Is the tail wagging the dog on your team?

March 26, 2007

Grace Andrews raises a number of good issues in the post Managing to the 2%. She points out that teams, managers, and organizations often go too far when addressing problems that apply to only a few employees.

An example might be implementing a daily written status-reporting structure because a single team member communicates poorly about progress on their tasks, despite the fact that everyone else routinely shares all relevant task status information.

Overreacting, by creating new rules, policies, and procedures, is equivalent to letting the (2%) “tail” wag the (98%) “dog.”

So what is the fall out of this behavior? Think about it. When the 98% wake up, smell the coffee, and realize they are being “ruled” to death because of a few who aren’t contributing, the dynamic of the whole team is in jeopardy. Morale suffers; it takes twice as long to maneuver because of the restrictions put in place for the 2%. Employees end up feeling disempowered, and if the focus on managing to the 2% continues, turnover increases.

Organizations that have worked diligently to foster a strong culture of teamwork and collaboration may find their progress unraveling with each new policy. The most effective team members will recognize that new rules would be otherwise unnecessary if not for the 2% and, therefore, resent the unwarranted burden.

Andrews offers a few suggestions:

  • Before adopting any new policy or rule, consider whether it is for the 2% or the 98%.
  • Don’t let the 2% bog down the team; manage them up or out.
  • Practice transparency; when team members know what is going on it is hard for the 2% to gain a foothold.

I offer this additional suggestion:

Engage the entire team in deciding what policies and rules are needed to accomplish the objectives.

In the example of the single employee who communicates poorly about progress on their tasks, the team is unlikely to endorse a burdensome procedure of mostly unnecessary daily reports. A better solution is more likely to emerge from the combined contributions of the team. Team members will be empowered to establish their own rules and standards. The dog will once again wag the tail.

As an added bonus, the open deliberation process will help demonstrate how the behavior of the 2% is viewed by their colleagues.

Read Grace Andrew’s full article at

Photograph comes from Flickr by SoozieQ. I cropped the picture to show only the beautiful tail.

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Deal with ‘bad apples’ before they spoil your team

February 12, 2007 Felps and Terence Mitchell of the University of Washington Business School have released new findings about how detrimental a single ‘bad apple’ can be to teams and teamwork. To paraphrase, one negative employee in a small office can undermine virtually all the positives offered by others, and others may stop contributing unless the ‘bad apple’ can be expunged.

“Most organizations do not have very effective ways to handle the problem,” said Mitchell. “This is especially true when the problem employee has longevity, experience or power. Companies need to move quickly to deal with such problems because the negativity of just one individual is pervasive and destructive and can spread quickly.

Common defensive mechanisms employees use to cope with a “bad apple” include denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear. Trust in the team deteriorates and as the group loses its positive culture, members physically and psychologically disengage themselves from the team.

This list of symptoms is the bane of managers and team leaders, signs of a sinking ship, or at least one that will have a tough time navigating choppy waters. ‘Bad apples’ can cause low morale and a lack of collaboration, and I have found that these feelings can spread like a virus.

Fortunately, high morale and positive collaboration can spread just as fast and far, assuming that problem employees can be kept out, sidelined, or removed. To address ‘bad apples’, Felps and Mitchell suggest intense screening (and personality testing) before hiring, assigning problem employees to work alone or, if all else fails, termination. The bottom line is to identify and deal with problems before they can spoil the whole team.

Read the full report here: Rotten to the core: How workplace ‘bad apples’ spoil barrels of good employees

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Collaborative knowledge workers use ad hoc and changing work processes

February 9, 2007

A fascinating ethnographic study sponsored by IBM examines the collaborative processes used by knowledge workers to conduct their work. I’m intrigued by a key finding that many of these processes are ad hoc, created uniquely for the task at hand, rather than routinized procedures.

Knowledge workers make decisions and perform their work by drawing on a particular set of skills, knowledge, experiences, and intuitions. Although the work is dependent on the individual, process plays a major role. The work processes we observed differ from the enterprise-level processes in several ways:

  • These processes are rarely duplicated; some are ad hoc, some are semistructured, and all are in a state of change.
  • They are defined and owned by the knowledge worker.
  • The process cannot be codified; decisions are made by people and cannot be automated.

So often, large organizations try to standardized work processes so that workers are expected to perform a particular task in a certain manner. Command and control style managers tend to want to dictate how tasks are performed.

What this study finds is that knowledge work does not lend itself to standardization or micro-management. Instead, knowledge workers adopt processes that best allow them to produce the needed outcome or deliverable given their own work style.

This suggests to me that managers and team leaders can add value by helping knowledge workers to:

  • accurately assess the needs and constraints of tasks so as to better develop unique processes;
  • think creatively about posssible process alternatives;
  • feel comforatble with adapting and changing processes as needed;
  • know they are trusted to make process decisions.

Additionally, the study suggests that organizations benefit both by the knowledge worker’s productivity and by identifying best practices that can be used by other workers.

As we examined the life cycle of some of these human-centric processes, we observed, for example, that they may start out as ad hoc and informal processes but can quickly grow into best practices. This finding is corroborated by studies of activity-centric computing. Muller et al. found that work that begins as ad hoc and unstructured evolves over time into a semiformal process or a reusable pattern exemplifying best practices.

Take a look at the full report here.

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Taking time for vacation is a teamwork responsibility

November 16, 2006

The latest Hudson Employment Index was covered on all the mass media news outlets today. The headlines are:

  • 37% of workers will not take all of their vacation time this year
  • 24% of workers will not take any time off all year,
  • most workers who do take time will stay connected with their work via phone calls, email, etc.

From a teamwork perspective, I see taking vacation and time off as a serious responsibility just like any other work assignment. If team members fail to take time to relax away from the workplace, the entire team is likely to suffer the consequences. These consequences can include lost productivity, higher levels of stress, unnecessary tension with co-workers, lack of creativity, and a feeling of entitlement because of so-called “sacrifices.”

Working too much overtime is a similar matter and holds many of the same pitfalls. How many time have you seen great team members burn out and pull down projects because they tried to work nights and weekends without adequate breaks?

Most people do not skip vacations or work overtime to cause their teams to fail. Quite the contrary, most team members will have great intentions and will not recognize the potential negative consequences. Highly productive people may believe they can continue to function well during endless periods of non-stop focus on work. In these situations, it becomes incumbent on managers/team leaders to make workers aware that periodic breaks are not only an option, but are necessary for the employee to maintain productivity and satisfaction.

Consider what another finding from the Hudson study might tell us about those who opt to take vacations:

Only eight percent of workers earning more than $100k per year have not taken off from work this year.

I see two ways to read this. First, it could be that those making $100K can afford to take vacations and, therefore, take them more frequently. An equally plausible explanation is that those who make a habit of taking time away from the workplace are productive enough to earn $100k, and they continue their time-off habits.

This is clearly a chicken-and-egg question with no real solution. My experience, however, suggests that productive people accomplish a lot while at work, then they leave the work behind and enjoy the rest of their lives. This kind of work-life balance is important for the success of the team and the individual.

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Syndrome of Individuality

October 23, 2006

In a Financial Times article published this week, Professor Henry Mintzberg denounces the teaching of leadership so popular these days in U.S. MBA programs. His comments continue an ongoing debate about how B-schools can best prepare graduate students to meet the needs of modern organizations.

We have this obsession with ‘leadership’. Its intention may be to empower people, but its effect is often to disempower them. By focusing on the single person, leadership becomes part of the syndrome of individuality [that is] undermining organisations.

A syndrome of individuality has long been evident in American culture. Mass media focuses on singular leaders in positions of authority; the CEO, the president, the quarterback. We focus on individual “superstars” much more than effective contributors to collaborative efforts. Corporate reward structures often still focus on individual performance, or link only a small percentage of bonuses to the productivity of the team.

Excessive attention to leadership can be disheartening to many, because it appears to discount the value of non-leaders. Taking into account that so few employees ever become managers or corporate leaders, Ira Chaleff suggests in his book Courageous Follower that it is more important for companies to offer training on being a good follower than it is to concentrate solely on leadership. Such training can signal that the organization also values those who do not hold management positions, as well as teach important teamwork and “followship” skills. (This is not to suggest that companies should eliminate leadership training; rather that opportunities exist to broaden the scope of training.)

Clearly, many organizations have made progress in embracing a culture of collaboration, becoming flatter, and dispersing authority and accountability to those closest to the issues. With the urging of Mintzberg and others, is it possible that top-flight teaching institutions, and the country as a whole, will move away from the syndrome of individuality?

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Coaching to help others solve problems

October 20, 2006

During a recent conversation a few days ago, my friend Rosa Say made a comment that started me on a round of self-reflection. The simple comment was, “That is very coaching of you, Blaine.” Then yesterday, a colleague made almost the same statement! These comments are rewarding to me because in recent years I have made a conscious effort to enhance my coaching abilities, both personally and professionally.

Coaching is often identified as an essential skill for effective managers and leaders. But it has not always been that way.

During my early management experiences, my mentors (some very savvy businessmen) seldom mentioned coaching. The conventional wisdom for “dealing with” employees in those days focused on such things as providing clear instructions, communicating specific expectations, ensuring that employees had the necessary resources to complete their assignments, monitoring performance, and quickly correcting poor performance. While it is quite reasonable for managers to pay attention to each of these items, combined they exhibit an attitude that the manager knows best. They omit an important aspect of leadership, that of helping direct reports and team members to learn how to solve their own problems.

Whoever wrote the Wikipedia definition of coach hit the nail on the head:

A coach is a person who supports and directs another person or persons via encouragement and asking questions. It differs from a mentor in that a coach rarely offers advice. Instead, they help the client to find their own solutions, by asking questions that give them insight into their problem.

I even like this one sentence definition, “A coach is a person who supports and directs another person via encouragement and by asking questions to help them to find their own solutions.”

A key difference between the modern coaching approach to leadership and the 1980s vision of managers involves the source of solutions to problems. We now recognize that the best person to solve a problem is often the person closest to the problem- which is typically the team member, not the manager. Yet when someone is too close to problems, it is sometimes difficult for them to see all the angles or solution possibilities. Effective managers and team leaders engage in coaching to help broaden the viewpoint and grease the wheels to assist others in problem solving.
For me, learning to take a coaching approach required a shift in thinking. Tom Heck discusses making such a shift to become a “Coach Manager,” and posted this list of 31 specific changes in behavior and attitudes. Here are two examples:

OLD WAY: “You report to me”
NEW WAY: “Tell me how I can help”

OLD WAY: Solving all the problems
NEW WAY: Help others solve and prevent problems

While I appreciate comments from friends and colleagues about my own coaching, reading Tom’s list provides plenty ideas about continued opportunity for my personal development.

What about you? Are you coaching habits where you want them to be? Are you asking questions and encouraging others to help their problem solving?

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Preference for teamwork by younger workers creates new challanges for organizations

October 18, 2006

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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