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The Five Biggest Teamwork Ills

Making sure everyone is pulling their weight

Published: Monday, March 7, 2016 - 14:14

Twisting your features into a mask of pain, you dig your heels into the soft grass. A rope tears into your palms. A clear, tiny voice speaks to you amid the many confused thoughts swirling in your head: “So-o-o-o... what am I learning from this experience?”

Well, if you’re like many who have done this exercise at a corporate retreat, you should be learning about teamwork. As others join you, the collective rope-pulling effort seems to demonstrate the point. Little by little, the boulder starts moving until it nudges over the 30-ft mark. Cheers erupt. You notice something, however: With each additional person who contributes to the effort, the boulder moves faster, but not as fast as you would have imagined. By the time the tenth person steps up, you feel that the group is barely pulling harder than when only six were involved, even though everyone seems to be working hard.

This well-documented phenomenon, known as social loafing, is an issue that plagues any group of individuals working together, but it isn’t the only one. Knowing what to look out for can be half the battle, so we hereby present the five biggest teamwork ills along with some prescriptions to help you avoid them.

1. Overemphasizing abstract goals
People like to talk about transcendent goals for a reason. Steve Jobs was known for his inspirational keynote talks that emphasized changing the world. Such goals are uplifting and can make work feel more meaningful. But when teams overestimate the importance of inspiring vision when setting goals for their team, they risk not paying enough attention to aligning personal priorities with those bigger goals. If team members don’t understand what’s in it for them, it can be hard for them to commit to working towards team goals.
Teamwork Rx: Make sure that big, collective goals align with small, personal commitments that drive performance.

2. Underemphasizing roles
Many teams think that merely getting the right talent in play is all that it takes for a team to be successful. Research has shown, however, that you need clear structure and well-defined interdependent roles to best leverage the strengths of those on your team. Contrast the 2004 U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball Dream Team’s disappointing performance to the 2015 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors’ expert management of team roles.
Teamwork Rx: Well-structured teams generally outperform those with more raw talent, whether in terms of strength, skill, or IQ. Take time to find the roles and structure that make sense for your team.

3. Making too many rules
Human beings are rule-making machines—it is what defines us as a species and allows us to interact as social beings. Often the tendency in teams is to try to plan for every possible situation and create rules for all potential contingencies, but this is time-consuming as well as ineffective. Starbucks CEO and founder Howard Schultz understood the importance of focusing on the right rules when he decided to bring back in-store bean grinding to help restore the brand’s reputation and performance.
Teamwork Rx: Focus on the few rules that are likely to have the biggest effect on your team’s culture and performance: information-sharing, decision-making and conflict resolution.

4. Ignoring reflection
One of the major cognitive biases recognized by research is outcome bias, by which, if you’re successful, you don’t really spend time to reflect on what went well or could have gone better. However, in a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (otherwise known as VUCA), successes are fleeting, and reflection is as imperative when things are going well as they are when they’re not. Too often companies and teams reserve formal reflection for annual retreats or quarterly reviews, when in reality it needs to be taking place with much more frequency.
Teamwork Rx: Remember that check-ins need not always be huge affairs reserved for day-long retreats—they can be as simple as a weekly stand-up meeting.

5. Failing to sell the change
You can be right, but ultimately still be unsuccessful. Such was the case for Lloyd Braun, the ABC television executive who was the champion and driving force behind the smash hit, Lost. Braun was so convinced that his idea would be a hit that he barreled through and green-lit the most expensive television pilot budget up to that time—$12 million. He did not take the time to get others on board with his vision, and even though his intuition was correct, he was fired before the show even premiered.
Teamwork Rx: Strength of will and charisma are not enough to push through change—work hard to get buy-in so that people want to come along with you.

In the end, good teaming is about being mindful about how you’re working together, and making sure to check-in frequently to close the gaps between what you say you want to do and what you’re actually doing.


About The Authors

Mario Moussa’s picture

Mario Moussa

Mario Moussa is a successful author, keynote speaker, and management consultant who teaches in the executive programs at the Wharton School of Business. Moussa advises senior leaders about top team effectiveness, organizational culture, and large-scale change initiatives. Moussa has led the design of customized leadership development programs for organizations in financial services, pharmaceuticals, energy, healthcare, higher education, and government Moussa is co-author of the books Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance (Wiley, 2016) and The Art of Woo: Using Strategic Persuasion to Sell Your Ideas (Penguin Books, 2008).

Derek Newberry’s picture

Derek Newberry

As a business anthropologist, Derek Newberry is an expert in the human factors that drive organizational effectiveness. Newberry has worked with Fortune 500 firms, hospitals, and nonprofits to design growth strategies that tap into employee motivation. He teaches courses on group dynamics and corporate culture at the Wharton School of Business. He has published extensively and lectured internationally on cultural barriers to organizational change. Newberry is a co-author of the book Committed: How Successful Teams Inspire Passion and Performance (Wiley, 2016).

Madeline Boyer’s picture

Madeline Boyer

Madeline Boyer is a senior consultant with Percipient Partners, a lecturer at the Wharton School of Business, and a cultural business anthropologist Her work, research, and teaching focus on new workplace phenomena: particularly shared and collaborative workspaces, and remote workforce management (leading ‘wide teams’). Boyer has worked with health and research institutions, nonprofits, Fortune 500 companies, and Wharton Executive Education on projects ranging from stakeholder research, change management and strategic planning, to executive development and teamwork coaching. Boyer is a co-author of the book Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance (Wiley, 2016).