Monday Mornings with Madison

When Teamwork Breaks Down

It was recently reported that Usain Bolt – dubbed the world’s fastest runner – was stripped of one of his nine Gold medals.  Unlike other occasions when athletes have lost a medal or award, in this case Bolt himself did nothing wrong.  He was not guilty of cheating or unsportsmanlike conduct.  Rather, Bolt lost the Olympic gold medal because his teammate, Nesta Carter, tested positive for a banned stimulant found during a re-analysis of samples from the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  Carter and Bolt were teammates on the winning 4×100-meter team, which set a world record of 37.10 seconds. Carter ran the opening leg, and Bolt took the baton third in the race.  But doping by even one member of the team disqualified the entire team – four athletes – from the competition.

Besides being heartbreaking for the three innocent athletes, this case is indicative of the importance and vulnerability of teamwork.  And it is instructive about what happens when teamwork breaks down.   In truth, while people tend to think that teams are the democratic—and the efficient—way to get things done, research shows that most of the time team members don’t even agree on what the team is supposed to be doing or what is most important.  Getting agreement is the leader’s job, and he must be willing to take great personal and professional risks to set the team’s direction. And if the leader isn’t disciplined about managing who is on the team and how it is set up, the odds are slim that a team will do a good job.  This is certainly true in Olympic sports and – although perhaps less glamorous — it is also true in business.  So what do we know about teams, why they break down and what can be done to ensure they don’t?

The Pros and Cons of Teamwork

There is no question that when a team is created, the possibility exists that it will generate magic and produce something extraordinary.  A well-assembled and well-managed team can generate a collective creation of previously unimagined quality or beauty or innovation.  That’s certainly the goal.  Or at the very least, the team should be more productive and effective together than if each person on the team was working alone.  But, in reality, it seldom happens that way.

Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite the added resources they have. There are usually two types of problems that arise.  One is coordination.  The other is motivation.  These issues chip away at the benefits of collaboration.  Even when the team is strong and cohesive, there is often competition with other teams or departments or forces which can also get in the way of productivity and progress.

There are several variables that must be established for a team to have a shot at being effective and productive.

1.  Define the Team.

Who is on the team must be totally clear.  While that may seem obvious, it’s not.  In the book Senior Leadership Teams, the researchers collected and analyzed data on 120+ top senior leadership teams around the world. While nearly every senior team studied thought it had set clear guidelines for who was on the team, fewer than 10% of the executive teams agreed about who was on their team.

Also, the leader of the team must be impartial and apolitical when creating a team.  The people put on the team should be included because of what they bring to the team.  A team shouldn’t be comprised of only those who are in good favor with the team leader.  Favoritism and cronyism have no place in team formation.  Moreover, the cohesiveness of a team is not dependent on the team members getting along from the start.  When a team is productive and does something good together — and is recognized for it — they feel satisfied and that bonds them.  That is what builds cohesiveness.

Most importantly, choose team members wisely.  Teams should be comprised of members that can be trusted to do what’s right for the overall organization, not just for the team or team leader.  As the Usain Bolt story demonstrates, the team is only as strong as its weakest member.

2.  Every Team should have a Deviant.

According to research on teams, every team needs to have one deviant who can help the team by challenging too much homogeneity.  Homogeneity stifles creativity and innovation.  Deviants are the ones who question everything.  They ask, “Why are we doing this? What if we looked at the thing backwards or turned it inside out?  What happens if try something else?” That generates discussions and opens the stage to new ideas.  That generates more originality.  In research on teamwork, scientists compared teams that produced something original and those that were merely average, where nothing really sparkled.  They found that the teams with a deviant outperformed teams without one. In many cases, deviant thinking is a source of great innovation.

That said, when a team’s deviant veers from the norm, it is usually at great personal cost. Deviants are willing to say the thing that nobody else is willing to articulate. The deviant raises the team members’ level of anxiety, which is a brave – but not always welcome — thing to do.   When everything is moving in one direction, it is both courageous and risky for a team member to say “this doesn’t make sense” or “we need to change direction”.  No one on the team wants to hear that, which is why some team leaders try to suppress the deviant’s voice and get him to stop asking tough questions.  They sometimes even go so far as to boot the deviant off the team. And yet teams that lose their deviant almost always become mediocre.

3.  Minimize the Size of the Team.

Research shows that as a team gets bigger, the number of links that need to be managed among the team members goes up at an accelerating, almost exponential rate. It’s managing the links between members that gets teams into trouble.  The prevailing wisdom among the most effective leaders of teams is that a team should have less than 10 members.  Big teams usually wind up just wasting everybody’s time.

4.  Set Clear Direction for the Team.

There are no set rules for who should set the direction of the team or how.  It can be any member of the team and the marching orders can vary widely.  That said, setting the direction for the team can be emotionally demanding because it always involves the exercise of authority, and that often arouses angst and ambivalence—at the very least for the people on the receiving end and possibly for the person setting the course too.  The goal is to establish a clear, challenging team direction.

5.  Don’t Disrupt Cohesive Teams.

Newness is a liability for teams.  The research confirming this is incontrovertible.  Take, for instance, crews flying commercial airplanes. The National Transportation Safety Board found that 73% of the incidents in its database occurred on a crew’s first day of flying together, before people had the chance to learn through experience how best to operate as a team.  Nearly half of those incidents took place on the crew’s very first flight.  Also, NASA study found that fatigued crews who had a history of working together made about half as many errors as crews composed of rested pilots who had not flown together before. On the other hand, the Strategic Air Command teams, which would have been tasked to deliver nuclear bombs during the Cold War years, performed better than any other flight crews ever studied. They trained together as a crew, and became superb at working together.  Those teams were kept together for years and years rather than being constantly changed.

Indeed, some of the most common misperceptions about teams are that at some point team members become so comfortable and familiar with one another that they start accepting one another’s foibles, and as a result performance falls off.  Or that when team members are very cohesive and bonded, the individual members stop growing or thriving in their career.  But there is absolutely no evidence to support those misperceptions, with one exception.  R&D teams do appear to need an influx of new talent to maintain creativity and freshness—but only at the rate of one person every three to four years.  The problem with teams is not that a team gets stale but, rather, that teams usually don’t have the chance to settle in before team members are changed.  Due to the high rate of turnover among Millennials, companies are finding that there is less and less loyalty to organizations and high rates of job churn.  This, in and of itself, will disrupt teams and cause them to be less effective.

6.  The Team Leader Must Manage for Group Effectiveness

For a team to be successful, the team leader must know how to run a launch meeting, so that members become oriented to and engaged with their tasks.  He must know how to help the team review at the midpoint what’s functioning well—and what isn’t—which can correct the team’s performance strategy.  And he must know how to take a few minutes when the work is finished to reflect on what went well or poorly, which can help members make better use of their knowledge and experience on the next project.  Team coaching is about fostering better teamwork on the task, not about enhancing members’ social interactions or interpersonal relationships.

Last but not least, it is important to realize that — even though people act as if being a team player is the ultimate measure of an employee’s worth – it is not. There are many things individuals can do better on their own, and that is fine.  There are many cases where collaboration, particularly in truly creative endeavors, is a hindrance… not a help.  The challenge for a leader, then, is to find a balance between individual autonomy and collective work.  Both have their upside and downside, but we are generally more aware of the downside of individualism in organizations.  It is often forgotten or ignored that teams can be just as destructive by being so strong and controlling that individual voices, contributions and innovations are overlooked.

Quote of the Week

You may have the right idea to work on,
you may have the right time to start,
you may have the right resources to boost,
BUT unless you have the right people, you’ll never succeed…”
Rateb Rayyes


© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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