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The Work of Teams and Implications for Leaders

Leadership Abstract

August 2013, Volume 26, Number 8

By Michael Rivera and Karen Duker

“Man is by nature a social animal,” was the starting point of a study Aristotle conducted on human interaction in Politics (350 B.C.E.). Most of us have had the experience of working within a team, and have formed opinions as to the usefulness and importance of working in a team environment. Not surprisingly, these opinions differ from one person to another, and individuals change their opinions based on their experiences. This spectrum that exists within us was identified by Goran Ahrne in his book, Social Organizations: Interaction Inside, Outside and Between Organizations (1994), as he explains how people seek participation in groups, yet tend to reject it at the same time. Whether you accept or reject the importance of teams within your organization depends on your previous experiences, but these previous experiences might not be fully representative of what efficient, productive, successful, and diverse teamwork should be.

In essence, effective teamwork begins with a shared understanding of its importance (Stockley, 2012). It has increasingly become a key foundation to the work of organizations, and is particularly essential in the nonprofit sector given the complex work and range of challenges, such as the necessity to employ and involve a multitude of individuals and entities, including stakeholders, service users, employees, volunteers, and trustees (William, 2010).

Defining Teams

Many definitions for teams exist in literature because most teams are defined by the function they have within an organization or the specific goal they are charged with achieving, but general and common elements found in most teams have been outlined. Such definitions share many attributes and have subtle differences. Put simply by Robbins and Finley (1995), “A team is easily defined. It is people doing something together,” stating that the crucial element in this statement is the ‘together’ part. Argote and McGrath (1993) and Goodman (1986) defined teams as groups that produce something useful to their organization. Katzenbach and Smith (1993) developed a more detailed six-element definition of teams, which includes a small number of people, complementary skills, a common purpose, a common set of specific goals, a commonly agreed upon working approach, and mutual accountability. Patricia Addesso (1996), on the other hand, takes a more outcomes-based approach to defining a team by listing what a team does, including goal setting, problem solving, implementing solutions, and feeling responsible for output.

Finally, Kozlowski and Bell (2003, p. 334) evolved the earlier definitions into a more relevant one, defining teams as collectives that exist to perform tasks relevant to their organization and which socially interact, share one or more common goals, show task interdependencies, and maintain and manage boundaries. Such teams are entrenched within the organization in the context that sets these boundaries, constrains the team, and influences exchanges with other teams in the organization.

But Why Are Teams Important?

The term affiliation is often used to refer to one of the principal reasons for the existence of teams, and the reason why individuals choose to join teams (Ahrne, 1994). Within organizations, when important decisions are needed, teams are typically consulted as a more comprehensive and better resource of information than individuals (Homan et al., 2008; Ilgen, Hollenbeck, Johnson, & Jundt, 2005). Indeed, good teamwork is found to be an essential aspect for high performance (Stockley, 2012). According to leading industrial psychologist Peter Honey, its importance is derived from several interrelated factors that include flattening hierarchical levels (the traditional pyramid), rendering people more interdependent, and resulting in higher quality work and quicker responses to internal and external changes expected of teams. This, along with the change of the role of managers from directors to facilitators, puts greater emphasis on teamwork (Sabre HQ Team Building, n.d.).

Much of today’s research found that when comparing individual effort versus team effort, the latter surpasses the former in its advantages. In his book Groups, Teams, and Social Interaction: Theories and Applications, A. Paul Hare (1992) discusses these advantages.  Compared to individuals, teams have more people to remember data, generate ideas, and identify objects. He also posits that teams tend to have better results than individuals in complex and difficult tasks, and that, in general, team decisions have been found to be more sound than that of a single person. As a result, synergy is created by good teamwork, making organizations much more likely to perform well when their people work effectively as a team (Sabre HQ Team Building, n.d.; Stockley, 2012).

Diversity Within Teams

Because of the rise of virtual teams and the globalization impact on working environments, teams have become more diverse over the past decade, particularly in terms of demographics, and are expected to continue diversifying (Homan et al., 2008; Triandis, Kurowski, & Gelfand, 1994). Diversity can be defined in terms of demographic, functional background, personality, values, expertise, perspectives, and attitudes, as well as complex combinations (Mathieu, Maynard, Rapp, & Gilson, 2008). It can be turned into an asset if addressed properly, whereas it becomes a performance impediment if not (Kearney, Gerbert, & Voelpel, 2009). Indeed, study findings show a spectrum of effects on team effectiveness ranging from beneficial to no impact to detrimental (Webber & Donahue, 2001), and that diversity interacts with several factors, including time (Harrison, Price, & Bell, 1998), task type (Joshi & Jackson, 2003; Pelled, Eisenhardt, & Xin, 1999), and organizational culture (Brickson, 2000; Ely & Thomas, 2001; Mathieu et al., 2008). Highest performing teams had a structure that utilized a cross section of gender diversity and were high in openness, versus the worst performing teams which had a fault line diversity and low openness. Finally, diversity has been found to have a great impact on the functioning and performance of teams (Guzzo & Dickson, 1996; van Knippenberg & Schippers, 2007), rendering the understanding and managing of diverse teams a challenge for both the theory and practice of organizations (Homan et al., 2008).

The common element, and most important aim, is to have diversity of perspective within a team. This is what drives innovation, improvement, and change. Diversity might lead to conflict, both constructive and detrimental, but this can be contained if the leader harnesses the power of constructive dissent, and restrains the growth of unhealthy conflict that demotivates, disenables, and divides. The bottom line is that diversity increases competitive advantage. As Rippin (2002) states, “If the marketplace is diverse then the team designing the offering needs to reflect that diversity if it is to satisfy customer needs, or, more fundamentally, to avoid huge and costly mistakes” (p. 41).

Team Development

Ideally, a team would combine the talents and skills of individuals into a whole new entity with capabilities that exceed those of its most talented members. But, as many of us have personally experienced, this has not always been the case. In fact, we see people in teams disengaging and information not being shared, resulting in a waste of time and money. Thus, it is important to understand how teams are formed and developed, and what could go wrong, to be able to tackle necessary team leadership skills (Ross, 2006).

Teams undergo many stages throughout their life spans. Barbara Tuckman (1965) identifies four: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. In Forming, teams test boundaries and settle into roles. In Storming, the team can develop allegiances and experience conflict. In Norming, the team is stabilized and develops its own practices and culture. In Performing, the team can finally focus on achieving the goal.

It is often observed that when someone leaves or joins the team, there is a potential for the team to revisit previous stages. Team member replacements could render roles ambiguous, leading to anxiety and confusion. This instability may be complicated by other factors, such as status. For example, when a new manager is hired and joins a team, the team may revert to patterns from the Forming stage because members are unclear what managers expect of them, and are nervous about being perceived as challenging authority. Clay Carr (1996) explains that, “It takes time for teams to gel, particularly when the individuals on them have different statuses in the organizations, everyone expects to defer to the high-status people because that is what they did before they became part of a team” (p. 185). This further emphasizes team management and leadership as key in a team’s success or failure.

How to Manage and Lead Diverse Teams

There are many assessments and tools that can be utilized to assess individuals for team formation and strength by revealing differences in personality and workplace behavior, such as the DiSC assessment and Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Rath and Conchie (2008). Belbin (1981, 1998) has developed nine categories, or team roles, that describe a person’s preferred method of working in groups. These roles include Plant, Resources Investigator, Coordinator, Shaper, Monitor-evaluator, Teamworker, Implementer, Completer, and Specialist.

For most (if not all) of these assessments, the ideal team has a thorough mix of personality types represented and interacting together. In this way, each team member contributes his or her strongest attributes. If a leader only selects team members that have similar strengths, the team will be weak and vulnerable in many areas. Kimball Fisher (1993) writes,

Highly homogeneous teams tend to be much more susceptible to groupthink… I have worked with management teams, for example, where every member was a middle aged white male from the U.S. with an MBA and an engineering undergraduate degree. No wonder they tended to come up with the same solutions all the time. These teams are less effective in exploring the multiple alternatives available in decision making and problem solving. Multiple options are more obvious to groups with a diversity of race, gender, age, cultural and educational backgrounds. This diversity often lengthens and complicates the group processes in the short run, but it makes the group more effective over the long haul. (pp. 107-108)

The concept of a team implies that people need skills and insights that they do not have alone in order to accomplish a task. Thus, the more varied the perspectives and experiences of team members, the more prepared the team will be to conquer any challenge that arises. Mutual accountability seems to be the element that binds a team together because it is tied to trust. Team members are interdependent, entrusting the outcomes to each other, entering into an agreement that each party will contribute fairly.

Effective teams have several characteristics that distinguish them: their members share roles of leadership, develop their own scope of work, schedule work to be done, and commit to taking the time needed to do it. They also discuss problems and challenges and resolve them collectively (MSH & UNICEF, 1998). By concentrating primarily on performance, teams will emphasize that which binds them together and the goals that will be accomplished. Katzenbach and Smith (1993) found that setting strong performance standards is more effective to foster teamwork than actually promoting teamwork in isolation.

So what distinguishes high-performing teams from the rest? Research has found that these teams achieve higher levels of participation, cooperation, and collaboration. This is attained through members trusting each other, sharing a strong sense of group identity, and having confidence in their effectiveness as a team (Ross, 2006).

Team confidence is a very important aspect of high-performing teams. It includes two distinct constructs: team efficacy and potency. Assuming that team members share underlying beliefs, efficacy refers to a team’s belief that it can be successful in tasks, whereas potency relates to a team’s general sense of its capabilities related to their tasks in different contexts (Gully, Incalcaterra, Joshi, & Beaubien, 2002; Mathieu et al., 2008).

After reviewing the team and organizational cultures that exist (through whichever method of assessment one chooses), a team should then develop an agreed upon vision of an ideal, high-performing team in their situation. This vision should contain very practical details. According to Blake et al. (1987), the team should discuss where directions come from, frequency and format of meetings, how conflicts are dealt with, methods of meeting objectives, whether innovation is welcomed, communication, job descriptions, delegation, quality of standards, performance appraisals, team spirit, and level of commitment. In these discussions, the ideal should be compared to the actual situation so there is a recognized group effort to strive toward the ideal practice. 

Teams Work

A positive team environment is truly infectious. When employees are empowered, validated, and respected as vital to accomplishing a team’s mission, clients and stakeholders will take notice. Sarah Nolan, president of American Express, stated, “If you treat people well, if you treat them as individuals that you care about… they will treat your customers that way. If you treat them like a cog in a machine, one of many replaceable parts, they’ll treat your customers that way…. You can achieve numbers wilder than you could ever imagine by focusing on the people and letting the ripples take care of the profits” (Zenger, Musselwhite, Hurson, & Perrin, 1994, p. 173). It is vital that leaders set an empowering, optimistic tone for their teams, modeling healthy behaviors that will enhance team performance.


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Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 08/01/2013 at 1:28 AM | Categories: Leadership Abstracts -