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One of my biggest Aha! moments in team leadership took place in an sort of artificial setting.
The setting was Oral Communication for the Professions, a speech class that I took during my senior year in college.
I was selected by my classmates to lead a six-member team. Our assignment was to identify an actual communication problem in a business organization, diagnose the problem, and develop a solution. As a group, we would present our solution to the class. It was a big project, and took the entire semester. Most importantly, it was a huge percentage of our grade for the class.
As the leader, I thought my job was fairly straightforward: Determine what needs to be done, and assign the tasks to the team members.
Things quickly went off the rails.
My task wasn’t as easy as I thought. Our preliminary meetings descended into petty disagreements over trivial matters. We faced meaningless delays. We had an inordinate amount of indecision and foot-dragging. The most agonizing thing was the senseless opposition to every proposal or suggestion by any team member.
I couldn’t help but wonder, Am I dragging this team down? Am I an ineffective leader? Do I have a leadership problem?
These questions are natural and totally appropriate. It’s important that leaders have moments of self-reflection regarding their tasks.
It’s just important to keep in mind a deeper truth about team dynamics and functionality: The team itself could be dysfunctional. I wanted to know why most teams are dysfunctional. As it turns out, there’s a lot of science behind team dysfunctionality.
When we’re part of a team, we’re involved with a complex structure. A team is a machine with multiple moving parts, and all those parts have to work in unison. We can use research to fix problems, but more importantly, we need to understand why these problems are occurring to begin with.
If we know the reasons behind team dysfunction, we can both fix the issues and make sure they don’t happen again. But we need to look in the right places.
My research surfaced four reasons for a team’s dysfunctionality.
1. Your team is cross-functional.
On paper, cross-functional teams seem like a good idea. They ostensibly allow a company to make the most of its workers. However, when Behnam Tabrizi surveyed 95 cross-functional teams for a Harvard Business Review piece, he discovered that a whopping 75% of the teams were dysfunctional.
Tabrizi used five criteria for measuring a team’s dysfunctionality:
- meeting a planned budget
- staying on schedule
- adhering to specifications
- meeting customer expectations
- maintaining alignment with corporate goals
Dysfunctional teams all failed at least three of these criteria.
Tabrizi explained it this way:
Cross-functional teams often fail because the organization lacks a systemic approach. Teams are hurt by unclear governance, by a lack of accountability, by goals that lack specificity, and by organizations’ failure to prioritize the success of cross-functional projects.
When cross-functional teams lack guidance, they turn into a mess. They don’t have a clear goal in sight, and often, they don’t even know where to start.
If you lead or are part of a cross-functional team, there are some crucial changes you can make or suggest to get the ball rolling again.
- Make sure that the team is being managed by a higher-up. As Tabrizi notes, “unclear governance” can kill a cross-functional team, so make sure the governance is present and obvious.
- Make sure that the team has a common goal that is aligned with the company’s goals. If a team isn’t seeing the big picture, they have a huge chance of failing. Each team member should have a lucid understanding of the objectives, and those objectives should fall in line with corporate.
- Encourage all team members to communicate about requirements and specifications. If there’s a specific budget that needs to be adhered to, each team member needs to be constantly aware of that. If there are certain guidelines for the project at hand, everyone should be constantly aware of that too.
Being alert to the inherent problems of cross-functional teams can often help solve the issues. When you know the underlying troublemaker at hand, you can more easily target and deal with it.
2. Your team isn’t collaborating.
Collaboration is one of the most important forces behind a successful team. But we’ve all been in teams where not everyone pulls their weight. Some teams can seem like multiple individuals instead of one group.
But there’s a trickier question here: Why does collaboration matter? If the individuals in a team can each pull their own weight and contribute on their own, isn’t that enough? The answer is no.
To uncover why, let’s take a look at an analogue to the workplace — the classroom. In a study performed at Edith Cowan University in Australia, researchers analyzed two teams, one successful and one unsuccessful.
They found that the unsuccessful team members were focused on their own tasks instead of contributing to the group. They also communicated poorly and didn’t want to discuss problems.
On the other hand, the successful team “felt that they had a responsibility toward the other members of the team and that the success of the project was based upon each team member’s contribution.”
Collaboration is well explained in the age-old maxim: “Two heads are better than one.” One person in isolation may come up with great ideas, but in a team environment with others’ feedback, those ideas tend to thrive and create new ideas.
It’s easy to see why non-collaborating teams fail. But here’s the more important question: How do you fix them?
1. First, you have to ensure everyone is on the same page with a healthy attitude and a willingness to contribute to the group. In the Edith Cowan case study, the successful team felt like they had a responsibility to contribute, and they valued each other’s opinions. Every team has to have those qualities.
When we value the contributions of our team members and create a welcoming atmosphere, we cultivate the best conditions for collaborative teamwork. Members should be unafraid to present their ideas and address problems. Under these conditions, teamwork flourishes.
2. Second, make collaboration a priority. This sounds like an obvious remark, but unfortunately, many team leaders set their teams free without ever mentioning collaboration. By emphasizing the importance of collaboration, you’ll prime your team to work together and contribute.
3. Your team is too big.
In another classic example of modern workplace thought, we’re often told that bigger teams are better. At first glance, this seems like an obvious fact––bigger teams have more brains and more brawn, and thus they’re better than smaller teams.
Right? Mm, maybe not.
In 1913, a French professor named Maximilien Ringelmann decided to test out this idea with a rope. In what is now a classic social experiment, Ringelmann asked people to pull on a rope, both by themselves and with a group.
He found, unsurprisingly, that people put in a fair amount of effort into pulling the rope. But when people were put into a group, they put less effort into pulling the rope.
Even more interestingly, as more and more people were added to a group, each member put in less and less effort. (A second study in 1974 underscored this hypothesis, called the Ringelmann effect or social loafing.)
Notice how expanding size of the group is directly proportional to the decreasing effort of its individual participants.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has a team policy that is built on the Ringelmann effect. His philosophy is called the two pizza rule. If a team can be fed by two pizzas, that’s an ideal team size. If there’s too many people for two pizzas to feed, Bezos makes changes.
Like the Ringelmann effect, there’s some serious science behind the two pizza rule. It helps combat the groupthink that tends to occur in larger teams, and it greatly mitigates the amount of social loafing that occurs.
While it’s typical to believe that bigger teams produce better results, there’s actually power in smaller numbers. If your teams are too big, they may be sabotaging themselves.
If your groups have more than six or seven people, try downsizing to that range. You might even consider trying three- or four-person groups.
Or, if you want to really test the Ringelmann effect, send some team members out on their own. If Ringelmann is right, then your solo members should increase their efforts.
4. Your teams aren’t balancing the workload.
Your team might be collaborating, but there could be something sneaky going on under the radar: workload imbalance.
It’s not unusual for one or two highly-driven team members to take on most of the work. While these members think they’re helping the team, they’re actually eclipsing their teammates’ abilities.
On the other hand, the team leader or supervisor may be causing the imbalance. It’s sadly common for leaders to overwork certain high-performing members and deprive those who may get work done more slowly.
Whatever the cause of the workload imbalance, this isn’t how teams should operate. If one or two people are doing all the work, they’re overexerting themselves, and the other members’ skills are going to waste.
As Matthew Swyers says, “A successful team combines individuals who come together to accomplish the defined goal and spread the workload evenly across team members. Each person is necessary to achieve the goal.”
This utopian definition of a work team is rarely seen in the real life workplace. Instead, teams are like uneven seesaws. The work may be getting done, but it’s not happening in the most beneficial manner.
The best method of preventing workload imbalance is by assessment. You should regularly speak to each team (and ideally, each team member) about their role. Often, when there’s a workload imbalance, it’s because one or more members are unaware of their role.
That study at Edith Cowan University emphasized “appropriate team composition” as a driving factor behind a successful team, saying “team members need to be fully aware of of their specific team role and understand what is expected of them in terms of their contribution to the team and the project.”
The next step is to consider each member’s strengths when distributing the work. If members are receiving assignments that don’t gel with their work style, they might offload the work or simply ignore it. But if you assign work according to aptitude, there’s a much higher chance that everyone will feel compelled to contribute.
There’s no exact science here, which is why regular assessment is important. If a team is imbalanced, work with them to fine-tune the workload. Seek their honest feedback and use it to improve the team experience.
What happened with the big hairy project that I was leading in my college class?
I thought we were fried. I was afraid that I was going to break my grade-streak and end the class with a big fat “F” during my senior year.
The group bickered, stalled, bickered again, failed to reach agreement, and squandered away weeks of zero progress.
Then, as the deadline loomed, good ol’ pressure kicked in. We hustled hard, pulled a few late night meetings, and eventually made a decent presentation.
Each student met with the speech professor individually after the project for a debrief on the group project. At this point, we would receive our grade for the class. I walked into the meeting, still wondering what went wrong? And how did we manage to finish the project in spite of the hurdles?
My professor was a keen observer of the whole process, and she clearly explained the issue to me. The problem wasn’t my failure as a leader, but rather a fundamental group dysfunctionality. We were suffering from a failure to collaborate. My professor revealed to me some of our group dynamics that were undermining my ability to lead effectively.
Team dysfunctionality happens. Rather than beat yourself up for it, try to learn from it — assess the problem, and seek to fix it.
Fixing a dysfunctional team can be a headache, but it’s a small price to pay. When these issues are fixed, teams work like they should.
If you see the signs of team dysfunction in your workplace, speak up about it. Others may not even be aware. Your voice could help save countless hours of wasted time and lost productivity.
Most importantly, when you’re leading a team or part of one, do your best to combat team dysfunction. If you see an imbalanced workload, suggest a solution. If your team is too large, ask about splitting it up.