Where Do You Fit In?
As the work group's manager, shouldn't you be the team's leader? Well, yes and no. You are the leader in that you're the one with the authority to make decisions, and usually the one held accountable for the group's actions, performance, and productivity. But in most situations, the manager isn't a team member. It's nearly impossible to be a team member and an authority figure concurrently. Teams function most effectively when there is a relatively even distribution of power so each team member feels he or she is making an equitable contribution. As manager, it's your role to stay on the periphery. It's your job to be sure everyone knows his or her role and responsibilities, and the roles of other members. And you'll need to be available to serve as facilitator, mediator, teacher, mentor, cheerleader, coach, and parent — whatever the group needs.
Generally, strong individual productivity generates strong group performance. When each member is pulling his or her load, the work gets done. Also, people feel that their contributions are both valued and valuable. Even with one or two weak members, most groups can maintain strong productivity. But the more pronounced the disparities in workload and contribution, the less satisfied all group members become — and then the group's performance suffers even though some individuals within the group are outstanding producers.
Guiding the Team
When teams are working, there is nothing more exciting. But even teams that seem to come together well on their own need guidance and occasionally intervention to help them grow and develop. It's a balancing act that requires constant attention and adjustment. Just remember that this is about the team, not about you.
Acme Industries was a mega-corporation. Employees often joked that it was like its own little city; the corporate campus covered several square miles and included a day-care center, health clinic, fitness center, several cafeterias, and even a private security force that patrolled the grounds and facilities. There were many rules and restrictions — some company-wide, others specific to particular divisions, departments, or work groups.
Sheila was the education department's manager. Her department was both a microcosm of and a haven from the company's bureaucracy. On the one hand, Sheila had to enforce corporate rules and policies as well as keep the department on track with corporate goals and objectives. Daily policies such as leave time and working hours had to be consistent with the company's procedures.
Sheila recognized that it was important for people to feel that they had some control over their work and work environment. Although the corporation was enormous and complex, her department could succeed in meeting its goals only when its members could feel that they were more than just work units. Sheila encouraged both independence and teamwork among her employees, and gave them the latitude this balance required. Employees had to follow the company rules, but they could bend them on occasion to fit the needs of their assignments and projects. Team members could work off campus, for example, or order in lunch when work tasks became intense. The department was, in many ways, a haven from the rigid corporate culture.
Employees formed tight working relationships with one another. They had a high level of trust and a strong sense of belonging. They knew Sheila believed in their abilities to handle complex training projects as well as to resolve challenges that might arise within the group. And they knew Sheila was available to them when they needed her — to help with problem solving, to commiserate when stress levels escalated, to be a sounding board for new ideas. As a result, the department excelled in meeting its goals as well as helping the corporation to meet its goals. Absenteeism and turnover were extraordinarily low, and the department maintained a training schedule that would have swamped a less effective team. Sheila praised her department's efforts and contributions, both within the department and in her meetings and contacts with others in the company — her superiors as well as her peers. Her employees knew she, and by extension the company, valued them.
Traits of an Effective Team
Effective teams share certain characteristics. First, they have a clear sense of mission or purpose and clear goals. To be productive, team members need to know why they're working. When a work team knows its mission or purpose (reason for existing) and its goals (desired accomplishments), its members are more likely to focus on activities that move the group closer to completion — of tasks, of projects, of products or services.
Do team members have to like each other to be effective?
As much as we'd like to think professionalism transcends petty matters like popularity, the reality is that people who like each other get along better. Certainly a team whose members provide complementary skills can function competently and even productively without friendship to bond them. But when team members consider themselves friends as well as colleagues, they have a heightened investment in the team's activities.
Second, effective teams foster mutual respect and support. It's hard to be innovative when you're never sure how others will react to your ideas. In effective teams, members know that even if coworkers disagree, they will focus their objections on the idea, not on the person presenting it. Each member feels he or she has the fundamental right to a level of trust that precludes backstabbing, gossip, and other negative behaviors. Members instead provide positive encouragement and work cooperatively to achieve common goals.
Effective teams demonstrate open communication. Team members are comfortable sharing ideas and concerns with each other as well as with you. Communication happens on numerous levels, from casual chitchat to structured meetings. While each level has its protocols and norms, openness is an essential foundation. Inherent in such communication is the ability to resolve disagreements, conflicts, and problems. No group (no matter how small, tight-knit, or productive) gets along all the time. The ability of team members to work through their differences to renewed understanding and cooperation is crucial to the group's success. There will be squalls and occasionally storms, but conflict is a normal part of human interaction. The most effective groups have processes in place for airing grievances and working out problems.
Lastly, effective teams receive appropriate external support. Even the most self-sufficient, effective work teams can't function in a vacuum. They need you and your superiors (often viewed collectively as “the company”), and sometimes other departments or work groups, to provide the resources required to achieve their goals. Team members need the proper equipment and supplies, an appropriate workspace, adequate administrative support, and suitable environmental amenities (such as lighting and temperature control). It's your role as manager to be sure all of these elements are in place.