How to Make Ineffective Teams Effective
Teams have been in existence for millennia. For example, until the widespread use of the internal combustion engine, teams of animals were yoked together to provide transportation of freight and people and, to this day, this method is still used in less-developed nations as well as in communities that shun modern life such as the Amish.
Team sports are thought to have begun 5000 years ago. Back then, the Chinese played an early form of football, though the World Cup was not to come into existence for some time.
These few examples demonstrate that what is considered to be the modern day version of teams at work may not be as new as we’d like to think. It seems that the old proverb that there’s nothing new under the sun has held true again.
Another truism is that leaders, managers, consultants, and academics all seem to have short memories. Often, they try to invent something that purports to be new, when in fact it has been there all along. Teams are a good example of that.
Teamwork in organisations was first referred to in the academic literature more than a century ago, though teams people at work date back to at least the time of the ancient Egyptians. It’s impossible to say when modern day teams began, if they ever did. More likely, they were nothing more than a continuation of what went on in previous generations.
What’s different is the autonomy that teams were given. The teams that built the Pyramids, for instance, weren’t given the task, and then left to their own devices to figure out how to do it. An overseer appointed by Pharaoh made sure it was done to particular specifications. The jury is still out on exactly what labourers built them, but it’s known that when the Pharaoh died, their slaves were often executed as well. So much for job satisfaction.
Like all popular management ideas, however, modern day teams have taken on a life of their own. You’re considered old-fashioned - behind the times - if you don’t use teams in your organisation. Much like the 10,000 hour rule of deliberate practice, for instance, the idea of teams was taken out of context. It was then applied to everyone, whether it was appropriate or not. A brief glance at a typical job advert will bear this out. Everyone is expected to be a team player. All others need not apply; especially those who do their best work when they’re left alone.
This leads to the question, why teams? If teams aren’t for everyone, then why do we insist that everyone conforms to a mould as if they were? And why if they aren’t appropriate are we afraid we’ll miss out if we don’t have them?
To answer these questions, we have to think about how they’re formed.
There’s an old model that aptly describes the process: Forming, storming, norming, and performing.
Forming refers to what happens at the beginning. When new teams form, there’s a lot of uncertainty. People often aren’t sure exactly what they’ll do, how they’ll fit in, or what the idiosyncrasies of their team members are. And there’s no fixed time during which these things will be ironed out. Every team is different.
Storming describes the process whereby people get past the niceties - the acting, so to speak - and start to be themselves. It’s during this time when it’s most likely that feathers will get ruffled. Even the team leader may feel pushed around a bit.
Norming is the end result of the storming phase. It occurs when the dust settles. People stopping fighting with each other and accept the place that people have found for themselves. They start to function like a unit - everyone pulling in the same direction.
Teams that are performing are doing what they were created to do, and when you look back over the process, it’s easy to wonder how they ever got to this stage.
Why are some teams ineffective?
In order to understand why some teams are ineffective, further questions have to be asked.
For instance, was there a time when the teams was effective, and now it no longer is?
Another question: Has the team always been ineffective?
Another question: Is the team effective in some things, but not others?
You must know the answer to these questions before you can design a plan for turning them around.
Lack of leadership
One reason why a team has been effective, but no longer is can be from a lack of leadership. Rotating the team leader is considered to be a way to prevent any one person from gaining too much authority, though it can also mean that at some point, a weak leader (a non-leader) will hold that position. In such cases, an informal leader may emerge who carries more practical authority than the person who is supposed to be leading everyone else.
The same thing can be said for a team that has always been ineffective. Maybe the higher-ups have appointed a team leader who actually doesn’t know how to lead, or is a puppet for someone else, or who isn’t respected or trusted by the other team members. A lack of trust can be the result of being placed in that role by someone who isn’t trusted.
If the team is effective some of the time, but not all of the time, then it could be that it’s not being given the kinds of projects that allow it to maximise the talent and experience that it has.
The obvious solution in all of these examples and many others like it is to be sure that the ineffective team has the leadership it needs.
Marshall Goldsmith, author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, said in an interview that leadership is an action verb. It’s not a title. In other words, leaders lead, and so by definition, those who don’t aren’t leaders.
Think about that.
Are your team leaders leading? If not, then you must replace them with those who will.
Another problem that can make team ineffective, whether they were or not occurs when one or more members aspire above their station. This can happen especially among very clever young people - those who are destined for bigger things. Often they don’t understand what a team leader is supposed to be or do.
Lack of inclusion
A lack of inclusion is another problem. In this context, inclusion doesn’t mean all and sundry. Instead it means that after a team has formed, stormed, and normed, a new member is added. When that happens, the new person can feel like an outsider, even if that person is known to everyone. It’s a bit like sitting at a table for six for dinner, and then a distant friend shows up unexpectedly, and you have to add a seventh chair. You want the person to sit at the table with you, but it feels awkward when they do.
And it’s not just the readjustment that has to take place with the new person. Everyone on the team has to re-learn what they can say and do. The work has to be divided up that little bit differently, and that may be in addition to the fact that you already did that in cases where another member left.
The new team member also has to learn their new responsibilities. In a way, adding a new team member takes the entire team back to the Forming stage - a regression. As long as you recognise that the team will have to back up a few steps in the process, then your expectations will be consistent with reality. The danger lies in expecting too much too soon. Depending on how long the existing team has been together, it could take a while for everyone to work together again as they once did.
Some people dislike teams because in their experience, there are those who are slackers - who are lazy, do little, but are right there to share the team’s glory when things go well. Where this actually occurs, you’ll find a lack of leadership. One of the leader’s responsibilities is to make sure that everyone fulfills their responsibilities.
But that’s not all.
That slacking occurs at all means that there’s a problem with delegation and accountability. If a few members are doing most of the work, and the rest are doing the minimum, then it’s up to the leadership to redress the balance.
Are teams effective for everyone?
Earlier in this article, we asked if teams were effective for everyone. That was not a rhetorical question. Obviously, they’re not. There are situations where teams just get in the way, and where the people concerned work better by themselves.
The question has to be asked, however, in order to dispel the popular myth that Together Everyone Achieves More (TEAM), because it’s obvious that they don’t. Many hands might make light work in some things, but not in everything or by everyone. That means that you can cause your employees to be ineffective by insisting that they work on a team.
In other words, a team may be ineffective because it shouldn’t have been a team in the first place. Teams should only be used where they can be effective. They’re not to be used just because they can be.
Are all efficient teams effective?
Clearly the answer is “no”. That may surprise you because efficiency and effectiveness have been the organisational equivalent of “two peas in a pod” for several decades. The truth, however, is that they’re entirely independent of each other.
For instance, it may be more efficient to have a Zoom meeting because no one has to drive anywhere, take the train, or fly to where you are. But as the pandemic has proven, face-to-face meetings are more effective. There’s just no substitute for sitting in the same room as the person you’re meeting.
We’ve come full circle.
Work teams have been around for thousands of years. They’re not a modern invention. Throughout history, however, there have been situations where they haven’t been an appropriate way to get work done. Some people do better work and can get more done on their own than if they’re “volunteered” for a team. And so it’s wrong - think of it as poor leadership - to expect that everyone should be a team player. Not everyone is; but that’s not a negative thing.
You have to stand by the strength of your convictions, even if no one else agrees with you. You’re not missing out if you don’t use teams. Instead, you’re displaying an uncommon wisdom to decide when they’re appropriate, and when they’re not.