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The Myths of Teamwork: Why Two Heads Aren’t Always Better Than One

As is the case with most trends, a host of proverbial jargon quickly springs up to support whatever a-la-mode phenomenon is being promoted at the moment. It often ends up being the case that individuals are subjected to a very one-sided, popular p...

December 1, 2004  By Pulp & Paper Canada

As is the case with most trends, a host of proverbial jargon quickly springs up to support whatever a-la-mode phenomenon is being promoted at the moment. It often ends up being the case that individuals are subjected to a very one-sided, popular perception of what is acceptable and what is not. Corporate culture is a breeding ground for ideas that promise productivity, cost-reduction and employee satisfaction. Companies are often willing to hit the ground running with an abstraction that guarantees a substantial payoff. But are they always justified in their decisions? Has the corporate tendency to support and rally behind all things team-related, paid off?

“If we define the true meaning of teams as a group of people committed to meeting or surpassing a customers’ needs, while at the same time having a positive experience by growing and learning, so that their work effectiveness improves over time, then I have encountered very few,” said Doug Moynihan, who in his career as a consultant with NorthWest Training and Development, has encountered more than his fair share of teams. According to Moynihan, company teams typically fall into one of three categories. The “too much” category, where there is too much control and direction from the top, too much focus on the task and too much importance placed on the result. This leaves little room for attention to the process. The second category is the “too little” group. These teams have too little focus on a collective goal and don’t use the talents of all members. They often get stuck in socializing activities, Moynihan illustrated. There isn’t enough accountability or direction in these teams. The third category is the “play-it-safe” group in the middle. This team is characterized by, “the absence of conflict and the presence of boredom,” where members can be heard to say, ‘why did they form this team when they knew all along what the answer was they wanted?'” This category is also guilty of not using the team’s full capacity. According to Moynihan, approximately 30% of company teams fall into one of these three categories, whereas about 10% of companies use a systematic model to both create and evaluate the team’s performance.

Employees can be inhibited from working to their full potential for a variety of reasons. Some are a reflection of individual characteristics, but for the most part, companies, albeit unwittingly, are counterproductive in their efforts to establish effective teams within the workplace.


“Since corporations are always looking for value added, they can tend to assume that just by putting people together in a team, this will result in higher productivity. The creation of a synergistic effect (1+1=3) where a group can produce more than the sum of its parts, is very alluring in a competitive world,” Moynihan said. “But when a task can be accomplished independently without any input from a second person, then a team should not be formed. One of the most common problems today is forced teamwork where managers choose members and delegate jobs, but each of the jobs can be accomplished independently. Single tennis, is not a team activity.”

Check your PC at the door

There have been rumblings, (quiet, apologetic ones), about a cultural tendency to go slightly overboard when it comes to political correctness. A fear of expressing one’s opinion can be detrimental to a teamwork experience, as it fosters an environment characterized by neutrality. “If the team norm, implied or stated, is to not rock the boat, then members will tend to hold back on their opinions,” Moynihan explained. “When ‘group-think’ results in people not questioning ideas, the performance of the team is harmed.” Again, this can lead to a situation whereby the fortes of team members aren’t maximized. An atmosphere that renders it difficult to be open and straightforward with teammates doesn’t do the individuals, the project, or the company, any favours. “A fear of confrontation, or a lack of candidness, can reduce team effectiveness,” Moynihan added.

This isn’t to say that respect and appreciation for co-workers should go flying out the window once a team is established. Quite the contrary. The onus is on the team leader to cultivate a climate whereby members can voice their opinion while remaining obeisant of others, without fear of reprimand. “The team and/or leader must deal quickly with a member who offends and harasses other members. Teams with members who have solid interpersonal skills and good training in team process, can directly deal with each other on sensitive issues without offending anyone, and can add to a teams’ productivity,” Moynihan underlined.

What goes wrong

Jim Cain, author and founder of adventure-based learning company Team Work and Team Play, has witnessed many companies succumb to the standard pitfalls when it comes to instituting teams in the workplace. According to Cain, one of the biggest mistakes companies make is at the outset. They neglect to do their homework, and fail to take individual needs and requirements into account. “Companies often don’t begin with an assessment of team needs, or they take the standard teambuilding ‘off the shelf’ program, rather than a customized one for team needs,” he explained. “They think that team concepts can be taught rather than modeled by management and supervision.”

Another common problem Cain has encountered is a corporate tendency to send mixed messages. Upper levels of management will convey their interest in teamwork and communicate the value they place upon it, but will fail to practice effective teambuilding strategies themselves. “You need to be consistent with the culture of the organization,” he explained. It sends a contradictory message when management will organize for employees to attend teambuilding seminars or activities, but don’t attend themselves. It also gets confusing when the reward system doesn’t coincide with a team-based culture.

Often companies will preach, ‘team, team, team’ but then reward individual contributions.”

Many companies try to bank on the ‘sports team’ model in an attempt to appeal to employee’s interests. According to Cain, this is a counterproductive analogy. “Sports teams are a bad example,” he said. “Sure, it takes the whole team to win, so why do they have ‘player of the year awards?’ As Moynihan further illustrated, sports homologies may engage team members on a certain level, but this mindset is laden with traps. “Corporations like to create the image or culture of teams because of the popularity of team sports like football, auto racing, basketball, or hockey,” he explained. “Corporations market themselves as team oriented and show images of happy people ‘high-fiving’ after a difficult problem-solving meeting. Corporations want to attract and retain workers by presenting themselves as a fun place to work. Society places more emphasis on fun coming from teams that fun coming from solitary activity. As the saying goes, ‘who likes a loner?’ Unfortunately, many corporations will suffer from the intuitive myth that happy workers are productive workers. Research suggests the casual direction is likely to be in the converse, meaning, employee satisfaction is the result of, rather than the cause of, productivity. High productivity does not always come from placing everyone on a team for every task.”

Getting it right

Recognition of individual characteristics when forming a team however, is not a detrimental thing to do. In fact, it’s one of the most important measures a company can take to ensure the resulting team will operate as a cohesive unit. The danger lies in when the leader of the team is delegated the task of selecting members, and he culls people with the same characteristics or personality traits he has.

“High performing teams embrace differences,” Moynihan confirmed. “Leaders err when they select only people like themselves. As Churchill once said, ‘show me two men who are alike, and I will show you one I don’t need.’ A key condition is to select the right people and the right balance, ie, composition, numbers and mix. High
performing teams display a good match between the skills needed to achieve the collective team goals and the competencies supplied by the members. There are no gaps.”

Potential team members should also be able to step up to the plate in terms of honesty when it comes to deciding whether or not to partake in a corporate team. “Individual members are responsible for recognizing their strengths and demonstrate a certain level of ’emotional intelligence.’ If a member lacks confidence or competence and does not disclose it or deal with it early in the team formation process, it will detract from performance. In some close-nit teams, a lazy member who is not pulling their weight, will incur peer pressure and be embarrassed to get on board. Other times they will be ostracized and become a victim of both poor planning and harassment by the members,” Moynihan pressed.

Companies willing to invest time and effort into their teambuilding activities will enjoy the paybacks. Such is the case at Daishowa-Marubeni, where teambuilding is viewed as an opportunity to not only to get a job done, but to also offer employees a chance to grow and learn along the way.

“We believe that team members are attracted to, and most enjoy working in an environment where the emphasis is on achievement and development of competence,” explained Stu Dornbierer, director of communication at Daishowa-Marubeni. “Our experience shows that team members benefit most when they know they are making a significant contribution to the success of the company, and when they are rewarded based on company success. To create and maintain this high-performing environment, we are placing the emphasis on clearly defined direction and effective delegation. Each team member will know clearly the role they are to play, the results they are to achieve and how they will be held accountable. Our team-based working environment is designed to ensure good working relationships among team members, so that they can feel supported and encouraged in their work,” he continued.

The results of Daishowa’s emphasis on positive, productive teamwork have paid off. “Team-based work has had a significant impact on Peace River Pulp Division inreaching production and operating the plant at 37% above design,” Dornbierer confirmed. To achieve these results, the company has adopted a mindset whereby employee’s opinions are valued and taken into account. “All team members have input and help shape policies and procedures that have impact on them.”

So, is it time to wave the white flag for teamwork? Absolutely not. Working in a collusive unit to reach a desired objective indisputably has its place in a corporate environment. However, having a little more faith in the capabilities and capacities of individuals working solo might not be such a bad thing either. When the work warrants the manpower, establishing a team can have enormous payoffs. It’s simply a matter of having the foresight to identify situations that call for individual effort, or knowing when many hands will make light work. There will certainly be many of those times. As Thomas Edison once eloquently explained when asked why he had a team of 21 assistants, “If I could solve all the problems myself, I would.”

For more information on team building and other leadership issues, Doug Moyniham can be reached at NorthWest Training and Development www.trainingnorthwest.com

If you think your corporation is ready for a teambuilding initiative, you are welcome to contact Dr. Jim Cain, of Teamwork & Teamplay for helpful assistance. Jimcan@teamworkandteamplay.com or www.teamworkandteamplay.com. (585) 637-0328



Myth #10 – Everyone should be on a team because people like to work together and teams are good for business.

FACT – No, not everyone wants to do his or her job with others. As well, not all tasks are best accomplished with a team. If one person can complete the task independently, then forcing collaboration will be detrimental

Myth #9 – Sports teams are good examples of team performance

FACT – Sports teams are one example of manager lead teams. For some projects that require strong technical and strategic direction with a specific time-performance focus, the sport analogy can be helpful. However, if your company’s vision is to create empowered self-managed teams a different design is needed.

Myth #8 – Communication inside and the spokesperson’s role outside a team, are the same thing.

FACT – The team communication norms inside a team are different that the marketing spokesperson’s role externally. Internal team norms and communication processes should be decided separately from the external role of managing the environment.

Myth #7 – All high performing teams are the same.

FACT – Not true. Each team is unique and needs to be created to achieve a specific task. Once management decided the task required more than one person, they must create the right conditions for success. The direction, structure and support for each team is dependent on the nature of the task and will be different for each situation.

Myth #6 – Unions don’t like teams.

FACT – Not only union workers, but non-union workers as well, will dislike teams if they are badly managed. When management dictates the use of teams but fails to provide the necessary support, teams will fail. Then, when management deflects accountability, and pulls back on the team’s freedom, blaming the members, there will be resentment, confusion and anger. Management is accountable for team success, not the workers. As one union leader stated, in some organizations, ‘teams are the opportunity for management to fashion the ‘club’ that team members will use to beat themselves.’ The club is initially portrayed as a ‘country-club.’ The analogy is strong and can last in union and non-union environments, for years.

Myth #5 – To build a strong team, the members need to have a ‘survival’ adventure experience in the wilderness.

FACT – High performing teams do not need to climb mountains to develop trust. Some companies support wilderness adventures to teach members such values as confidence, respect and trust. The risk is that the experience focuses too much on the outward-bound survival skills and too little on the inward transfer of team performance. Although there can be value in a well designed common experience out in the bush aimed at trust building, too often the adventure does not translate to business success.

Myth #4 – Team building just happens in the course of completing the task

FACT – Teams don’t just happen. Management must plan before the members are chosen to ensure that the direction and support resources are in place. A crucial decision by management must be made to decide the authority level for the team. Management must monitor the team to decide if and when to intervene. If the team had some self-managing authority then they need to take time to discuss and decide on their processes. High performing teams take the time to find the right balance between three key issues:

1) Confrontation and support

2) Individual efforts and collective group goals, and

3) Performance versus learning behaviors

Myth #3 – Happy workers are productive workers

FACT – Just having the right people on the team will not ensure success. To achieve high performance the right people are necessary but not sufficient. The first step is management must create the right conditions for success. Secondly they select the people with the right skill set. Employee satisfaction is more likely to be the result of, rather than the cause of, productivity.

Myth #2 – Once a team performs well, it will always perform well.

FACT – Teams, like any high performance system, need to take time for maintenance. To sustain high performance, teams must take time away from the task and evaluate their performance. Like an air traffic controller, they should be monitoring behaviors and taking steps to adjust to thei
r environment.

Myth #1 – The leader’s personality is the primary reason that teams are successful.

FACT – Leaders who are likeable but fail to fulfill their role will generally harm team performance. Teams need leaders to create the right conditions for success. When members are exhibiting interpersonal problems, or experiencing communication conflicts, the socially tempting intervention is for the leader to counsel and use their soft ‘consultation skills’ to resolve the issues. In fact, usually the opposite is required. A leader should focus more on what and when to intervene, rather than on how they behave.- Doug Moynihan

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