The study of management as a social science began just over 100 years ago. Organizations have inevitably changed - they are more complex and decentralized - but our definition of teams has not.
Typically, teams are conceptualized and studied as functional units. For example, our department (e.g., customer service) or a sub-unit of our department (e.g., enterprise-client customer service) is our stand-in for our team. This is outdated.
Organizations are systems - teams of teams - that have individuals in multiple teams, many of which are temporary. We all have our primary team, like our department, but we also have our secondary teams, tertiary teams, and sometimes many more.
Nowadays teamwork is primarily done as a one-time project team where a group of selected individuals come together for a finite amount of time to work on a specific initiative. This has several implications for employees that are currently being overlooked.
The idea of team building is no longer an organized, top-down approach. Because we’re on many teams without a designated leader, everyone is now responsible for engaging in “teaming” - behaviors that facilitate improved team interactions and team processes.
The idea that workloads can be evenly distributed across a defined team is no longer possible. Because we’re on many teams that are not coordinated at a higher level, it is now the responsibility of the individual to negotiate time and effort among all of their teams.
Organizations have become so complex that they have outpaced the traditional approach to team development. Thus, it’s becoming the individual team member’s responsibility to engage in better teaming and better team coordination.
Perhaps one of the most fundamental challenges in business is trying to convince individuals to do what’s best for the collective. Hence the phrase, “there is no ‘I’ in ‘team’.”
The problem here is that employees will never work for free and they are unlikely to completely forgo their well-being for their organizations. That’s not being selfish, that’s just human nature.
Indeed, self-agency is universal. We are self-interested beings and operate within social units. We recognize that our self-interests can be maximized when we work within collective entities. The goal was never to join an organization to serve its mission. The goal was to serve our mission (e.g., financial security, sense of purpose/community) through a pre-existing business model.
Thus, I would argue that “you can’t spell ‘team’ without ‘me’.” Instead of trying to persuade employees to put the organization’s collective interests above their self-interests, focus on aligning employees’ needs and preferences with collective goals. That’s both fair and more realistic.
When we picture a team, we typically think of a handful of people working together on a project or our entire department.
Conceptually speaking, yes, these are our teams. But when it comes to improving our team processes this conceptualization is unhelpful.
How many times does your entire team actually sit down together to work on something? Smaller teams might do weekly check-ins, but most departments rarely meet more than monthly or quarterly. These one-hour team sessions don’t define the quality of the team interaction.
Although we typically visualize our team as a large group sitting at a massive conference table (or on a zoom call), this isn’t how work gets done.
Teams are a collection of smaller, dyadic interactions that take place from moment-to-moment. The vast majority of our emails, slack messages, phone calls, and meetings involve two people. It is in these moments were high-quality teams are created.
So if you’re interested in team building, don’t start at the team-level, that’s too abstract. Instead, focus on helping each team member engage in better dyadic interactions.
Getting stuck with under-performing team members is tricky. We don’t have the authority to correct the problem. And if we do try to correct the problem, the backlash typically isn’t worth the effort.
Ignore it - But this causes you to look bad too, especially if you are working with interdependent colleagues where you co-create deliverables.
Do everything yourself - But you’ll inevitably be overwhelmed with the increased workload.
Tell your manager - But you risk coming across as a caddy team member, which is unflattering.
Although it will take some work, below are the ideal solutions…
Document examples - It’s possible that you are being overly critical or biased. This will help you objectively express your concerns if you are approached by superiors for your opinion.
Express concern - There might be a good reason as to why they are under-performing. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they are stretched too thin or they have personal circumstances at play. Approach the conversation with questions that get at their situation (e.g., workload, work-family conflict) and not at their individual characteristics (e.g., competence, motivation).
Advocate for anonymity - The primary reason team members don’t give accurate feedback on other team members is because they’re worried about the backlash if someone were to uncover the source. Explain to managers that you aren’t interested in participating in feedback about team members until proper systems have been put into place that ensures anonymity.
Ignoring issues typically causes stress and resentment. Be proactive, polite, and realistic about team member feedback to minimize these unnecessary outcomes.
How many times have you heard someone say, “let’s set a deadline for this?”
Deadlines are useful. They ensure that everyone involved knows the drop-dead date when the deliverable must be ready to ship. All involved can then plan and sequence tasks to ensure they hit the deadline.
The problem, however, is when the people we work with are unrealistic about their ability to hit deadlines. One of my biggest pet peeves is staying up late or rearranging my calendar to deliver, only to receive a last-minute email from someone stating that they need an extension.
Just because others “work better with a deadline” doesn’t mean you need to accommodate. Instead of sacrificing your own priorities, sometimes it’s better to make others deliver first before you take action.
Social loafers are the worst. They don’t contribute but they are more than willing to put their name on the final deliverable.
To date, the best advice out there on reducing loafing is to increase individual accountability. This typically takes the form of peer performance ratings. That rarely works. We’re afraid to rate honestly for fear of potential retaliation. Perhaps something more drastic is in order.
What if team placement was determined by individual performance? In academia, I’ve heard rumors of professors putting student teams together by GPA. Fairness issues aside, it seems to work pretty well. Here’s what happens…
The teams with type-A superstars stop complaining about social loafers. They are overjoyed to be on a team full of overachievers.
The teams with lazy social loafers are forced to do something because if they don’t, they won’t have anything to deliver.
The teams with moderate performers tend to go-with-the-flow, enjoy the experience, and put together something that is pretty good, but not amazing.
Problem solved? Probably not. Teams are typically put together based on functional needs. But perhaps there’s a way to tease out social loafing on the front end - through team placement. If you want to work with the best, you’ve got to earn it.
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