By Dr. Woody Sears
My most recent article for Expert Access closed by referring to an effective wor
k group as “… a team without all of the power and authority issues that contaminate most so-called teams!” I know that’s contrary to prevailing notions about how to get the most out of people at work, but my years of experience have convinced me that team building is BS!
While the children’s game of “blind man’s bluff” might be fun, what does leading someone blindfolded around rocks, trees and bushes have to do with performance improvement? Or standing on a table with your arms crossed and falling backward into the waiting arms of “teammates?” Or even strapping on harnesses and playing on a climbing wall or up in a tree with a “slide of life?”
My experience says very money-wasting little!
Enough of the American Football Maxims
At the heart of the matter is the (mostly) male fascination with American football and the heroic statements of famous coaches. Maybe you recall hearing that “winning’s not the most important thing. It’s the only thing!” And here’s another jewel from a punishing father figure: “It would be better that you had not been born than to fumble that football!” But perhaps the quote that takes us to the goal line is this, from the immortal Vince Lombardi: Football is like life—it requires perseverance, self-denial, hard work, sacrifice, dedication and respect for authority.
As a former Marine officer, I appreciate the value of authority and the discipline that it’s supposed to create. But that was in the good old days. That stuff (authority) doesn’t even work for the Pope, at least with the legions of women whose choices are driving down birth rates in some famously Catholic countries—such as Mexico, Italy and Spain!
The trouble with the football-coach analogies is that those guys are working with volunteers. Players could be doing something else, and professional athletes could be earning their wages and supporting families in less strenuous ways. But you and I, economic conscripts all, aren’t really volunteers. We’ve got to be trading time and talent for money and other goodies to pay the rent and put food on the table.
Recently, I did some copyediting on a voice-over full of references to killing and “enemy troops” to go along with a film clip to be shown to people whose wages come from selling coffee! How infantile is that? Could the adult men and women on whom that “training” was imposed have had anything but contempt for their “commanding officer?”
The assumptions about people at work made by executives often seem to be rooted in other times, on emotional or visual impressions rather than numbers. A case in point can be made from a consulting assignment.
Assess on Numbers, Not Impressions
A small oil refinery in California had been organized around seven teams of 17 men each. The teams worked four weeks on days, and three weeks on second or third shifts. Of course, one team was thought to be superior, and the not-too-subtle suggestions I received identified the likely winner. The “Red Jackets’” team leader was a former Marine drill instructor. All team members wore matching red jackets, with their names stitched in gold script—the same red and gold favored in the Corps. They had an active after-work party schedule, and even their wives were organized for activities. Legendary parties and outings had turned them into a team with noticeable “esprit des corps,” or so it was said.
It would have been politically correct to have identified the Red Jackets as the outstanding team—but they weren’t! Actually, they were sixth out of the seven teams when we assessed their accomplishments.
The team with the best performance was comprised of a nondescript collection of workmen, led by a slightly overweight Mormon. He hosted no parties for this team, nor did they seem to socialize together after work. How is it that they—with no team spirit or obvious camaraderie—outperformed the other six teams? What was their “competitive secret?”
It was simple. The Mormon never left at the end of a shift until the next day’s work was planned and all necessary tools, equipment and parts were pre-staged in a wire enclosure, waiting for his guys to pick up. That meant that shortly after their shift started, they were on the job, turning wrenches and executing a plan.
The rest of the teams?
Many spent the first hour of their shifts milling about the equipment room getting organized. I figured they were wasting at least a man week of work every day, and that’s what I reported. And that ended my assignment!
So much for teams! All of the energy, time and money spent on team building probably detracts from actual, profitable performance (if anyone is paying close attention). And of course, none of this refers to the fact that in so many workplaces today, employees could be classified as knowledge workers who are competent to be self-directing and self-correcting, without the heavy hand of authority over their heads.
Who needs or will accept that kind of authoritarian management? Maybe not even janitors or gardeners, and surely not your professional staff. If there’s a need for that kind of smother-vision, it probably resides in the manager’s insecurity. What a perfect demotivator!
What Do People at Work Need?
A clear picture of their responsibilities, some freedom to make decisions about how to do their work, the opportunity to proceed with their work without a lot of authorizations and to be recognized and appreciated for their successes over schedules, budgets and technical requirements.
If people get that, individually and collectively, and if their interdependence is acknowledged and rewarded, they will become an effective, results-producing work group without any training in how to be a team. Why gild a lily?