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Understanding Work Teams

By Asim Khan


Executive Summary

The past fifteen years has seen a shift from traditional management to the development of self directed work teams. This shift is largely due to specific factors that include globalization, downsizing and technology. Work teams are designed to operate in such a way that the productivity of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A well-functioning team can bring out the best in its members through mutual support that increases morale. Designed as self-directed units, work teams encourage free expression of ideas in a manner that engages each member of the team. Though there are challenges involved in implementing work teams, with the proper foresight and design, the model can be a success. By allocating the proper resources and support, human resource managers can ensure the development of effective work teams that increase productivity and help an organization to thrive in the most competitive markets.††



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 morale. 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 teamís 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 ďgroupthink,Ē 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 resources managers can do a variety of things to support team efforts. To begin with, management should communicate clear expectations for a teamís performance, as well as a rationale for why the team was created. Messages to various departments should be tailored to individual needs for information with the awareness that everyone has different perceptions about what goes on in an organization. Multiple channels should be used to convey messages as well. Letters, phone calls, meetings and memos are all ways to communicate with team members. All communication should involve empathy with others, and managers should be aware that face-to-face communication is sometimes more valuable and effective than less personal methods. For a message to be conveyed most effectively, words and actions should always match. Relevant feedback and active listening are other strategies that skilled communicators use as well.


In addition to communication efforts, sufficient resources (people, time and money) must be allocated to a team and its tasks. Performance evaluations and reward systems that reflect team contributions are also part of the effective leadership that motivates teams. An organizationís human resources policy and its practice are important forces in shaping the behavior and attitudes of employees. Policies should address the selection process, training and development, performance evaluation, and, when applicable, union management.


Another way for human resource managers to support teams is by offering workshops and training sessions to improve the communication skills needed to function effectively as a unit. Competent employees do not stay competent indefinitely. Skills sets deteriorate and can become obsolete, so ongoing training in everything from literacy and interpersonal skills to problem solving and technical skills is critical.


Finally, managers can bring in external facilitators and mediators to help resolve conflicts when necessary. Unresolved or excessive conflict can hinder the effectiveness of a group or organization, resulting in reduced productivity and lowered morale. A skilled, impartial third party is an invaluable resource, particularly when conflicts become personal. Consultants can improve relationships between parties in conflict and help to facilitate resolution to interpersonal problems.†




© 2005 All Rights Reserved. Business Management Group, Inc.

Asim Khan, CEO

Business Management Group, Inc.

30552 Puerto Vallarta Drive

Laguna Niguel, CA 92677



Author Biography