Preference for teamwork by younger workers creates new challanges for organizations

One of the reasons I like blogging about teams is the wealth of intelligent discussion out there on the subject, including two articles I read in recent days. The articles have entirely different points to make about teamwork, but combined they imply a new twist to the challenges for managers and organizations seeking top performance.

First, Bob Sutton acknowledges the benefits of good team chemistry, but also (quite correctly) sounds a note of caution that conditions and attitudes are not always conducive to effective teamwork.

It turns out that if you look at team effectiveness research, the lesson is that if you can get the conditions right, teams will outperform a loss [sic] collection of individuals on a wide range of tasks. But there is also striking evidence that a bad team will bring out the worst in people . . .

The upshot of this research is that if you have well-functioning team [ ] then it is worth doing all you can to keep them together and to building trust and a shared point of view. But if you have bad group, where people agree that few things are worth doing well, don’t believe in learning, is rife with fear and so on, the best you can do (if you can’t disband them… sometimes a wise move) might be to reduce the interdependence between them, to organize their work so they don’t see much of each other, don’t have to work closely on tasks, and – applying the group dental practice model – at least aren’t dragged down by each other.

The critical take-away I see here is that while there is much to be gained from having well functioning teams, the benefits are not guaranteed. Managers and organizations must create the right environment and culture for teams to excel. Good enough, you probably know already this.

Second, a recent Business Week Online article discusses that the newest generation of college grads, the Millennials, exhibit a strong preference for working in teams.

Many of them, and to a lesser extent Gen Xers, grew up on a steady diet of organized sports and other team activities from before their first day of kindergarten. Even in school, solitary assignments have gradually given way to team projects. The result: a generation that feels most comfortable pursuing well-defined goals as part of a team. In the world of work, such a preference can be an asset.

The fact that the Millennial mindset has a strong preference for, and comfort level with, teamwork can be a great boon for productivity in the coming decades. In the past, a big challenge to reaping the full benefits of teamwork was a reluctance of people brought up with a “rugged individualist” mindset to adopt collaborative practices. Such resistance has lessened over time as teamwork has been shown to be effective in many situations. To the extent that younger workers prefer teamwork at the outset of their careers, reluctance will be less of an obstacle.

However, recalling Bob Sutton’s note of caution, the Millennial generation’s preference for teamwork exerts a good deal of pressure on managers and organizations to get it right in nurturing and supporting teams. The option to disband teams or isolate workers when teams are not functioning well may not be viable for a generation accustomed to using collaboration to solve problems and make decisions.

What is needed are effective strategies for addressing “bad” teams. Sutton knows that isolation is a less-than-perfect solution and says so. I confess, this is not the optimal approach…” The critical challenge is to deal with the root causes underlying bad groups, such as low motivation, resistance to learning, lack of trust, and fear.

I would like to hear what you think. Do younger workers you know have a strong preference for collaboration? What options do you see as most viable for improving so-called bad teams?

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