Industryweek 9900 Teamwork

When Good Teamwork Goes Bad—and How to Fix It

Dec. 11, 2015
If not done right, teamwork can be bureaucratic, demoralizing—not to mention costly. Here are some ways to get the most out of your teams. 

In corporate America, can there be such a thing as too much teamwork? Many complex undertakings benefit from strong teams, consisting of diverse disciplines and backgrounds. Collaboration yields innovation and alignment.

However, the reverse is also true. Teams can be bureaucratic, frustrating and costly. How many team members does it really take to execute certain simple tasks?

It is demoralizing for employees to be on teams that drift, have no mission and are plagued by politics and infighting.  

Here are some tips to ensure high-performing teams and value-added teamwork.

There Is an “I” in Team—Be on the Lookout for It.

A team is a collection of individuals, all of whom bring assets and baggage to the table. Don’t assume that all employees understand what it means to be on a team and what is expected of each of them. Set the expectations up front. In order to be an effective team player, each member must be self-aware and know that how they show up impacts everyone around them.

Be on the lookout for these types of behaviors in team members. They indicate a lack of self awareness that will undermine the team:

1. When issues arise, they resort to bullying. They deflect everyone’s focus from the issue at hand to fending off their attacks.

2. They are two-faced, acting one way around company executives and then in a less desirable way when alone with their peers.

3. They hold the “meeting after the meeting.” In the meeting room, they are appropriately aligned. Then, after the meeting, they let everyone know what a stupid action plan was developed.

4. They love drama. Everything is a major production.

5. They prefer excuses to solutions. A culture of blame will sink the team.

It is essential that we don’t just throw people on the team because of skill set. They must have the discipline and self-awareness to properly contribute. 

Also, let’s accept the fact that some people perform better individually. Instead of discarding these people as not being team players, most organizations have room for collaborators and for independent workers. The best managers know how to match each employee to functions that are best suited to his or her skills. 

Begin with the End in Mind.

Employees must understand the team’s mission. Let them know whether the team is a permanent part of the company or finite and project-based. Be clear about the team’s deliverable and time frame. Explain the scope of its authority and influence.

If the team understands its mission and parameters, it is less likely to drift and more likely to execute with focus.

Take Your Front Lines with You.

Often, teams are formed in the office, leaving the front lines out. This is a big mistake. Most likely, your front-line employees—your sales staff and others out there dealing with the public--know what’s going on. Your opinion leaders inside your front lines have the respect of their peers and will influence perceptions.  Knowing who your opinion leaders are and harnessing these employees to execute a team’s mission is essential.

Imagine how the rollout of a fundamental change will look if your front-line opinion leaders are involved from the beginning and are there to support the rollout.  Now, imagine how it would look if your opinion leaders are opposing you every step of the way.  

Enlisting your front lines on your teams will also ensure broader diversity of input.  Let remember that, as leaders, we are often not the smartest guys in the room.

Evaluate Employees Based on Individual and Collaborative Efforts.

If you’re promoting teamwork, but performance reviews don’t take collaboration into consideration, rethink your review criteria. Employees are too often evaluated, compensated and promoted based on their individual performance, and that’s it. Then, we wonder why our employees are just looking out for themselves.

To grow a team-based environment, evaluations must take into account an employee’s individual production and that of his or her team. Allow teams to evaluate each other individually, too.

Begin a team meeting with a check-in. What is going right? What can we improve? This will only help encourage peer-to-peer accountability, a trait that is non-negotiable on a successful team. 

Empower Your Teams.

In order for a team to make decisions together for the greater good of the company, they must be empowered. It’s easy to say that the team is empowered. No one in their right mind would say otherwise. But what is really happening?

Determining the scope of a leader’s authority over the team is essential. If a leader interferes too often or undermines the team’s work, that team is less likely to perform well and trust its instincts. A leader must guide the team but not take away its pride and self-worth. If every new idea is shot down without coaching, the team will quit thinking on its own.

Have Fun!

Encouraging your team to participate in building an internal brand―something they can stand behind― will not only be a lot of fun but will also promote collaboration. By creating an internal brand (one that is appears on your team T-shirts, etc.), you are solidifying its mission. Recently, I was speaking to a group of software project managers. One was working on Version 2.0 of his company’s product. The team had become stale. Once I gave him the license to have fun, he gave his team its own brand tied to its mission (“Project Data Cruncher”) and began the process of taking the tedium out of teamwork.

Weed Out Those Who Do Not Fit the Team.

An employee may be technically excellent, but if he or she is unable to successfully participate on a team, and the job requires the employee to do so, then this may not be the best person to work for your team. In many cases, the team will figure that out and organically weed out those who do not fit. If these participants cannot change their behaviors, they will drag down the team. Rotating these employees out of your team, after appropriate coaching efforts are made, is essential to accomplishing the mission. 

Brian Fielkow is the author of “Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence By Creating A Vibrant Culture.” 

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