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When Teamwork Doesn’t Work – and Why

Teamwork, as opposed to independent work, has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Some calculate the average time spent working with others has increased 50% or more in the last 20 years.

Many times the result of the team’s collaborative effort is greater than the sum of each individual’s contribution; this is the magic of teamwork. But occasionally the team’s work doesn’t work. Effective leaders quickly recognize that some individuals are better in a team setting than others, but are frequently at a loss when it comes to considering how their actions – as a leader – impact the team’s overall performance.

Below are tips for leaders who are looking to improve their own leadership abilities and, ultimately, the performance of their team.

Create a Trusting and Fair Environment – Trust is the foundation of good leadership and strong teamwork. Being fair and trustworthy is a leader’s first order of business. Squashing attempts by team members to create an unhealthy work environment – an environment that contains backstabbing, cynicism, cliques, or one-upping – is the second most important order of business. Great leaders are good at detecting early signs of such behaviors and nipping them in the bud. Some leaders encourage “stabbing them in the heart, not the back” which translates into “tell a team member directly and to their face when you are put out or peeved with their behavior instead of telling another teammate behind their back.” Many might think such language is too harsh for the workplace and I might agree. Regardless of the actual wording, the message from the leader – communicated by words and actions – needs to be “our team behaves in ways that promote trust and fairness.”

Value Diversity – Diversity can come in many forms: sex, race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, weight, disability, and the list goes on. Today, we recognize that diversity can include non-visible characteristics and that diversity improves teamwork. However, 20 years ago, the opposite belief was held. Most leaders I worked with early in my career believed that diversity referred to visible traits and that too much diversity could cause problems on a team (thus the need for diversity training!). For example, two decades ago, I worked with a sales team that was known for having and building great relationships with their customers. Common wisdom of that time declared this team needed more salespeople who were very similar to the current team members, if the team was to perform at that same high level.

Most leaders today recognize that this “homogeneous is best” attitude is flawed. However, leaders can be slow to recognize how they may be inadvertently de-valuing diversity. I recommend that leaders take a good look at the kinds of people they favor, count as key team players, and are generally impressed by. Leaders who value diversity surround themselves with, and take advice from, people who have a variety of personalities, abilities, and strengths – in sum people who are not like themselves. The teams led by such leaders have fewer blind spots and greater success. Leaders who overlook the benefits of diversity and surround themselves with people who look, act, or think just like themselves, create teams that have a one-sided, myopic vision of the world and its problems. Studies show that these less diverse teams do not perform as well as diverse teams.

Address Social Loafing – Social loafing occurs when individuals put forth less effort when working in a team than they would when working alone. In high school and college, instructors use feedback tools to assess the social loafing that can occur during a group project. Such tools are less prevalent in the workplace despite the fact that social loafing at work creates bad feelings, stress, and negativity among team members. It is a leader’s duty to be on the lookout for social loafing. It is the leader, not the individuals on the team, who should be preoccupied with the distribution of work among team members. Both the leader and the team member in question should remedy this situation by finding new ways for the underutilized team member to contribute to the overall goals of the team.

Reinforce the Use of Emotional Intelligence – Emotional intelligence is defined as one’s ability to understand one’s own emotions and the emotions of someone else. Emotional intelligence – and its cousin empathy – are greatly underutilized skills in the workplace. Last week I had a manager question how empathy could be used productively and professionally in her straight-laced, male-dominated, and unemotional banking environment. I tried to convince her that being aware of emotions like fear, confusion, sadness, stress, and the like, are keys to promoting individual and team productivity. Leaders who can honestly address the emotions that fill a room and start a conversation about those emotions (for example, “I’m noticing some negative body language in the room; possibly there is not as much agreement about this issue as we have verbalized. Can anyone give me their thoughts on this?”) are light-years ahead of those who stick their heads in the sand and ignore the silent messages that many times are more important than the overt discussions.

Reinforce Turn-Taking When Talking – Successful teams have a track record of taking turns talking and giving equal time to each team member to communicate their opinion. Participating on a team where one person monopolizes the discussion and plows forward with her ideas, obliterating any rival suggestions, can be exhausting and even enraging. Leaders who set clear communication ground rules when it comes to brainstorming, problem solving, and figuring out a new strategy create an environment of open and safe (meaning no ideas are ridiculed) communication. When team members recognize that everyone’s viewpoint will be heard and considered, the need to be the loudest, longest, or most passionate communicator is lessened. Open and safe communication builds trust, just as trust builds open and safe communication.

Empower the Team’s Introvert – If your team has a quiet member, don’t immediately assume that person is loafing! Great leaders know how to engage introverted team members and spark their less attention-needy personalities. In Susan Cain’s book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” she explains how the insights and knowledge of introverts can be greatly diminished in a world that values extroverts. Leaders can address the issue of overlooking the introverts by 1) having a strong personal connection with them, and 2) a good knowledge of their expertise. Drawing the introvert into the group’s conversation with particular questions (for example: “Bill, I know you have done some special training in this area. What are your thoughts?”) is a great way to empower this individual.

Focus on the Strengths of the Team – Teams that focus on what each member does best, receive feedback about how they are utilizing their strengths, and know how their unique talents connect to their work have higher productivity, increased profitability, and are six times more likely to be engaged at work. The leader sets the tone and can create a deficiency-based culture (“If only we were more like team B, they have some real stars. Let’s do what they are doing.”) or a strengths-based culture (“I’m so excited about the abilities of everyone here and complementary skills of this team. We are unique. Let’s use our unique talents to be the best we can possibly be.”) Harnessing the strengths of a team may sound challenging but is actually a very straight-forward process.

Every leader plays a key role in the outcomes of their team. In fact, the outcomes are precisely how each leader’s ability will be judged. Are you looking for that magic ingredient to unlock your team’s potential?  Look no farther than the mirror.


For more about leading with strengths see Sarah Robinson’s best-selling book “Unstuck at Last: Using Your Strengths to Get What You Want.”




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