“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’ve probably already notice that you’ll have team-based assignments 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.19
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.”20
She’s right. In placing so much emphasis on teamwork skills and experience, business colleges are doing the responsible thing—preparing students for the business world. A survey of Fortune 1000 companies reveals that 79 percent use self-managing teams and 91 percent use other 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.21 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.”22 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.23
When top executives in these organizations were asked what causes the careers of high-potential leadership candidates to derail, 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.”
To put it in plain 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 decides to divide the class into teams and assigns each team to develop a new product plus a business plan to get it on the market? What teamwork skills could you bring to the table, and what teamwork skills do you need to improve? Do you possess qualities 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.24 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. Members’ talents must also be managed in a collective effort to achieve a common goal.
In the final analysis, 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 need direction and motivation and depend on communication, every group benefits from members who know how to listen, provide feedback, and resolve conflict. Some members must also be good at communicating the team’s goals and needs to outsiders.
The key is ultimately to have 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?
As a student and later in the workplace, you’ll be a member of a team more often than a leader. Team members can have as much impact on a team’s success as its leaders. A key is the quality of the contributions they make in performing non-leadership roles.25
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.26 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 here:
|“Jot down a few ideas and we’ll see what everyone has come up with.”
|“Now, that’s what I mean by a practical application.”
|“Does anyone know if this is the latest data we have?”
|“Actually, I think you’re both saying pretty much the same thing.”
|“Here are the latest numbers from….”
|“Before we go on, would anyone like a drink?”
|“I think a good example of what you’re talking about is….”
|“How does that suggestion relate to the topic that we’re discussing?”
|“Let’s try to finish this proposal before we adjourn.”
|“It’s been a long time since I’ve had this many laughs at a meeting in this department.”
|“If you’ll take care of the first section, I’ll make sure that we have the second by next week.”
|“If you need some help pulling the data together, let me know.”
|“What happened to the energy level in this room?”
|“Do we agree on the first four points even if number five needs a little more work?”
|“Can we make this work and stay within budget?”
|“It’s not you. The numbers are confusing.”
|“We’re getting off track. Let’s try to stay on topic.”
|“Before we jump ahead, here’s what we’ve decided so far.”
Adapted from David A. Whetten and Kim S. Cameron (2007). Developing Management Skills, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. Pp. 517, 519.
Task-facilitating roles address challenge number one—accomplishing the team goals. As you can see from Table P.6, 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.
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 activities that improve team “chemistry,” from empathizing to confronting.
Bear in mind three points about this model: (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 Figure 1.8, 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.
|Talk as much as possible; interrupt and interject
|Split hairs and belabor every detail
|Frustrate efforts to come to conclusions: decline to agree, sidetrack the discussion, rehash old ideas
|Stay on the fringe; keep interaction to a minimum; wait for others to take on work
|Blow things out of proportion; float unfounded conclusions
|Criticize and withhold credit whenever possible
|Make premature decisions
|Rush to conclusions before goals are set, information is shared, or problems are clarified
|Present opinions as facts
|Refuse to seek factual support for ideas that you personally favor
|Object to ideas by people who tend to disagree with you
|Use status or title to push through ideas, rather than seek consensus on their value
|Throw up roadblocks to progress; look on the negative side
|Refuse to stay on topic; focus on minor points rather than main points
Adapted from David A. Whetten and Kim S. Cameron (2007). Developing Management Skills, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education. Pp. 519-20.
Class Team Projects
In your academic career you’ll participate in a number of team projects. To get insider advice on how to succeed on team projects in college, let’s look at some suggestions offered by students who have gone through this experience.27
- Draw up a team charter. At the beginning of the project, draw up a team charter that includes: the goals of the group; ways to ensure that each team member’s ideas are considered; timing and frequency of meeting. A more informal way to arrive at a team charter is to simply set some ground rules to which everyone agrees.
- Contribute your ideas. Share your ideas with your group. The worst that could happen is that they won’t be used (which is what would happen if you kept quiet).
- Never miss a meeting or deadline. Pick a weekly meeting time and write it into your schedule as if it were a class. Never skip it.
- Be considerate of each other. Be patient, listen to everyone, involve everyone in decision making, avoid infighting, build trust.
- Create a process for resolving conflict. Do so before conflict arises. Set up rules to help the group decide how conflict will be handled.
- Use the strengths of each team member. All students bring different strengths. Utilize the unique value of each person.
- Don’t do all the work yourself. Work with your team to get the work done. The project output is often less important than the experience.
What Does It Take to Lead a Team?
To borrow from Shakespeare, “Some people are born leaders, some achieve leadership, and some have leadership thrust upon them.” At some point in a successful career, you will likely be asked to lead a team. What will you have to do to succeed as a leader?
Like so many of the questions that we ask in this book, this question doesn’t have any simple answers. We can provide one broad answer: a leader must help members develop the attitudes and behavior that contribute to team success: interdependence, collective responsibility, shared commitment, and so forth.
Team leaders must be able to influence their team members. Notice that we say influence: except in unusual circumstances, giving commands and controlling everything directly doesn’t work very well.28 As one team of researchers puts it, team leaders are more effective when they work with members rather than on them.29 Hand-in-hand with the ability to influence is the ability to gain and keep the trust of team members. People aren’t likely to be influenced by a leader whom they perceive as dishonest or selfishly motivated.
Assuming you were asked to lead a team, there are certain leadership skills and behaviors that would help you influence your team members and build trust. Let’s look briefly at some of them:
- Demonstrate integrity. Do what you say you’ll do and act in accordance with your stated values. Be honest in communicating and follow through on promises.
- Be clear and consistent. Let members know that you’re certain about what you want and remember that being clear and consistent reinforces your credibility.
- Generate positive energy. Be optimistic and compliment team members. Recognize their progress and success.
- Acknowledge common points of view. Even if you’re about to propose some kind of change, recognize the value of the views that members already hold in common.
- Manage agreement and disagreement. When members agree with you, confirm your shared point of view. When they disagree, acknowledge both sides of the issue and support your own with strong, clearly-presented evidence.
- Encourage and coach. Buoy up members when they run into new and uncertain situations and when success depends on their performing at a high level.
- Share information. Give members the information they need and let them know that you’re knowledgeable about team tasks and individual talents. Check with team members regularly to find out what they’re doing and how the job is progressing.
The original version of this chapter contained H5P content. You may want to remove or replace this element.
- A team (or a work team) is a group of people with complementary skills and diverse areas of expertise who work together to achieve a specific goal.
- Work teams have five key characteristics. They are accountable for achieving specific common goals. They function interdependently. They are stable. They have authority. And they operate in a social context.
- Work teams may be of several types:
- In the traditional manager-led team, the leader defines the team’s goals and activities and is responsible for its achieving its assigned goals.
- The leader of a self-managing team may determine overall goals, but employees control the activities needed to meet them.
- A cross-functional team is designed to take advantage of the special expertise of members drawn from different functional areas of the company.
- On virtual teams, geographically dispersed members interact electronically in the process of pursuing a common goal.
- Group cohesiveness refers to the attractiveness of a team to its members. If a group is high in cohesiveness, membership is quite satisfying to its members; if it’s low in cohesiveness, members are unhappy with it and may even try to leave it.
- As the business world depends more and more on teamwork, it’s increasingly important for incoming members of the workforce to develop skills and experience in team-based activities.
- Every team requires some mixture of three skill sets:
- Technical skills: skills needed to perform specific tasks
- Decision-making and problem-solving skills: skills needed to identify problems, evaluate alternative solutions, and decide on the best options
- Interpersonal skills: skills in listening, providing feedback, and resolving conflict