Teamwork: Collaboration or catastrophe?

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Are you a team player?

I’m all for teams, when there’s a good reason to bring people together to accomplish something, and we manage to do more, or better, en masse than we could on our own. But sometimes the team approach feels like a colossal waste of time.

I’m not the only one who thinks this way.

One vocal person on the subject is Susan Cain, corporate lawyer by training and author of the celebrated introvert manifesto, Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking.

In her book, as well as a New York Times essay, The Rise of the New Groupthink, Cain writes about the growth, dominance and potential drawbacks of the team approach at work and in workplace design.

“Solitude is out of fashion,” she declares.

Cain is sparring in particular for introverts, who are by definition reflective and tend to prefer independent work over the cacophony of team endeavours.

She makes a compelling case for allowing ‘a room of one’s own’, both literally and metaphorically. She points to plenty of evidence illustrating how creativity flourishes in solitude, and cites experts who confirm that personal growth and development can be hampered when individuals are reined into the pace and process of group work.

Cain is not against teamwork, per se, but asserts, “it’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls...”

Sound familiar?

J. Richard Hackman, the late Harvard professor of organizational and social psychology, devoted his career to the study of group dynamics, leadership and performance. In a 2009 interview with Harvard Business Review’s Diane Coutu, Hackman said, “research consistently shows that teams underperform...that’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.”. His research also shows that oftentimes team members don’t even agree on what their team is supposed to be doing.

Is a team really needed?

Colleen understands what he’s talking about.

A hospital-based social worker, she’s part of a team that’s been pulled together to produce a seasonal public education series. There is no designated team leader and they rotate the role of meeting chair.

With already enormous workloads, Colleen says there is chronic absenteeism at weekly meetings, contributions are late or minimal, and one or two people invariably end up doing most of the work.

“We’re a half-dozen health professionals representing different areas, which is important for different perspectives, ideas and speaker contacts, but this is fundamentally an educational design project. There isn’t a lot of buy-in,” she says.

The seminars get done and are well received by the audience, but it’s always a couple people who do most of the work.

“I’m just not sure the right people get chosen for the team. Frankly, I wonder if we even need a team for this project,” she muses.

Colleen may well be right. Without adequate time, passion or skills to devote to the project, or a leader to help drive the vision, the entire undertaking could conceivably be assigned to one or two people best suited to the nature of the work.

Why are we all here?

Although Colleen’s team is clear on their tasks and their end goal, it’s also possible they’re not sold on the benefits of participating in the project, which is key. Having buy-in, a compelling reason for participating, helps transform a group of people into a team and is widely regarded by experts as an important factor for team effectiveness.

In a previous managerial position at a social services agency, Colleen was put in charge of getting a new, psychosocial rehabilitation programme off the ground, from preparing the building that would house activities, to implementing policy.

“There were 11 people involved, including many members who would participate in the programme. All decisions and movement on the project were to happen by consensus.

“At first I honestly thought this was crazy, knowing it was going to take so long and to have to involve so many people.”

But in hindsight, she says the experience and results were nothing short of amazing.

“Working with people who would actually be spending time at the clubhouse, there was buy-in from the beginning that instilled a commitment to the work. The members were literally the authors of their own programme.”

With a clear goal and a framework of standards to help guide them, Colleen’s role as team leader “took a lot of mediation skills” to keep things moving, but the team was motivated, her role was really about facilitating group process and there was a clear rationale for completing the project as a team.

Defining roles

Few people want to participate on a team unless there’s some sense of membership and ownership. Everyone likes to feel like they belong, but more often than not, people also want something that belongs just to them. The beauty of a well-functioning team is it can ultimately create something greater than the sum of the individual contributions, but people can also take pride in what they’ve accomplished.

Think movies, magazines...and workplace communications projects requiring different skills. Samantha has worked on communications teams at several different non-profits and NGOs. She has experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of teams.

She describes a previous team situation, where “everyone did everything. People were not in positions that used their strengths. For example, the person put in charge of the website overhaul was a professional writer and former journalist – completely non-technical.”

Tasks were randomly taken from one person and given to another and there was little open communication as a group. The lack of clearly defined roles or upfront communication “led to a competitive atmosphere and backstabbing. Although I was supposed to have a specific communications role, other team members overlapped with my work and my role was usurped. There were no clear lines of responsibility.”

Without clear working processes, the group dynamics overtook any sense of a shared goal or team cohesion.

“That didn’t feel like a team,” says Samantha. “I felt all alone.”

Allowing individual work

Today Samantha says she’s on a great team, where her role is web manager. “We’re productive, people have different areas of strength that complement each other and we have an understanding of who specializes in what. The lines of accountability are really clear.” Although she has a broad set of communications skills, including writing, boundaries help make the team work. "We have a writer on the team, so there’s an understanding that I’ll rarely write in this role, but I edit and package information, including visual content, which is one of my strengths,” she says.

Despite the fact people have clear areas of responsibility and expertise, their common goal is to produce a great website and social media presence. Samantha says they have a supportive manager and team meetings where they share and discuss ideas that get tweaked by the person responsible for that functional area.

“I am the only one who edits content on our site,” she explains. “If other people also had access, and didn’t follow the same process as me, our content management could become a real mess. I am extremely organized and detail oriented so this role suits me well.”

Assembling the team

Imagine a bunch of visionaries who have lots of ideas but never get things done. Or a team of great project managers who don’t have enough content to work with. Ensuring a variety of strengths and skills on a team can help it perform better – and is one of the best reasons for assembling one in the first place.

Recent research suggests that it’s also good to have a mix of cognitive styles if your goal is innovation. Most teams need creative and detail-oriented types. Dr. Ella-Miron-Spektor and colleagues from Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have also found that “conformists”, those who support the creative types and boost cooperation, are also critical for maximum innovation.

And while nobody can dispute that respect and cooperation are necessary for teamwork, Hackman has advised that “dissenters” are important – people who will challenge the inevitable groupthink. Social psychology has proven time and again that group dynamics favour homogeneity, yet individuals who speak out could well point out critical flaws or introduce wacky, but viable new ideas. “Protect the dissenters,” Hackman cautioned. Teams with deviants outperform teams without them.

The evolution of teams: teaming

As the work-world continues to evolve and organizations become more diffuse, the nature of teams at work is beginning to change. Increasingly, with a mix of staff and freelancers, there’s a trend away from fixed teams or departments that work together over long periods of time, and toward more porous, temporary groups that come together to achieve organizational goals.

Harvard Business School’s Amy C. Edmunson’s concept of “teaming” is relevant. Borne in part out of her research on healthcare teams, she describes teaming as “teamwork on the fly,” where people collaborate as the need arises, banding and disbanding on more of a project by project basis.

Emergency medical or surgical teams are a spectacular example of teamwork at its best, perhaps because there’s a strong focus on the goal and less time to get caught up in messy group dynamics. That Edmunson chose a verb was intentional – teaming gets things done when time is at a premium.

Efficient, action-oriented teamwork? Count me in.

Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Caroline Veldhuis is a writer and editor with over 15 years of experience across direct service, communications and team management roles at nonprofits. Reach Caroline at

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