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The Team Approach to Building Work Group Effectiveness
by John N. Younker, Ph.D

 
   
 
   

What is the purpose of team building?

Too often team building is one of those vague, misused terms managers call into play as a panacea for sluggish work unit performance. The concept's rise in popularity has paralleled the growing perception of work as the output of teams of workers rather than as compartmentalized tasks on an assembly line. Findings of the American Productivity & Quality Center's two-year white-collar productivity improvement research project clearly demonstrate the importance of effective team structures to knowledge worker (white collar) performance effectiveness as well.

The building of a team requires a great deal more effort than simply recognizing the interdependence among workers and work units. It requires, instead, several carefully managed steps and is an ongoing cyclical process. (See figure below.) The team-building process offers members of a work group a way to observe and analyze behaviors and activities that hinder their effectiveness and to develop and implement courses of action that overcome recurring problems.

While the underlying purpose of team building is to develop a more effective work group, the specific purposes of the process will depend largely upon the assessment of information gathered during the initial data collection phase. Typically, team building will seek to resolve at least one of the following three issues:

A lack of clear goals: Frequently, interview data from work group members reveal that their performance is generally directed by their individual (and often conflicting) goals. In that situation, the team-building model can be directed at establishing group goals, which affect both individual and group effort and behavior.

Interpersonal conflict and distrust: A lack of trust, supportiveness and communication not only slows down the day-to-day ability of a group to get work done, but also stands in the way of resolving the conflicts that naturally arise as the group makes decisions about its future efforts.

One way to overcome this is to focus on the work problems and improved interpersonal skills necessary for the team to work inter- dependently and more effectively to accomplish the task. In other words, the interpersonal data would be derived from the work con- text itself rather than from evaluations directed at individual personalities within the group.

A lack of clear roles and leadership: Obviously, duplications of effort result in sub-optimum levels of productivity. But when initial interviews with work unit members suggest confusion over roles, the issues that surface may go well beyond task-specific problems. They may raise questions about who is providing leadership to the group, who feels empowered to act, what sources of power are being wielded and what interpersonal and inter-group relations underlie the group's effectiveness. When these issues arise, the team-building model uses group meetings to discuss and clarify members' roles and responsibilities - both prescribed and discretionary.

Who are the "players" in the team building process?

On the surface, a "team" suggests a group of interchangeable individuals of equal status. But in reality, most workplace teams have a supervisor or manager charged with leadership and accountability for the group's performance. Consequently, the team leader plays an important and somewhat different role than do other members in a successful team building effort. Support from the leader is vital because if he or she does not recognize and accept the need for team building, it is unlikely that other members of the work team will be very receptive to the idea.

What role will the consultant play?

In addition to the leader and other team members, successful team building calls for a third party participant in the process - an outside consultant, a professional with knowledge and experience in the field of applied behavioral science who is not part of the team but may be an internal resource person in the "client's" organization.

There are several roles, which the consultant may perform in team building. Perhaps the most common is that of third-party facilitator. The consultant assists and coaches the team in becoming more skillful in understanding, identifying, diagnosing and solving its performance problems. To do this, the consultant gathers data needed for the team to conduct its own self- appraisal and structures a "safe" environment that encourages team building. As a change agent, the consultant also serves as a catalyst to help bring about a greater degree of openness and trust and increased communication effectiveness.

Another role of the consultant is that of a knowledge resource person, assisting team members to learn more about group dynamics, individual behavior and the skills needed to become more effective as a team and as individuals.

The consultant should generally avoid assuming the role of the "expert." That is, the consultant's major function is not to directly resolve the team's problems, but to help the team learn how to cope with its own problems and become more self-sufficient. If the consultant becomes the controlling force responsible for resolving the group's difficulties, he or she has denied the team the opportunity to grow by facing and resolving problems confronting them.

What are the steps in the team-building process?

At the core of the process will be a structured workshop designed to help the group build a cohesive, effective work team. But this meeting requires carefully laid groundwork as well as long- term follow up and re-evaluation.

Team building requires several carefully managed steps and is an ongoing cyclical process. The team-building process offers members of a work group a way to observe and analyze behaviors and activities that hinder their effectiveness and to develop and implement courses of action that overcome recurring problems.

Assuming management and team members have thrown their support behind the effort, the first preparatory step is the introduction of the consultant to the team. Often this is done by the team leader during a regular staff meeting at which the consultant is introduced to the group. The role of the consultant is discussed as well as the process and potential benefits of team building.

In preparation for the team-building workshop, the consultant will then take responsibility for the next step - the gathering of data from each team member about the "strengths" and "weaknesses" of the team and barriers to effective team performance. This diagnostic phase will typically make use of questionnaires and/or interviews.

The use of personal interviews has several advantages. First, interviews provide the consultant a better understanding of the team, its functions and its problems. Second, interviews enable the consultant to develop rapport with team members and to begin to establish a relationship of openness and trust. Third, interviews provide the opportunity for each individual to participate in the identification of the group's strengths and weaknesses. Finally, personal interviews are flexible. On the other hand, the less flexible questionnaire approach ensures that common areas will be covered by all team members.

After conducting the interviews or surveys, the consultant summarizes the information, which is to be fed back to the group during the team-building meeting. A useful way of presenting the comments is according to the frequency with which the items were mentioned or accorded to major problem areas.

During the actual team-building meeting, the data feedback session becomes a springboard for the rest of the session's activities. With the assistance of the consultant, the group then formulates an agenda and decides on the priorities of the issues raised by the diagnostic phase.

Before the team-building meeting ends, action plans are developed which specify the steps the group will take in attempting to resolve specific problems.

What factors influence the success of team building?

Because effective team building is not a one-shot affair, a schedule of future team- building efforts needs to be established. For lasting change to take place, subsequent meetings will need to review the implementation of action plans and investigate additional problem areas.

As mentioned earlier, the support and commitment of the formal team leader are critical to successful team building. His or her attitude toward the process has an obvious impact upon other team members. Furthermore, because discussion sometimes centers on the team leader's behavior, he or she has to be open to constructive criticism.

The leader must also fully understand team building, its time requirements and implications. The leader's own personality and leadership style influence the probability of the success of tear-n building. If the team manager is not comfortable with a participative style of leadership, team development simply will not work.

The other team members should also want to become involved in the effort and believe in its relevance. Otherwise, team building may be viewed as a ploy by the leader to pacify the team or simply as a substitute for effective management. Each individual within the group should be part of the effort and feel personally secure to participate in the process.

Since the team-building efforts may create a change in the relationship between the team and the organization, the support of executive management is also vital. The chances for a successful team-building effort are improved if the team has knowledge of any organizational constraints on the options for making changes within the team.

The timing of team building is another critical factor. If the team is experiencing turmoil or confusion over its direction (mission, goals, purpose, objectives, leadership, changes, etc.), the time could be ripe for team-building efforts to begin because the members may feel a need to establish what is expected of them. Thus, their receptivity to the process is often increased under such destabilizing conditions.

Finally, team building requires adequate time for the activities to take effect. Relatively large blocks of time and even changes in the work setting are sometimes needed for team building. Separation from the workplace during the initial team meeting phase of the process is frequently needed to avoid work pressures and interruptions and to help generate greater commitment and increased concentration from team members.

What are the results of successful team building?

The team-building process may affect several levels within the organization. First, the individuals in the team may become more sensitive to the impact of their behavior on the effective functioning of the team. More self-awareness may also lead to changed behav-ior patterns. For example, recognition by the team leader that he or she does not share leadership and decision making with others may provide the impetus to adopt a more participative style.

Second, team building may help team members realize that different and better approaches exist to the way the team operates and performs its work. Third, team building may affect the relation- ship of the group to the rest of the organization. For example, a team member may stop using other parts of the organization as scapegoats to hide his or her own inefficient operations. Ultimately, greater harmony among organizational units could well result.


     
   
     
   

The Author

 

John Younker is the President and founder of Associates In Continuous Improvement, a Houston, Texas based advisory and educational resource to executives and senior managers. Since 1993, he has served as a Chairman for Vistage International (formerly The Executive Committee - TEC), a developmental resource for CEO's and Presidents. John is an adjunct professor at the University of Houston's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation and as a Guest Lecturer for the Eisenhower Leadership Series, George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. John holds a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of Memphis. Contact John Younker by telephone: 713-254-0475. e-mail: jnyounker@aol.com and visit www.vistage.com for additional information.

     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2007 by John Younker. All rights reserved.

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