- Understand the importance of learning to participate in team-based activities.
- Identify the skills needed by team members and the roles that members of a team might play.
- Learn how to survive team projects in college (and actually enjoy yourself).
- Explain the skills and behaviors that foster effective team leadership.
“Life Is All about Group Work”
“I’ll work extra hard and do it myself, but please don’t make me have to work in a group.”
Like it or not, you’ll probably be given some teamwork assignments while you’re in college. More than two-thirds of all students report having participated in the work of an organized team, and if you’re in business school, you will almost certainly find yourself engaged in team-based activities (Whetten & Cameron, 2007; Wellins et. al., 1991).
Why do we put so much emphasis on something that, reportedly, makes many students feel anxious and academically drained? Here’s one college student’s practical-minded answer to this question:
In the real world, you have to work with people. You don’t always know the people you work with, and you don’t always get along with them. Your boss won’t particularly care, and if you can’t get the job done, your job may end up on the line. Life is all about group work, whether we like it or not. And school, in many ways, prepares us for life, including working with others” (Nichols, 2003).
She’s right. In placing so much emphasis on teamwork skills and experience, college business departments are doing the responsible thing—preparing students for the business world that awaits them. A survey of Fortune 1000 companies reveals that 79 percent already rely on self-managing teams and 91 percent on various forms of employee work groups. Another survey found that the skill that most employers value in new employees is the ability to work in teams (Whetten & Cameron, 2007; Lawler, 2003). If you’re already trying to work your way up an organizational ladder, consider the advice of former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca: “A major reason that capable people fail to advance is that they don’t work well with their colleagues” (Paulson, 1990). The importance of the ability to work in teams was confirmed in a survey of leadership practices of more than sixty of the world’s top organizations (Fortune Magazine, 1999). When top executives in these organizations were asked, “What causes high-potential leadership candidates to derail? (stop moving up in the organization),” 60 percent of the organizations cited “inability to work in teams.” Interestingly, only 9 percent attributed the failure of these executives to advance to “lack of technical ability.” While technical skills will be essential in your getting hired into an organization, your team skills will play a significant role in your ability to advance.
To be team-ready or not to be team-ready—that is the question. Or, to put it in plainer terms, the question is not whether you’ll find yourself working as part of a team. You will. The question is whether you’ll know how to participate successfully in team-based activities.
Will You Make a Good Team Member?
What if your instructor in this course decides to divide the class into several three-, four-, or five-member teams and assigns each team to develop a new product plus a business plan to get it into production and out on the market? What teamwork skills could you bring to the table? What teamwork skills do you need to work on? What qualities do you possess that might make you a good team leader?
What Skills Does the Team Need?
Sometimes we hear about a sports team made up of mostly average players who win a championship because of coaching genius, flawless teamwork, and superhuman determination (Robbins & Judge, 2009). But not terribly often. In fact, we usually hear about such teams simply because they’re newsworthy—exceptions to the rule. Typically a team performs well because its members possess some level of talent. This doesn’t mean, however, that we should reduce team performance to the mere sum of its individual contributions: Members’ talents aren’t very useful if they’re not managed in a collective effort to achieve a common goal.
In the final analysis, of course, a team can succeed only if its members provide the skills that need managing. In particular, every team requires some mixture of three sets of skills:
- Technical skills. Because teams must perform certain tasks, they need people with the skills to perform them. For example, if your project calls for a lot of math work, it’s good to have someone with the necessary quantitative skills.
- Decision-making and problem-solving skills. Because every task is subject to problems, and because handling every problem means deciding on the best solution, it’s good to have members who are skilled in identifying problems, evaluating alternative solutions, and deciding on the best options.
- Interpersonal skills. Because teams are composed of people, and because people need direction and motivation and depend on communication, every group benefits from members who know how to listen, provide feedback, and smooth ruffled feathers. The same people are usually good at communicating the team’s goals and needs to outsiders.
The key to success is ultimately the right mix of these skills. Remember, too, that no team needs to possess all these skills—never mind the right balance of them—from day one. In many cases, a team gains certain skills only when members volunteer for certain tasks and perfect their skills in the process of performing them. For the same reason, effective teamwork develops over time as team members learn how to handle various team-based tasks. In a sense, teamwork is always work in progress.
What Roles Do Team Members Play?
Like your teamwork skills, expect your role on a team to develop over time. Also remember that, both as a student and as a member of the workforce, you’ll be a member of a team more often than a leader (a subject that we’ll take up in the next section). Team members, however, can have as much impact on a team’s success as its leaders. The key is the quality of the contributions they make in performing nonleadership roles (Whetten & Cameron, 2007).
What, exactly, are those roles? At this point, you’ve probably concluded that every team faces two basic challenges:
- Accomplishing its assigned task
- Maintaining or improving group cohesiveness
Whether you affect the team’s work positively or negatively depends on the extent to which you help it or hinder it in meeting these two challenges (Whetten & Cameron, 2007). We can thus divide teamwork roles into two categories, depending on which of these two challenges each role addresses. These two categories (task-facilitating roles and relationship-building roles) are summarized in Table 8.2 “Roles that Team Members Play”.
Task-facilitating roles address challenge number one—accomplishing the team goals. As you can see from Table 8.2 “Roles that Team Members Play”, such roles include not only providing information when someone else needs it but also asking for it when you need it. In addition, it includes monitoring (checking on progress) and enforcing (making sure that team decisions are carried out). Task facilitators are especially valuable when assignments aren’t clear or when progress is too slow. Moreover, every team needs people who recognize when a little task facilitation is called for.
When you challenge unmotivated behavior or help other team members understand their roles, you’re performing a relationship-building role and addressing challenge number two—maintaining or improving group cohesiveness. This type of role includes just about every activity that improves team “chemistry,” from confronting to empathizing.
Bear in mind three points about this model of team-membership roles: (1) Teams are most effective when there’s a good balance between task facilitation and relationship building; (2) it’s hard for any given member to perform both types of roles, as some people are better at focusing on tasks and others on relationships; and (3) overplaying any facet of any role can easily become counterproductive. For example, elaborating on something may not be the best strategy when the team needs to make a quick decision; and consensus building may cause the team to overlook an important difference of opinion.
Finally, review Table 8.3 “How to Block Teamwork”, which summarizes a few characteristics of another kind of team-membership role. So-called blocking roles consist of behavior that inhibits either team performance or that of individual members. Every member of the team should know how to recognize blocking behavior. If teams don’t confront dysfunctional members, they can destroy morale, hamper consensus building, create conflict, and hinder progress.