If Teams Are So Great, Why Do We Have So Much Trouble With Them?

Teams are a means, not an end.

In today’s world of business, we have come to consider teams as the default way for almost all work to be managed. However, given that engagement at work has been assessed at being low — around 30% by Gallup and 35% by Towers Watson — the practices that are most general, rather than being the foundation of productive work, should actually be suspect.

It has often been said that teams are a means, not an end. Establishing principles that encourage individuals to align themselves with a performance-oriented work ethic sets context for both individual and teamwork, and is of greater importance than a team-oriented work structure. That mindset trumps teamwork since even when we work in teams there is always a need for solitary work.

Even though there is widespread use of teams in business, it is astonishing how little time is actually spent on considering how effective teams work, or how little time is applied to the conditions that are necessary for teams to work effectively.

J. Richard Hackman defined the conditions for teams to be effective, and once noted in an interview that many team members disagree as to who is actually on the team:

It may seem silly to say this, but if you’re going to lead a team, you ought to first make sure that you know who’s on it. In our recent book Senior Leadership Teams, Ruth Wageman, Debra Nunes, James Burruss, and I collected and analyzed data on more than 120 top teams around the world. Not surprisingly, we found that almost every senior team we studied thought that it had set unambiguous boundaries. Yet when we asked members to describe their team, fewer than 10% agreed about who was on it. And these were teams of senior executives!

Knowing who is — and isn’t — on a team is the first of Hackman’s conditions for making teams work. Here’s the full list, as a series of questions:

real team — are there clear boundaries, interdependence among members, and at least moderate stability of membership over time?

compelling direction — is there a purpose that is clear, challenging, and consequential and that focusses on the ends to be achieved rather than the means the team must use in pursuing them?

team structure — does the task, composition, and core norms of conduct enable rather than impede teamwork?

team’s social system context — does it provide the resources and support that members need to carry out their collective work?

coaching — is competent coaching available to help members get over rough spots and take advantage of emerging opportunities, and is such coaching provided at times in the team life cycle when members are most ready to receive and use it?

In my experience, these questions are seldom asked in a formal and open way, and little time is spent to ensure the conditions are met.

The job of a team leader must be to foster the conditions that enable teams to be effective, rather than charisma, decision-making skills, or a directorial personality.

There are a host of other misconceptions about teams that almost guarantee that teams will generally operate sub-optimally. For example, consider the premise that teams should work together harmoniously, but the evidence suggests that’s wrong. As Ulrich Klocke showed in How to Improve Decision Making in Small Groups: Effects of Dissent and Training Interventions, dissent is a good predictor of group performance, because it can lead to a deeper discussion of the factors involved.

Alex Pentland wrote, in Why Startups Should Steal Ideas and Hire Weirdos:

When everyone is going in the same direction, then it’s a good bet that there isn’t enough diversity in your information and idea sources, and you should explore further. A big danger of social learning is groupthink. To avoid groupthink and echo chambers, you have to compare what the social learning suggests with what isolated individuals (who have only external information sources) are doing. If the so-called common sense from social learning is just an overconfident version of what isolated people think, then you’re likely in a groupthink or echo chamber situation. In this case, a surprisingly good strategy is to bet against the common sense.

As a maxim, here’s an important takeaway:

the more important a decision, the broader the diversity of opinions that should be sought to apply to the decision, and the greater the attention to active and comprehensive dissent.

And actively promoting dissent runs counter to harmony because it can be oppositional, with different team members taking different stances. But that tension leads to better decision-making.

Dissent is a good predictor of group performance because it can lead to a deeper discussion of the factors involved.

Team leadership is another area where we seem to step on our own feet. The job of a team leader must be to foster the conditions that enable teams to be effective, rather than charisma, decision-making skills, or a directorial personality. Perhaps most important is the capacity to be able to extract from any current situation the factors that are most relevant to the team’s goals, and the ability to close the gap between the current state and what the team should be doing. And a great deal of emotional maturity is needed, since effective teamwork can lead to high anxiety for all involved.

Hackman pointed out that team leaders need an additional characteristic: courage. Bucking groupthink and common sense, and actively promoting dissent does not lead to every team meeting feeling like a day at the beach. But it is much more likely to lead to meeting the team’s reason for being, even when there’s friction involved.