Is Teamwork Killing Your Company?

Management experts always emphasize the benefits of teamwork for creating and maintaining a strong organization. It is clear that an effective team can accomplish more than a individual or a collection of individuals working independently. Members of teams also typically demonstrate improved morale, work more efficiently, and develop and execute better solutions to problems.

Industrial Teams

Industrial products and services companies typically have a number of teams operating simultaneously to achieve overall organizational objectives. The most common teams in organizations are the various departments, such as Accounting, Purchasing, Maintenance, Production, Human Resources, Administration, and Sales. These teams are effectively permanent; they are established at the birth of the company, and persist as long as the company does.

Teams may also be established on the manufacturing floor, such as an assembly team, a painting team, an electrical PM team.

Most companies also develop one or more cross-functional teams, consisting of members selected from various departments or other teams. These cross-functional teams are more likely to be temporary in nature, and are formed to address complex tasks such as major projects, quality or efficiency initiatives, or organizing the annual New Year party.

Teams are truly an essential feature of modern businesses.

The Trouble with Teamwork

Most managers fail to recognize that even a great tool such as Teamwork needs to be carefully monitored and managed. Without responsible oversight and management, teamwork can evolve into a destructive force that can reek havoc within the organization.

You’re Not on My Team

Most cultures encourage and value cooperation and teamwork. Asian cultures, and the cultures of agrarian or recently-industrialized economies, tend to emphasize cooperation and conformity over individuality, and are therefore more likely to be team-oriented.

However, in most organizations that I have had the privilege of closely observing, teamwork quickly degenerates into a “members-only” club. The Accounting Team develops a strong shared identity and mutual trust and respect, but don’t like or accept the Maintenance Team. The Purchasing Team enthusiastically cooperates and shares information with each other, but don’t like the Production Team. The Sales Team maintains an outward focus and primarily interacts with customers, rarely interacting with any of the other teams. Each team thinks they are the most important team, and yearns for the respect that they deserve.

Without careful management, strong effective teams frequently erect virtual walls to isolate and protect their team from unwanted outside influences or interference. Just as an effective team can greatly enhance the efficiency and performance of its members, a team can also create very powerful barriers that inhibit cross-functional performance and can cripple an organization.

Early in my management career, I struggled with the destructive aspects of teams working in isolation. Even in a small office, a small workshop, or a modest sized industrial site, it is amazing that a virtual wall can be more effective than a physical wall or a great physical distance in isolating teams from each other and disrupting cooperation. A manager can easily deal with a physical wall or barrier, or reorganize the office layout to reduce the distance between teams. However, virtual walls can be very persistent and pervasive.

Shared Identity

Yes, we want and need to encourage and develop strong, effective teams. However, we must diligently guard against “members-only” teams. Once a team builds barriers, the power of teamwork makes it very difficult to remove the barriers to restore cross-functional cooperation and to maximize overall organizational performance.

In my experience, the most effective way to prevent team isolation is to create a strong shared organizational identity. Management must strongly promote an organizational identity, and ensure that every employee believes that their status as a member of the organization overrides their membership in any subordinate teams or departments.

Each organization should carefully consider and decide on an appropriate shared organizational identity. This shared identity should then be consistently promoted to all employees. Most people value being a member of a group, want to be proud of their membership in the group, and seek to be a good member and support of the group.

All In The Family

I personally like to promote the concept of Family as the shared identity for my organization. I explain to my team that a family consists of a diverse group of individuals, young and old, male and female (and any of the gender classifications recently proposed by our friends in the USA), having different education, skills, jobs, experiences, and preferences. The members of a family typically work independently of each other, but they always share a common bond and respect for each other. Members of a family eagerly work to achieve common goals.

Most of us spend more of our waking hours together with our fellow employees than we do with our biological families. It is therefore quite important for both harmony and performance that we treat our fellow employees as family members, and place the interests of our industrial family higher than those of our department, team, or other sub-grouping.

Teamwork will always remain a vital tool and skill for achieving maximum task performance. However, without a strong, inclusive, shared organizational identity, teamwork can and most likely will become a divisive and destructive force which will diminish overall organizational performance.

Consistently cultivate a shared organizational identity to ensure that the organization can derive maximum benefit from teamwork while maintaining harmony and cooperation throughout the organization.

Frank T.