For a long time now teamwork has been the mantra of many companies — the push for solidarity, working together and each doing our part for the better of the entire ‘us.’
But working in teams is a lot harder than I think most would like to recognize. And as a result, I think teamwork can actually be detrimental to a company and a project’s outcome.
As a project manager, I always think of teamwork as risk — and the more people there are on a team, the higher the risk I consider it.
Here are some reasons why.
Unrewarding Reward Systems
We’ve all probably worked on a project where it seems one or two (maybe more?) members of the team work against the grain — they may think they are doing a better job but more times than not, the success of the project becomes compromised, and a nightmare to work on. And every time I have experienced this, I’ve always asked myself ‘why?’
And then I started to realize that working in teams is not really what we as individuals have been programmed to do by the time we’re in the workplace.
Thinking back to when you were younger, how many times did you work in groups during school? Most of my memories are of working on individual school projects — my science projects, book reports, geography homework — all done by myself as an individual.
Yet I would be lying if I said group work was not part of my education — mostly in high school or university when I had to work with two or three others (max) to complete an assignment. We would all get together in the library or lounge, put our heads together and discuss ideas and then get to work. Oddly enough though, almost in every project there was someone more vocal than me (and most of the others), with stronger ideas, that seemed to just take the project over. The team was usually detached, only meeting here and there to see where we were at, and almost every time, once the project was done, so were we.
Even more than that, and what I think comes to affect teamwork negatively later on in the workplace, is how we have been rewarded most of our lives, and even continue to be for the most part, in our workplace.
And that is at the individual level.
From school, we were always given an individual grade regardless if the project was group or not. We ended up with an individual report card. In fact, I can remember that after working on group projects, we were even asked to rate each other individually. This always seemed backwards to me. I was being asked as part of a group, all working toward success together, yet at the end I was always graded individually — and often at the mercy of my group members.
The same thing seems to happen in most companies.
We’re asked to work as a team, yet are rewarded as an individual — with bonuses and salary increases mostly tied to individual performance. This again seems like a contradiction — a request to work together, but a reward for being an individual. It should be no surprise then that not all teams work well together. We’re instinctively competitive, and given the financial and potential career advancement incentives of being better than one another, we will often make an effort to be so.
But real teams don’t compete with each other — they compete against the real competition. A team needs to be a united front, which means putting personal gain to the side for overall team gain — something people rarely feel comfortable risking.
Lack of Trust
Projects have a set timeline, and a set team of people who may or may not know each other, and a set goal to achieve. There is usually a kick-off meeting for introductions, scope review and to set the project expectations. It’s as if there is just an easy underlying instruction to work together and be successful.
That assumption though, and the resulting danger, is that a lot of times the team members are new to one another — and when that is the case, the level of trust the team members have is understandably low. And successful teamwork requires trust. And trust does not always come easily or quickly. Especially when, again, reward is often tied to individual accomplishments and our programmed thinking within the workplace is ‘get ahead.’
It’s been proven that when people work in groups, there’s an overall decrease in productivity at an individual level. People start to feel invisible, that their contribution doesn’t really matter much and that they’re not needed. They start to slack off, lose motivation to put their best foot forward, and their overall productivity and effort decreases.
And the worst part about social loafing? It can be contagious — once one person starts to loaf, others are more likely to follow suit. They start to think “well so and so is not doing a lot of work, so I won’t either,’ or ‘so and so is not really motivated, why should I be?’
The fact is, it’s harder to keep an entire team motivated to put their best foot forward than it is an individual.
A lot of people will probably argue that in fact teamwork actually inspires creativity; that brainstorming as a group will generate the best ideas.
And I agree, this can, and does, happen. But I also wonder if sometimes people could come up with better ideas individually.
Because studies done on brainstorming — the most popular form of ‘group think’ — shows that group brainstorming actually results in less ideas than if individuals worked alone. Interesting, and for me at least, very believable — I’ve always been the type to rather do the ‘thinking’ on my own and then discuss my ideas. Put me in a room full of people and ask me to come up with ideas and more than likely my introverted tendencies will stop me from contributing at all. Put me in a room by myself and ask me to come up with ideas, and I’ll probably come out with an entire list of pretty good ones.
And then there is conformity.
Almost everyone has heard of the Tuckman stages of group development — forming, storming, norming, performing.
Well to me it’s really the stages of conformity as well — the process of everyone coming together to work and think alike toward a common goal. It can be great for productivity, but I’ve wondered if it removes an individual’s creativity. It’s much harder to ‘think outside the box,’ and furthermore get the buy-in of those ideas, once a group has formed and is more resistant to straying from ‘their’ plan.
All in all, I do think teamwork is essential within the workplace — when the right structure is in place, and a team is all working together toward a common goal, it can be a very powerful thing.
But I think it’s not always as easy as assumed — teamwork as a standard structure has a lot of risks associated to it, ones that can be more detrimental than good, and should be considered before any teamwork is undertaken.
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