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How to Build High-Performance Teams
By Donald H. Weiss
AMACOMCopyright © 1991 American Management Association
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Is A High-Performance Team?
By the end of this chapter, the student will be able to:
1. Identify and describe an effective or high-performance team.
2. Explain the benefits of teamwork to the organization, to a manager or supervisor, and to the individuals involved.
3. Describe the organizational, managerial, and employee-related factors that hinder or help a team.
* Introduction: The Challenge
Your boss has called you in this morning and said, "You've been tapped to head up marketing for the new product line. It'll take a full team effort: design, production, advertising, and sales. We're meeting in the boardroom at 1:30 to review your preliminary plan for forming this team. As you know, this project's success can mean a great deal for your career."
Is this a dream come true—or a nightmare? That depends on how well prepared you are for handling the job. And the job means more than just a successful marketing campaign; it will show also how well you manage the team.
Teams often come about this way: where yesterday none existed, today one does, and you are in charge. On the other hand, any work group can be formed into a team, and in that situation if you are manager of the work group, you are already in charge. Your task, in either case, consists of not merely creating a team, but creating and leading a high-performance team—a team that considers every goal a challenge and every problem an opportunity.
* What Is a Team?
The group with whom you play softball or with whom you bowl, the committee at church or synagogue on which you serve, the task force on which you are working—those are teams. They may or may not be effective teams, but they meet specific criteria:
a relatively small group of people,
formed around common interests, values, and history, and
brought together to meet a specific set of relatively short-term goals or objectives.
Team members have identifiable roles related to specific activities that accomplish the team's goals and objectives. In the business world, teams are usually formed by management to meet specific business goals.
* High-Performance Teams
You can form, any group into a team, but for a team to perform at peak level, certain conditions must exist. High-performance teams operate in an atmosphere of mutual respect (reciprocity) in which team members identify with each other and with the team as a whole. Not only are such teams efficient in achieving business goals, but they are also effective in getting the job done while satisfying the needs and interests of the team members.
According to Lee and Buchholz and Roth, at least five traits characterize effective teams:
A Self-Generated Commitment
Each member feels a sense of ownership and control with regard to the team. That feeling comes from being involved as a valued participant in the team's processes and activities and from being involved in making decisions that affect the individual's work life.
Agreement Through Consensus
Vote taking, where the majority rules, often suppresses individual opinions, wishes, or feelings. On the other hand, consensus-taking—a team decision-making process in which conflicts can be resolved without rancor—produces decisions and actions that represent the interests, needs, wishes, and abilities of each member.
A Healthy Degree of Conflict and Creativity
Conflict is healthy when it produces creativity and high-quality results. Conflict matched with consensus encourages new ways of solving old problems or new directions or new outcomes. Thus, properly managed, disagreements result in creative responses to issues. How a team perceives conflict and manages it distinguishes an effective from an ineffective team.
A high level of communication runs through and connects the first three traits; they are impossible without effective communication. Effective communication is impossible without a climate that encourages appropriate and responsible behavior on the part of each member; this includes being available and accessible to one another.
All the members, not just the manager, must encourage candor with one another, a willingness to accept negative as well as positive feedback. Team members must be responsive to each others' needs and to the needs of the team.
They must be willing to cooperate with one another and collaborate on all team efforts, sharing their information with one another (transferring what they know or can do for one another) rather than "hoarding" it. But most of all, for effective communication to exist, members must offer one another dependability and credibility.
The larger organization's mandate empowers and supports the team, thereby creating a basis for influencing the whole organization. The team then empowers and supports its members in the same way.
Empowerment goes beyond involvement; it means influencing and being recognized as an influencer as well as making decisions and being allowed to act on those decisions. For empowerment to exist, the following conditions must be present:
1. Leadership must be shared; team members must contribute to and influence the team in a manner appropriate to their individual abilities, skills, and preferences.
2. The team's vision must be shared; everyone must be forward-looking, seeking challenges instead of allowing changes to push the team from behind.
3. Responsibility must be shared; members must be as responsible for the team's results as the manager.
4. Responsiveness must be shared; the entire team must be willing to identify opportunities for growth and to act on team decisions.
High-performance teams may seem to be a management consultant's pipe dream, but they do exist. Consider one case in point briefly described in Exhibit 1–1.
* When to Form a Team
Teams are not always appropriate. Some jobs require the technical skills of only one person, working alone. Producing a sophisticated scientific computer program, for instance, would not lend itself well to teamwork. If one person working alone can better meet a tight deadline, a team would not be effective. A team should be formed only when the team is likely to out-perform an individual or group of individuals working separately. The following conditions are also crucial to forming a team successfully:
1. A particular business objective calls for a team approach.
2. Time to discuss and debate decisions is available.
3. Knowledge or skills are needed that one person alone cannot provide.
4. The knowledge or skills needed are available or can be recruited.
5. Teamwork would promote acceptance of decisions or would maintain morale.
6. The team's output could affect the vertical or horizontal relationships within the organization.
7. Teamwork would raise the quality of the decisions made or actions taken.
8. Teamwork would lower the risk of failure.
9. A variety of people are required to implement the decisions or action plans of the group.
* Benefits of Teamwork
Teamwork benefits everyone—individual employees, managers or supervisors, and the organization.
Benefits to Individuals
Individuals working in teams find their work to be less stressful. Although they assume responsibility for their roles within the team, overall responsibility for success shifts from the shoulders of one individual to the shoulders of many. Shared responsibility relieves the panic and helplessness employees who work alone often experience when faced with seemingly overwhelming objectives or odds for success. Individual employees feel more a part of the organization. They see themselves and their relationships to others not only in terms of physical proximity (the woman next to me or the manager down the hall), but also in the ways their jobs relate to jobs other people perform. Their status becomes real, not merely a box on a chart. They experience their actual position and importance within their own team.
That status within the team translates into status within the organization as a whole. Team members see and are recognized for their contributions to and influence on the team; the team sees and is recognized for its contribution to and influence on the entire organization. Then, by association, individual team members experience additional satisfaction from what the team accomplishes and from the recognition it receives. This process is similar to the way communities bestow status on the athletes in the teams that represent them in professional sports.
The esteem in which the organization holds the team and its members is a wonderful source of gratification, although team membership in itself provides the greatest source of personal satisfaction. Team members experience a sense of accomplishment because they can see the end results of their efforts in what the team produces. Even if that end product becomes the raw material on which some other units or teams will operate, team members see and understand their team's output and how it relates to the organization's output as a whole.
That sense of accomplishment acts as a reward—probably to a greater extent than you imagine. Many organizations use bonuses, gifts, and other external rewards to show their appreciation for jobs well done. External rewards do influence employee productivity: try to take them away and see what happens.
On the other hand, people are influenced less by external than by internal rewards, which strengthen personal commitment to their jobs, their teams, and the organization as a whole. A sense of belonging, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of self-fulfillment provide these internal rewards and strongly influence productivity. As a result, an effective team is more productive than a traditional work unit. The benefit of teamwork to the individual thus benefits the organization as well.
Benefits to Manegerial Personnel
Supervisors and managers can also benefit from high-performance teams through increased productivity, improved cost/benefit ratios (profitability), improved morale, and improved loyalty and retention. They find it easier and less stressful to achieve their objectives and their unit's goals. Add these benefits to those that they derive as individual employees by virtue of their membership in a team, and we see that supervisors and managers have much to gain by setting up high-performance teams within their groups whenever possible.
Benefits to the Organization
Organizations share in the productivity gains their managers generate by forming appropriate teams. The teams make significant contributions to profitability, growth, and development. The organization, by having created the teams, then establishes a public image that attracts both consumers and prospective employees. As a result, it also enjoys leadership in its markets and industries.
* Barriers to Effective Teamwork
Barriers to forming and managing effective teams can arise from the organization, from management personnel, and from employees themselves.
Many organizations have traditional hierarchical or bureaucratic structures, in which "top-down" management and departmental specialization dominate. Add geographical dispersion, and you have a snapshot of most large businesses (perhaps also the one to which you belong). Such structures and dispersion often create barriers to teamwork.
The pyramid in Exhibit 1–2 reflects what you will find in many medium to large companies (500 or more employees). The higher up the pyramid, the fewer the people, the more general their responsibilities, and the greater the concentration of authority and power. The lower down the pyramid, the larger the number of people, the more specific their responsibilities and the less their authority and power.
Compensation and benefits also divide management from non-management employees; the higher the pay grade the greater the rewards. A feeling for teamwork is difficult to generate when some team members have more to gain than others. Many professional sports teams experience the stresses created by such inequities—much to their fans' dismay.
Not only can structural barriers block team effectiveness, poorly designed or poorly implemented management systems—recruiting, hiring policies and procedures, goal setting, and communication systems—can also impede it. Selecting the wrong people can make team building nearly impossible. Hiring practices are by no means scientific, and many people are hired because the managers like them or see themselves reflected in them. Few managers are trained to select the appropriate candidates for regular jobs, let alone to recruit the right candidates when forming teams. Such teams often produce the proverbial camel from the blueprint of a horse.
Organizations also do not always identify or communicate clear goals and objectives. Telling a group of employees that "we must be profitable next year" does not send the complete message. Many small and medium-sized organizations do not publicize their goals and objectives, nor apply measurable or observable standards.
Many organizations do not write clear job descriptions, and when they do, they rarely express them as actions that contribute to the business goals or objectives of the organization: profitability, growth, development, and market share or industry leadership. (Even not-for-profits share these goals, though they define profitability as staying within the budget.) Yet, job descriptions usually do not say, "By doing this, the employee will increase profits by...." No, usually they consist of nothing more than lists of tasks or activities—daily "To-Do" lists.
Management personnel (first-line supervisors and above) often feel threatened by teams. They fear losing power or status, believing that if the work group can do the job without a powerful supervisor at its head, then the group will not need a supervisor. But like most fears, this one has no basis in reality. Supervisors not only have important functions in a team environment, but also can benefit greatly from teamwork. Still, even well-intentioned managers often fail to plan properly for forming or maintaining teams.
Managers also often do not delegate to teams the authority to make decisions or take necessary actions. Not delegating authority and responsibility interferes with teamwork: since teams cannot move forward without the power to do so, they frequently stop trying. Or, if teams go ahead and do something without permission, their managers punish them—even if the team was right to do it. Often that punishment takes the form of withholding necessary resources.
When managers fail to provide the proper resources—including teamwork training—they sabotage their own plans for building teamwork, infecting them with a built-in "failure virus." The plans stop short of including a resource or environmental analysis, leaving the team members to do the plan without the resources they need. You may have heard the order, "Get it done. Do whatever it takes," only to find out that "whatever it takes" is not available.
Non-management employees often feel threatened by the demands of teamwork. They are afraid of losing status and becoming lost in the crowd. They are concerned about missing out on recognition, rewards, and promotions if they are merely members of a team that swallows up their individual contribution and influence. They also sometimes fear taking responsibility for their own actions. These concerns should be addressed at the outset; if not, they become legitimate fears.
* Support for High-Performance Teams
Careful thought and preparation can overcome organizational barriers to, and managerial and non-managerial employee concerns about, high-performance teams.
A traditional bureaucratic organization can build successful teams by eliminating structural barriers: encourage lateral and upward communication and delegate more decision-making and execution authority to lower levels (including line-level employees)—the way, for example, IBM does.
Beyond that, flattening the organization will cause traditional structural barriers virtually to disappear. Teams work best in flat organizations where functions are integrated around business goals and objectives rather than separated into specialized departments. Production teams, such as those at General Mills in Lodi, California, take full responsibility for their products, beginning with the recipe and ending with the shipping (Dumaine).
Flat organizations eliminate the need for some managers, depending on how jobs are described. A flat structure can be defined by functions but does not have to be; for example, supervisors do not have to be functional experts. Jobs are matrixed (integrated) by objectives—what has to be accomplished to be successful. Ideally, managers manage people and support the daily operations of a work group; they do not have to be technicians or production experts. They do have to be managers.
Flat organizations are characterized by matrices—members of various functional groups pulled together when they are needed to meet a short-term goal—as well as by integrated production units.
The manufacturing business depicted in Exhibit 1-3 is divided into functional departments, but the individual employees are assigned to teams formed around specific objectives (represented by the personnel listed under the heading "Production Team"). The production team in the diagram manufactures (for the sake of discussion) certain electronic components. It is an intact work group that consists of whatever personnel is needed to design, produce, sell, and distribute these components.
Excerpted from How to Build High-Performance Teams by Donald H. Weiss Copyright © 1991 by American Management Association. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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