Understanding Work Teams
In the last fifteen years, organizational structure has undergone a shift from the individual climb up the corporate ladder to an increasing emphasis on work teams and groups.
The shift to work teams is largely due to factors such as globalization, downsizing and the need for technological efficiency. As companies expand and tasks become more complex, more and more specialists are needed within organizations. These specialists must learn to work together so that colleagues have an understanding of the role and responsibility of those whose skill sets differ from their own. In addition, the convergence of products, services and technology from around the world has forced companies to work in a cross functional environment for which the best organizational design is often working in teams.
There are other reasons for the emergence of work teams as well. Stiff competition, particularly in technology-driven fields, requires teamwork with a concerted effort to keep the company as a whole on the cutting edge. Because technology-driven tasks have become far too complex for one person to handle alone, many organizations create work teams to accomplish collective goals. In addition, organizations are all but eliminating middle management as a result of downsizing efforts. Shifting authority down to members of a work team allows management to capitalize on a positive synergy that results in significant increases in productivity. When teams operate in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, productivity invariably increases.
A well-functioning team can bring out the best in its members because problem solving skills and creativity increase with mutual support that builds moral. The characteristics that make a team effective include complementary skill sets, a sense of accountability among the team as a whole, and a synergistic approach to problem solving. Most importantly, the team must have a desire to work together to implement solutions. A team that functions efficiently learns to benefit from the diversity of skills among its members, and the result is much more than can be accomplished by each member of that team working alone. It follows that the single most important factor in determining whether a team will work well and be productive is a sense of teamwork. This foundation should be in place before the team’s tasks are even defined. With a sense of teamwork and the right mix of skills, teams will have the basis for functioning autonomously and the commitment to accomplish their goals.
Work teams are usually self-managed, which is very different from the traditional management approach of holding individuals responsible for the whole group. Though they function collaboratively, most teams have a member who can function in a leadership role. When teams develop, natural leaders should be allowed to emerge. Team leaders have a role that is very different from traditional managers. The leader may facilitate group activities, such as brainstorming sessions in which no idea is a bad idea. With a free expression of ideas in an environment that encourages people to think actively, team members are more likely to proactively seek solutions in a way that allows every member of the team to participate according to his or her strengths and level of skill. When every member of the team is engaged, the group as a whole is productive.
While at best work teams operate to increase productivity, there are many challenges that can affect their efficiency and lead frustrated human resource managers to abandon the effort entirely. For example, members of a team can suffer from “groupthink,” the belief that every member already knows what the others will propose as solutions. When this happens, teams can become paralyzed by inaction. Issues related to globalization create what are perhaps the most daunting challenges to teams. As national borders become transparent and economies intertwine, there is an increased risk of choosing solutions that isolate or marginalize some team members because the solutions are based on preconceived notions that do not apply across international borders.
Other problems faced by struggling work teams are due to interpersonal clashes in personality or work style. For example, employees who feel they should not have to make decisions may balk at the idea of working in self-directed teams. Virtual teams have a special challenge as a result of their dependence on communications technology to do their jobs and the fact that technology may be their only vehicle for establishing trust and working relationships.
While many managers and executives view teams as the most effective design for involving all employees in the success of a company, they may not be skilled in the group dynamics needed to run teams effectively. This, along with the fact that many people are initially more comfortable working alone, may cause executives to be skeptical about the value of work teams and hesitant to take the necessary steps to create them. With some basic planning and preparation, however, most organizations can implement a system of work teams that thrive.
Human resource managers can do a variety of things to support team efforts. Management should communicate clear expectations for the team’s performance, as well as a rationale for why the team was created. Sufficient resources (people, time and money) must be allocated to the team and its tasks as well. Written policies and procedures that fit team practices can be developed to address issues like hiring, peer-based performance evaluations, and disciplining employees. When necessary, workshops and training sessions can be offered to improve the communication skills needed to function effectively as a team. Finally, managers can bring in external facilitators and mediators to help resolve conflicts, particularly when such conflicts become personal.
With more than ten years of international business experience, Asim Khan brings dedication and tenacity to his role as Chief Executive Officer of Business Management Group, Inc. Corporate presidents, government officials, and industry associations seek his hard-earned expertise in a wide variety of industriescommodities, energy, electronics, manufacturing, technology, and financial services to name just a few. Mr. Khan also serves on the boards of directors for several corporations and nonprofit organizations.