Rethinking Teams

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In the past 20 years, the most prevalent change in American industry has been the movement from traditional top-down management to one of bottom-up, team-driven organizations. The impact of this change has restructured the role of the worker and in many cases eliminated the middle management tier. This shifting of responsibility and accountability has been readily assimilated by some, but for others, it has been a constant struggle to make their traditional work force “see the light.”

The companies experiencing the smoothest transition to a team environment have been those who either were start-up team environments or highly project-driven. Other companies have experienced success using cross-functional teams for problem solving. What about the rest? While attending a conference on assessing human performance, the participants were asked to raise their hands if they had fully functional, self-directed teams. Of the 100-plus participants, representing six different countries, only four people raised their hands. Those hands were lowered quickly with doubt, as if questioning the reality of their own self-directed teams.

The question of why is it so difficult for American companies to change to a team environment must be raised. Are we asking too much of our workers? Have we given the message to management that it is no longer “correct” to manage? It may now be the time to rethink our original expectations of teams and begin to formulate our own “hybrid” definition.

I once asked a leader in successful team organization, what was the magic that fostered team implementation. Was it hiring the “right” employees, training, culture or leadership? His response was “Yes.” It should also be noted that this was a start-up plant, not requiring a change in culture or work force responsibility. How do we then bring about the benefits of a team environment with an existing work force?

Over the last 10 years, spent working with team and non-team environments, I have found that the challenges to teams are behavioral competency; communication; expectation; and accountability. These factors are not mutually exclusive to team member or leadership. They are essential for all those involved.

~ Behavioral competency relates somewhat to Daniel Goleman’s research on “The Emotional I.Q.” Very rarely have I experienced people or teams who have failed because they have lacked the technical abilities to perform. On the other hand, I have seen failures occur over and over again because they lacked the attitudinal and social interaction skills necessary to move from gridlock to proactive change. Organizations who wish to benefit from a team environment must begin to define, hire and evaluate performance not only on the easily measured statistics of quantity and quality of output, but also on the necessary attitudes and social behaviors. It may also be necessary to start reinforcing and measuring these behaviors and attitudes in our schools.

Communications will continue to play a major role in a hybrid team structure. However, the congruence of the message with action is going to become the driving definer of successful communication. Leadership cannot communicate the message of a team cooperation and participation while taking actions that totally disregard the input of the team. Another significant roadblock to communication has been the exorbitant increases in the top management’s compensation as compared to that of the worker. Whether this is happening in your organization or not, the message being communicated is that we expect the team to take on more responsibility while a few benefit. The trust factor is decreasing across the country and communication is becoming handicapped.

Expectations and Accountability go hand-in-hand and should be leader-driven. Before those who yearn for the traditional days of management start to cheer, let’s qualify this by saying the benefits of employee involvement are too great to revert back to the days of “I say and you do.” It appears that one of the most difficult transitions for a team environment has been the role of control. Most would agree that the customer needs to be the driver or navigator, but who is the internal control. Teams in some organizations have socialized themselves into smaller “gangs” that feel if they stick together they can challenge the leadership. On the other hand, we are telling management that they are no longer supervising but now supporting the team. I have seen a dramatic drop in accountability. Leadership can now point the blame toward dysfunctional teams and teams point the blame toward other shifts, teams or leadership. We have moved more toward accountability avoidance than accountability.

Without the clear communications of performance expectations that include both production and behavior components and then the holding of individuals and teams accountable to those expectations, leadership will lose credibility and teams will drop back to their traditional comfort zones. Reward and consequences need to be reinforced and enforced. Accountability is probably the most significant factor in moving to a new level of team participation and probably the most difficult to obtain without the appearance of reverting back to a traditional approach.

I haven’t clearly defined what the new hybrid team environment will be because it will vary by company, region, industry, etc. But I can tell you it will be something that recognizes behavior and attitude equally with quantitative production; it will force more congruence with what is being said and what is being done; and it will increase the leaders’ role in holding themselves and others accountable. The challenge is to the leadership and the team members to develop this hybrid, a challenge made by an ever-increasing competitive marketplace.

Barbara Ludwig, M.B.A., is owner of Baker Ludwig Associates and a training-and-development specialist with the University of Arkansas Division of Continuing Education. She is also currently president of the Northwest Arkansas Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development.