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Leadership Insights - Teamwork At The Top: First...Let Go of 5 False Notions

Teamwork, highly touted and sought after by business managers everywhere, continues to be poorly understood and elusive. Despite many efforts and many dollars invested in team building and team development, most work groups fail to sustain the momentum and positive energy for change that these efforts are designed to kindle.

This is especially true at the senior most levels of an organization. A CEO and his or her top managers can seem at times more like a team of wild horses than a group of people working together to drive their company’s success. The allure and promise that effective teamwork holds for greater success and achievement often incite executive groups to partake in various team building events. Unfortunately, these efforts likewise often fail to create a sustainable integrated effort among top managers of a company once they return to the daily pressures and responsibilities of their jobs.

Contributing to this unwanted but frequent outcome are several widely accepted but nonetheless false notions about teamwork. These long standing fallacies have produced distorted ideas and misperceptions about what teamwork is and how it can be achieved.

Fallacy 1:  Common Goal = Teamwork

Central to many discussions about teams and teamwork is the importance of a common goal. However, unless the achievement of that goal requires that people coordinate with and influence each other, they do not need to form a team or engage in teamwork.
In some executive-level groups, top managers are expected to independently deliver results that will be summed together in pursuit of a common goal. Much like a pot-luck dinner, top managers bring their individual contributions to the CEO’s table in a collective effort to set a scrumptious meal (common goal). Under this type of management structure, these top managers would be hard pressed to find reasons to adopt a ‘teamwork’ mentality despite having a common goal and perhaps many hours of team building.

The degree to which a common goal can be a foundation for teamwork depends on the degree of inter-dependency required among the group members to achieve that goal. Failure to critically assess this dimension and account for it in the vision for teamwork at the top can misdirect and undermine efforts to lead and manage the executive group as a ‘team’

Fallacy 2:  Sense of Belonging = Teamwork

Another element often associated with teams and teamwork is the sense of belonging that group identification and acceptance engender in its members. To feel that one is part of something beyond one’s self is an important and healthy psychological state. Many team building and team development efforts are specifically intended to strengthen the feeling of membership and belonging that group members feel.

While a genuine feeling of camaraderie among top-level managers might heighten their sense of belonging to the management group, it does not automatically lead to more effective teamwork. In fact, the opposite can be true. Fearing ostracism or loss of status in the group, some senior managers may avoid ‘rocking the boat’ by not challenging a premature decision. This avoidance undermines teamwork in a most fundamental way.

Teamwork can only be valued and evaluated in terms of how productively it enables two or more people to integrate their effort to achieve a goal that requires an inter-dependent effort. A strong sense of belonging does not by itself equate to a stronger, more productive, integrated effort.

Fallacy 3:  Organization Structure = Teamwork

Most companies have organization charts that depict how they structurally organize functions and people. Solid lines, dotted lines, boxes and arrows show who does what with whom, to what degree, in what order, and with what hierarchical relationship.

The structure and relationships reflected in the organization chart are often viewed as how the organization is “supposed” to work. Because the depiction looks integrated, many assume that the work activities charted by the boxes and lines are likewise integrated, and thus reflect the work of ‘teams’. Many times, the decision to realign people and structures within a company reflect an attempt to ‘get the teamwork right’.    

In truth, this depiction reflects only the logic of the organization, not how people and groups actually engage and relate in the course of accomplishing work. Teamwork is not an inherent product of how people and functions are structurally organized. However, the manner in which the boxes and lines connect may, indeed, help define where teamwork is called for.

Fallacy 4:  Harmony = Teamwork

Strong, competitive, and capable executives often clash, each with the will and the intellect to push their views. Tempers can flare, voices can rise, and ‘winners and losers’ can become apparent. Pettiness, defensiveness, posturing, and subterfuge often grow out of such discord, which in turn severely undermine the group’s ability to work as a team. The executives fail in their responsibility to the organization, and the company inevitably and absolutely suffers.

It is little wonder then that many have advocated peace and harmony as the way to engender better teamwork at the top. Many team building and team development efforts are specifically intended to build more harmonious relationships within executive level teams. Carefully constructed ‘rules of engagement’ are sometimes adopted by the executives to help govern their interactions and keep conflicts at a minimum.

However, the presence of harmony or the absence of conflict does not imply the existence of teamwork. An integrated, inter-dependent effort can and will be stymied by a group’s super-ordinate need to minimize tension and discordant discussion, both of which are critical to ensuring effective issue analysis and group decision-making. While in-fighting and power contests are anathema to teamwork, so are the lulling effects of harmony in a top manager group.

Fallacy 5:  Conformity = Teamwork

Some well performing groups look alike, think alike, or act alike. Great choirs of the world dress identically in their chosen robes, political parties take a unified position on issues, and athletes adopt their coach’s style of play. It is easy to mistakenly credit member conformance as the core ingredient for the teamwork and performance that these groups display. 

Many times, with and without conscious awareness, groups choose new members on the basis of how closely they align with or resemble what the group has adopted as its image. Also, subtle and overt pressures are often applied from within the group to help maintain or strengthen the degree of conformity team members convey.            

In truth, however, these and other well performing groups are successful not because they look alike, think alike, or act alike, but because they have succeeded in creating a team where the members engage with one another in a productive, integrated way to achieve a goal that requires each of their efforts.

So what constitutes an integrated, inter-dependent effort, and how can a senior management team get it?

There are several elements and several conditions that underlie effective teamwork at the top. These are presented and discussed in the next issue…

K&S Insight No. 2.07, Teamwork at the Top:  Getting the Right Things Right

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