Teams Finding It Tough? Maybe the Culture is Wrong

by Peter B. Grazier
(Originally appeared in EI Network – May 1, 1997)

Without a doubt, teams are hot! Organizations can’t seem to expand them fast enough. I just received a conference brochure through the mail entitled The Best of TEAMS 97 to be held in Chicago in June—an entire conference dedicated to making teams work.

Ten years ago it was hard to find a good book on teams—today such books abound:

  • The Wisdom of Teams
  • Compensation for Teams
  • Team Training
  • The Team Handbook
  • Best Practices for Teams
  • Ron Archer on Teams
  • Keeping Teams on Track
  • Designing and Leading Team Based Organizations
  • Why Teams Don’t Work
  • Why Teams Can Fail
  • Making Your Workplace Team Productive and Hassle-Free
  • The Team Memory Jogger
  • Teams at Work
  • Keeping the TEam Going
  • VROOM! Turbo-Charged Team Building
  • Teaming Up
  • Self-Directed Work Teams
  • Leading Self-Directed Work Teams
  • and, yes, even Virtual Teams.

Add to this the TEAM Act which wants to find its way through Congress, and you have a major movement underway.

What concerns me about this rush to teams is the lack of understanding of the underlying principles that make teams work. Two of these principles, collaboration and community, are bedrock philosophies of successful teams, so changing work group structure without changing the organization’s culture to support these just doesn’t work.

For example, the principle of collaboration is at the heart of successful teams. The willingness and ability of people to collaborate yields breakthroughs in problem solving and innovation. Yet organizations today are pitifully negligent when it comes to organization-wide collaboration. Why? Because our past paradigms of work viewed information as power and those lower in the pecking order not in need of such information. So we see organizations implement teams with great zeal, yet confine meaningful dialogues about workplace changes to the top few.

Restructuring our organizations is one task that should involve every employee, but doesn’t. Accordingly, it leaves many wondering where “the team” went.

I recently had a small-company CEO call me about assisting him in moving his new team process forward. He asked me questions, conveyed his hopes for the future, explained his needs, and voiced appropriate concerns.

When I asked him if he had discussed any of these with his workforce, he said he had not. He explained that he wanted to “get his act together first.”

His response might seem appropriate—it does seem prudent to get one’s act together before going public. But my question to him was intended to provoke thought about his role in the larger team. If he truly values his team members, he will open the dialogue (collaborate) with them. Through this dialogue he will clarify his own understanding and intentions, and will model team behavior in the process.

This open dialogue process is uncomfortable for some at the top. Many are concerned that they must appear clear and decisive, and that opening a dialogue with the workforce to seek an answer may appear just the opposite.

One CEO voiced this concern to me recently and said that he was not sure that his people would appreciate his not having an answer. So I suggested to him that he ask them to describe the characteristics of the ideal CEO. What do they want of their leader? He could ask them one-on-one or through a newsletter column. Then sit back and listen to what they say.

Most leaders struggle with how to lead, but few ever ask. So without more information, most will repeat the command-and-control behaviors of past generations.

However, this system stands in stark contrast to the team systems growing today. Employees hear the words of “team” and “collaboration” but see actions to the contrary. Since the human mind has great difficulty holding two completely opposing concepts simultaneously, much confusion results for employees on how the organization wants them to behave. Accordingly, the new team process suffers.

Whether we realize it or not, a workplace is a community. A team is also a community. A town, for example, has people with a variety of skills that combine to make it function—a grocer for food, a pharmacist for medications, public officials for basic services, a pastor for spiritual needs, teachers for education, and so forth. Each person brings a unique talent to complete the whole.

The town has a culture, a common language, a process of operation, rules for order, and a purpose for being, i.e., safety, security, and efficiency in living.

In the same way a workplace is a community. The culture, language, process, rules, and purpose may vary from organization to organization, but the basic community exists.

There is also a need for camaraderie, meaning loyalty and fellowship. I sometimes think that the enormous popularity of television’s Cheers was an outgrowth of this need for fellowship. The bar room buddies were, in essence, a community, fulfilling what industrial psychologist Abraham Maslow called the need for “belonging.”

Understanding this powerful need, we would do well not to ignore the subject of community. A special report in Business Week magazine on internet websites (May 5, 1997 article entitled “Internet Communities”) reinforced the power of community.

Lamenting the problem most organizations have with expensive, but little-used websites, the report discussed how successful sites create a sense of community where people with special interests can chat with each other. Says the CEO of one successful website “It’s not the content. It’s the people, stupid. Content may be why people visit a site. But community is why people stay.”

Another company, Garden Escape Inc., also found out how important community was to their business. Originally set up to sell nursery stock, the owner soon found that people wanted to discuss gardening. The founder opened a chat room and immediately found people visiting the site longer (20 minutes vs. 10 minutes before), spending more money, and fueling a growth in the business of 40% per month. According to the company’s founder, “We thought of ourselves as more of a store. We underestimated how important community would be.”

This “underestimation” of community pervades corporate America as well when it comes to employees and teams. The dichotomy between teamwork and downsizing, for example, is so great that the community develops opposing camps around the organization’s need for efficiency and the employee’s need for safety and security. The resulting struggle and conflict create their own inefficiencies as energy is drained away from productive work.

“Community” sounds like a soft word, but in reality has enormous implications in the search for high-performance. Once again, we simply cannot talk about teams and ignore the underlying principle of community.

The discussion here is far from complete, but attempts to dip into the old notion of “living the message” or “walking the talk.” It is fruitless to talk “teams” and not collaborate across the organization. It is equally senseless to talk “teams” and not recognize the organization community in which the teams exist.

If you or your organization are struggling with team implementation, you might consider the overall context in which these teams are operating, and begin making the appropriate changes.