I’ve been giving a lot of thought to some new research about how team members support each other. Conventional wisdom suggests that more expert team members will support less skilled or experienced teammates through coaching and mentoring. However, in Teamwork: Where the weak help the strong, researchers found a contrary pattern.
[The study] found that group members felt more committed to and were more likely to help those members who were perceived to have a higher level of expertise – and were therefore higher status. In other words, the less expert members were helping the more expert members instead of the other way around! And this propensity to ingratiate oneself with the more expert members was especially pronounced for members who were themselves perceived to be more expert.
The article describes this tendency as a “dysfunctional side effect” and identifies steps team leaders can take to get around it. These tactics include keeping teams together longer and reinforcing interdependence, shared goals, and shared rewards. I find this research very useful for better understanding the dynamics of team support structures and find the suggestions practical.
I think it is also useful to consider that the tendency of teams to support their most expert members may not be completely dysfunctional. Is it possible that, by building on the strengths of the most expert members, teams are attempting to maximize their effectiveness?
Teams typically have multiple objectives, the most obvious is to perform the tasks for which the team was formed. Developing less-expert team members, while important, may be viewed as a positive by-product of teamwork, but typically not the primary purpose of the team.
Organizations will attempt to assign to teams key members who possess the necessary skills and expertise to accomplish the objectives, and to partner these key members with others who have complimentary skills. It is important, and quite rationally, for these other members to support the high-expertise members to accomplish the team objectives.
Technorati: teamwork, expertise, team development, teams