“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.
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.
Class Team Projects
As we highlighted earlier, throughout your academic career you’ll likely participate in a number of team projects. Not only will you make lasting friends by being a member of a team, but in addition you’ll produce a better product. To get insider advice on how to survive team projects in college (and perhaps really enjoy yourself in the process), let’s look at some suggestions offered by two students who have gone through this experience (Nichols, 2003; Feenstra, 2002).
- Draw up a team charter. At the beginning of the project, draw up a team charter (or contract) that includes the goals of the group; ways to ensure that each team member’s ideas are considered and respected; when and where your group will meet; what happens if a team member skips meetings or doesn’t do his or her share of the work; how conflicts will be resolved.
- Contribute your ideas. Share your ideas with your group; they might be valuable to the 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. Pick a weekly meeting time and write it into your schedule as if it were a class. Never skip it. And make your meetings productive.
- Be considerate of each other. Be patient, listen to everyone, communicate frequently, involve everyone in decision making, don’t think you’re always right, be positive, avoid infighting, build trust.
- Create a process for resolving conflict. Do this before conflict arises. Set up rules to help the group decide whether the conflict is constructive, whether it’s personal, or whether it arises because someone won’t pull his or her weight. Decide, as a group, how conflict will be handled.
- Use the strengths of each team member. Some students are good researchers, others are good writers, others have strong problem-solving or computer skills, while others are good at generating ideas. Don’t have your writer do the research and your researcher do the writing. Not only would the team not be using its resources wisely, but two team members will be frustrated because they’re not using their strengths.
- Don’t do all the work yourself. Work with your team to get the work done. The project output is not as important as the experience of working in a team.
- Set deadlines. Don’t leave everything to the end; divide up tasks, hold team members accountable, and set intermediary deadlines for each team member to get his or her work done. Work together to be sure the project is in on time and in good shape.
What Does It Take to Lead a Team?
“Some people are born leaders, some achieve leadership, and some have leadership thrust upon them.” Or so Shakespeare might have said if he were managing a twenty-first-century work team instead of a sixteenth-century theater troupe. At some point in a successful career, whether in business, school, or any other form of organizational work, you may be asked (or assigned) to lead a team. The more successful you are, the more likely you are to receive such an invitation. So, what will you have to do as a leader? What skills will you need?
Like so many of the questions that we ask in this book, these questions don’t have any simple answers. As for the first question—what does a leader have to do?—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.
Influence Team Members and Gain their Trust
Team leaders must be able to influence their team members. And notice that we say influence: except in unusual circumstances, giving commands and controlling everything directly doesn’t work very well (Whetten & Cameron, 2007). As one team of researchers puts it, team leaders are more effective when they work with members rather than on them (Whetten & Cameron, 2007). 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 at seven of these:
- Demonstrate integrity. Do what you say you’ll do, and act in accordance with your stated values. Be honest in communicating with members, 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, before embarking on a new stage of a project recognize the value of the views that members already hold in common.
- Manage agreement and disagreement. When members agree with you, focus on your point of view and present it reasonably. When they disagree with you, 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. Give them the information they need and otherwise help them to perform tasks.
- Share information. Let members 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. Collect information from outside sources, and make sure that it gets to the team members who need 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
- Team members deal with two basic challenges: (1) accomplishing the team’s assigned task and (2) maintaining or improving group cohesiveness.
- Task-facilitating roles address challenge number one—accomplishing team tasks. Relationship-building roles address challenge number two—maintaining or improving group cohesiveness. Blocking roles consist of behavior that inhibits either team performance or that of individual members.
The following are eight ways to add value to and survive team projects in college:
- Draw up a team charter.
- Contribute your ideas.
- Never miss a meeting.
- Be considerate of each other.
- Create a process for resolving conflict.
- Use the strengths of each team member.
- Don’t do all the work yourself.
- Set deadlines.
The following are seven types of skills and behaviors that help team leaders influence their members and gain their trust:
- Demonstrating integrity
- Being clear and consistent
- Generating positive energy
- Acknowledging common points of view
- Managing agreement and disagreement
- Encouraging and coaching
- Sharing information
- 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?
- One student, a veteran of team-based assignments, has some good advice to offer students who are following in her footsteps. Don’t start, she advises, until you’ve drawn up a team charter. This charter (or contract) should include the following: the goals of the group; information on meeting times and places; ways to ensure that each member’s ideas are considered and respected; methods for resolving conflicts; a “kick-out” clause—a statement of what will happen if a team member skips meetings or fails to do his or her share of the work (Feenstra, 2002). Now assume that you’ve just been assigned to a team in one of your classes. Prepare a first-draft charter in which you spell out rules of conduct for the team and its members.
Feenstra, K., “Study Skills: Team Work Skills for Group Projects,” iamnext.com, 2002, http://www.iamnext.com/academics/grouproject.html (accessed October 11, 2011).
Fortune Magazine, “What Makes Great Leaders: Rethinking the Route to Effective Leadership,” Findings from the Fortune Magazine/Hay Group 1999 Executive Survey of Leadership Effectiveness, http://ei.haygroup.com/downloads/pdf/Leadership%20White%20Paper.pdf (accessed August 9, 2008).
Lawler, E. E., Treat People Right (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).
Nichols, H., “Teamwork in School, Work and Life,” iamnext.com, 2003, http://www.iamnext.com/academics/groupwork.html (accessed September 1, 2008).
Paulson, T. L., “Building Bridges vs. Burning Them: The Subtle Art of Influence,” 1990, at http://books.google.com/books?id=iXkq-IFFJpcC&pg=PA55&lpg=PA55&dq=%22capable+people+fail+to+ advance%22&source=web&ots=a2l2cJ2_AF&sig=4Xk7EuOq2htSf2XqBWSFQxJwVqE &hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result (accessed September 2, 2008).
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Whetten, D. A., and Kim S. Cameron, Developing Management Skills, 7th ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2007), 498–99.