McCartney would rarely collaborate.
John felt that having Yoko by his side was terribly important—and he assumed that her presence would be accepted by the other members of the band. Paul, George, and Ringo, on the other hand, felt her presence was a violation of the group’s well-established norms against outsiders providing creative input. The result was a conflict that became a primary factor in the band’s ultimate demise. Sadly, it all happened because there were assumptions about what was and was not acceptable behavior.
The same scenario plays out daily for teams around the world. Because it makes perfect sense for me, I assume that my behavior will be accepted by others. When they push back, I take it personally and dig in my heels. We freeze, fight, or pretend everything is fine, yet damage is done that can have long lasting consequences. The problem begins when we assume that what works for one works for all.
Losing Your Sense of Purpose
The final straw in the Beatles’ breakup was a dispute about who would manage the business affairs of the band, particularly Apple Records. Apple had largely been formed as tax haven for the band’s other burgeoning interests beyond music; however, the business was bloated and not well managed. Recognizing the need to right their financial ship, Paul wanted to hire two New York attorneys who specialized in artist representation—and just happened to be his future wife’s father and brother. John and Yoko met and signed a commitment with Allen Klein, a New York accountant known for dubious deals.
The great irony of this messy chapter is that it had little to do with the original purpose of the Beatles—making music. In fact, when the focus on the music was lost, it was the beginning of the end for the Beatles. The same holds true for other organizations as well. When we lose sight of the central purpose, instead focusing on tangential concerns, it’s easy to misplace our priorities.
It’s difficult to avoid daydreams about the musical catalog that could have been if the Beatles had stayed together—happy and productive—far longer than they did. You might reflect similarly about teams you’ve been on. Are you making some of the same mistakes the Beatles made or are you taking steps to build a team that adapts, overcomes, and stands the test of time? Take a moment to imagine what’s possible when people work well together.
Dr. Mike Patterson is an author, speaker, and master facilitator who helps leaders and teams communicate, collaborate, and manage conflict more effectively. He is the co-author of the highly acclaimed book, Have a Nice Conflict: How to Find Success and Satisfaction in the Most Unlikely Places, and he teaches in the doctoral programs at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology and California Baptist University.
© 2021 Michael L. Patterson, Ed.D.