What Do We Really Think About Teams?

If we pay close attention, we can learn a great deal from our children. They are honest — often brutally so — and are not as concerned about mincing words when expressing an opinion. When discussing a common practice utilized in organizations and schools today, working on a team, the opinion in my home is quite clear:  time spent on a team can be a “hit or miss” experience.

Secret concerns
It is difficult to admit that we may not have total confidence in the team process. (We’ve learned to feel guilty about this.) From my early days as a team researcher in the auto industry — to experiences with small businesses — the reality is we have doubts about teams. Overall,  just like high school students assigned to a group project, we find ourselves worried about the prospects of working on a team. But, why is this the case?

Ultimately, things can go very wrong when we ignore some of the essential principles of teams and team building. Assembling, managing and motivating a team are not to be taken lightly. When we rush into the process and forget the basics, it seems that the entire team process shoulders the blame.

Common complaints:

  • The work is not distributed evenly. Considering skill levels within a team is crucial — as an equitable distribution of tasks is highly important. One real concern, is that the strongest team members will end up working the hardest. Ensure that the skill levels of those involved been carefully considered.
  • The pace of the work is simply too slow. Dealing with a large group can sometimes be time-consuming. Overall, the more people involved, the more time it will take to make progress as issues such as scheduling become a factor. Some begin to feel they would rather forgo the added trouble of the team and go solo — even if more of the work will fall on their court.
  • I won’t be a strong contributor. Being on a team can be stressful for some. Even highly skilled employees might avoid a team, if they fear they will be made to feel less competent. The entire process can be a jolt to the ego of team members if they are not properly prepared. Experiences such as having their ideas challenged in an open forum, can be a difficult to digest.

Some things to keep in mind going forward:

  • Being a team contributor is a learned skill. We should never assume that all individuals, including students, possess an innate ability to collaborate and work effectively on a team. In reality, effective team membership is a complicated skill set (active listening, sharing confidently, tolerance) that requires training and practice to perfect. For many employees, serving as a team member can be a completely challenging experience —  especially without the advantage of adequate training.
  • Consider paths to mitigate the weaknesses of teams. J. Richard Hackman’s,  A Normative Model of Work Team Effectiveness (1983), highlights some of the basic elements that should be considered when forming a team. Issues such as team autonomy and performance feedback, are key to success.
  • Focus on the right mix of talent. Haphazardly designed teams, which pop up in organizations today, often meet with failure because these components are not be considered carefully. As discussed recently in Forbes, you can actually do more harm than good (and even risk your top talent), if those assigned to a team are not the right mix to fuel progress. Choosing team members so the synergy of the group is maximized is critical. Assembling a group without adequate consideration as to member skills and personalities, is ill-advised.
  • Monitor growth. It is also necessary to keep a close eye on the growth of a team – as members tend to be added over time. This uncensored growth can be counter-productive.  For example, when innovation is a key goal of the team process, the group may need to be quite small. Above all, when teams grow too large, they can start to mirror the same problems in the larger organization, such as lack of progress and a failure to meet milestones.
  • Carefully consider the role of leader. The role of team leader has a very unique and critical function. A leader can bring together tasks and help the group gain perspective, as larger tasks are often broken down and assigned to various team members. As described by Dr. Steve Kozlowski, a leading researcher on teams at Michigan State University, “When you break up a task into discrete elements – such as assigning students to look at the specific decade in history, the synergy that occurs between the time periods can be lost. ” Leaders not only lend this perspective, but they also help modify team goals over time and offer feedback concerning task and goal attainment – essential components of the team process.

An effective team requires careful planning and adequate training for its members to reap the many benefits of the process. When contemplating a team approach, be sure to consider all of the elements that will contribute to success.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. Connect with her on Twitter and Linkedin.

4 thoughts on “What Do We Really Think About Teams?

  1. You are not alone – and that is exactly why I wrote this post. I often hear complaints that an organization wants to implement the team approach, but many are reluctant to participate.

    You also make a great point Craig. Functioning effectively on a team requires training – we are not all naturals at that role. Although teams are essential for problem solving and innovation, there are steps that must be taken (training for example) before we embark on that journey.

    Thanks so much for commenting!


  2. Good points, my big reason for hating (I said it) working with a team is the pace of action. I still have imaginary wrists cuts in my mind from the mind numbing lack of progress on some projects.

    I think there needs to be a creative course in decision making developed that every team member must take before they are allowed into the team room, or a penalty system that the people unable to decide must buy lunch for the rest of the team for a month.


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