Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Teams In the Workplace – Flogging a Dead Metaphor?

You could probably wallpaper a small city with the amount of material that has been written about Teams in the Workplace. That search term alone provides 112,000,000 items to browse through. It seems that nearly every day a new article pops up on LinkedIn or HBR or some other illustrious business compendium about how to better manage your teams,  the dangers of underperforming teams,  how to rebuild a failing team and the like. And, inevitably, a good percentage of these articles will make reference to the sports team metaphor.

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in some very high performing teams whilst simultaneously being part of some very high performing management teams. Conversely, I’ve worked in some highly dysfunctional teams, almost always under even more dysfunctional management. Since I’ve been self-employed I’ve spent most of time my working with groups of people who are referred to as teams, but who are really more a bunch of people thrown together organisationally, geographically or functionally (or a mix of these). The distinguishing feature of these people is that they primarily operate as individuals supporting other individuals, groups or even 'proper teams'.
In the circles I operate in, mainly the quality and process management and consulting world, there are plenty of lone wolves like me. Auditors, project quality managers, process evangelists and consultants often act as one man bands – working with and amongst many teams, but almost always on the periphery of the teams themselves. The nature of the work sometimes necessitates this, but often the people who take on these roles do so because it fits their personalities both in and out of the workplace.

For extroverted introverts like me, this is an ideal situation. I get to focus on the things I do best, for the people who matter the most – namely my customers. I’m not generally subjected to random time-wasting team meetings, and rarely have to suffer the humiliation of clichéd team building exercises like bowling night or a two day outward bound course, both of which fill me with utter dread – the former because it’s a showcase for my total lack of bowling ability, the latter because I used to spend much time in the mountains in the company of my dog or with just a few close companions.

That doesn’t make me anti-social – I’ll go and share a beer and good conversation with my colleagues any day of the week – I’m just averse to being organised in the name of team building when I’m not a member of a genuine team. (Some people might say that I take this aversion even further, and that I’m actually averse to being managed, but I couldn’t possibly comment.)

Good, competent individuals know what needs to be done to achieve the appropriate synergies between themselves and their colleagues. Good leaders are able to see where there may be deficiencies in skills (hard or soft) and plug the gaps accordingly with additional staff or through coaching and mentorship. Likewise, they see where there is discord and take appropriate actions. With good people and good leadership, teams actually become self-forming and self-managing.
I often think we have taken this whole sporting metaphor too far when we’re dealing with the workplace. Shoe-horning a group of individuals into a ‘team’ when it isn’t necessary is a waste of time and effort by all parties. I often see it as (yet) another management indulgence – because the books and the articles say it’s a good thing, so a manager does it. The reality is that the vast majority of professional sports people fit into this category of 'groups of individuals' rather than teams. Squash and tennis players, swimmers and athletes, golfers and cyclists are primarily individuals brought together on occasion to compete under a flag - an artifical team - Team GB, the Ryder Cup team or the Davis Cup team. There may be some strategic pairing or tactical placement of individuals to boost the overall 'team' achievement but ultimately it is always about the performance of the individual, regardless of the team. Even soccer, cricket and rugby teams are ultimately teams of individuals and even the best managers are powerless to do anything about a group of players who can't produce the goods on the day.
I said at the beginning that I'd worked in some very high performing teams. Those 'teams' were made up of hugely talented individuals and guided by hugely talented leaders. None of them indulged in puerile team building exercises - they succeeded because of mutual respect, and the  desire to do the best for themselves and the people they worked for, and with, both internally and externally.
The witicism says that there's no 'I' in team.  I'm not so sure about that. The best teams are full of 'I's!
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