Category Archives: Teamwork

What’s a new manager to do?

The Situation: Susan (not her real name), was a fairly new manager who was hired to head a division of 20 technical and support staff members, many of whom had been there a long time. Her predecessor of 17 years had retired, and the long-time assistant manager, Camille, had been asked to do both her own job and the manager’s job for about a year. She applied for the manager’s job, but Susan was hired instead.

Susan came in from the outside with lots of new ideas, and encountered a lot of staff distrust. After meeting individually with each employee, she noted that:

– most people seemed quite competent, worked independently and liked it that way

 – many staff members felt overworked since 3 positions had been cut

– there was little communication between Camille and the staff, and staff didn’t know or seem to care about the ‘big picture’ that Camille worked with

– there were no staff meetings, and no other regular ways for staff to meet or share information

– though staff members were individually proud of the work they did, there wasn’t any team spirit

– there was jealousy between some of the technical staff members over who got to do the more interesting projects, and how those were assigned 

Susan determined that a high priority was to improve communication. She instituted regular staff meetings (she brought snacks) where she shared what was going on in this and other areas of the Department. She asked for comments and input, but most people listened politely and remained quiet. She also started copying staff on information she received from other areas of the Department, and sending weekly e-mail updates to all staff concerning work within the division.

Susan also thought there should be more team spirit, so she created a monthly theme (usually tied to something seasonal), asked people to decorate their work spaces according to that theme, scheduled a monthly potluck lunch, and made sure birthdays were acknowledged with a birthday song and cake (for which she paid).

The result? People grumbled about being forced to do things not related to work, and team feeling sank even lower. Some staff members appreciated receiving more information, some grumped about excess e-mails with irrelevant information, and a there was lots of resentment that their time was being used for frivolous things that just put them more behind in their work.

What went wrong? Clearly, Susan had good intentions. So, what went wrong here? Susan approached her new job well. It was good that she met with everyone individually. She recognized (probably correctly) that some of the challenges of this workplace had to do with lack of communication and lack of teamwork. However, the solutions she imposed (staff meetings for the purpose of sharing information where only she talked, and mandated “fun”) were not going to work. For one thing, though she identified some of the issues, she imposed her idea of solutions without any participation from staff.  And that assumes that these two issues are really the ones staff feel are most important!

What should she have done? Once she had gathered information from individual employee interviews, she should have shared the results (in a general way) with the whole staff. Then, she should have solicited their responses to the information.  They would likely have determined that some way of sharing more information was good – but might also have come up with approaches that were more meaningful to them. And, they would have had ownership in those approaches because they developed them. The same is true for Susan’s poor attempts to improve team spirit. 

What now? Given that Susan found herself in this situation after having tried and failed in her attempts to improve things, the best thing to do is back up. Admit that what she did was not effective, and ask for help from the staff: invite interested staff members to work with her to determine effective approaches to the issues that were raised. That will be much more likely to yield positive results than anything she could develop on her own – even if it was a great idea. Involvement creates commitment. Ideas – even if they’re good ones – imposed from the top, do not.

Have you ever been a new manager trying to succeed in a difficult situation? Have you been an employee subject to a new manager’s ideas of how to improve things? Let us know what worked – or didn’t. We’d love to hear from you! ~ Daphne Schneider


Does Teambuilding Work? Part 2

In last week’s post, I outlined the approaches to teambuilding that don’t work. This week I will discuss those that do.

One note: I’m talking here about teambuilding for an already established team. Some of the available kumbaya or fun activities I’ve criticized may work better if the team is just forming. Though maybe not….

So what does work?

  • An assessment must precede the teambuilding. You can’t fix a team if you don’t know what’s needed or broken. Needs and problems are often multi-layered: they can involve personalities, management, organizational systems, training, the nature of the work, and so on. The assessment can be done by someone in-house, though it may be more effective to bring in someone from outside who can view things with a more objective eye. Assessment tools include interviews, surveys, 360-degree instruments, testing, etc. Often, interviews are enough.
  • It’s important to determine which issues are amenable to a teambuilding approach. Some will require personal attention, e.g., behavior and performance problems. These cannot be solved via a group effort.
  • The program needs to focus on the issues found in the assessment. Sounds obvious, but it’s worth saying. If the teambuilding doesn’t seek to address what’s really going on, it will be a waste of time and money. It may even make things worse.
  • Sufficient time, energy, and resources must be devoted to the teambuilding. This means there probably will need to be more than one meeting. It means that management must be visibly committed to the process.  It means that the facilitator must be skilled and have a good understanding of the issues set out in the assessment. (I’ll talk about what makes a good facilitator in another post.) It often works well to have the same person do the assessment and the teambuilding since that person will have a deeper understanding of the players and the issues.
  • The teambuilding should lead to agreement on future do’s and don’ts. It’s not enough for everyone to just speak frankly and get along during the sessions. It’s important that a concrete action plan of some sort be agreed upon.  Ideally the action plan will include some sort of “enforcement” mechanisms, i.e., tools that employees can use to keep their teammates (and management) on the right path.
  • Follow up. Follow up. Follow up. One session or even a series of sessions won’t work if there is no follow up. Such follow up may include check-ins by management, subsequent meetings, or a follow up assessment. Management needs to ensure that employees adhere to whatever “agreements” were made and mechanisms created at the teambuilding sessions.

Any other ideas on effective teambuilding? ~Amy Stephson

Does Teambuilding Work?

Many employers – be it to address conflict or low morale or just to improve sales – provide teambuilding to their employees.  A recent LinkedIn forum explored the effectiveness of such efforts.  It confirmed what I myself have observed: done properly, team building can work well, done cursorily or poorly, it can be worse than doing nothing. 

This week I want to discuss what kinds of teambuilding don’t work. Next week I’ll address what elements are needed for teambuilding to be successful.

So what doesn’t work?

  •  Off the shelf, one size fits all programs. Everyone hates to be manipulated and patronized. Any program that doesn’t address the actual people and problems in issue has to be both because it won’t respect the complexity and individuality of the employees and their issues.
  • Games, fun activities, sing-alongs, outdoor challenge programs.  They may be fun, but they won’t solve real problems. And for many participants, they won’t even be fun. 
  • Working with an overly large group. You just can’t be effective if there are more than 10 or so employees in the group.  Too many variables, too many voices.
  • Teambuilding as a substitute for addressing performance or behavior issues.  A day of Kumbaya won’t help if the manager is incompetent, a couple of bullies run the shop, employees are screaming at each other because they can’t keep up with the workload, etc. 
  • A quick fix.  A few hours or even a full day of anything, even quality teambuilding, will not be enough to address serious or longstanding issues (and aren’t they all?). 
  • An unskilled leader.  It’s not easy to facilitate effectively.  One difficult, self-centered, angry or volatile employee can sabotage the whole enterprise and only a skilled leader can handle this type of participant.  Which also brings us back to a couple of bullets ago: teambuilding cannot substitute for addressing behavior issues.
  • Management outsources the process with little involvement.  We all know that it starts at the top. If management is not invested in the process, the employees will not be either.

What else do you think dooms teambuilding to failure?  ~Amy Stephson

Bullying is an Ugly Word

Henrietta was initially very happy to be in her new job, but after several months things had become awful. Charlene, one of her co-workers, was always telling her how to do things “the Company way” and giving her a bad time for making any suggestions (“How would you know? You’re just the new kid on the block!”) She made fun of her for coming in early to finish projects (“What are you trying to do, make us all look bad?”) and supporting the boss’s ideas (“Kissing-up again?”) In meetings she interrupted her loudly with comments like, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard!” And Henrietta started noticing that conversation always stopped when she entered a room where Charlene was with someone, and that she either made sarcastic comments to her or ignored her altogether when they passed in the hall.

Henrietta found herself trying to avoid Charlene (and a couple of her friends who were doing some of the same things) and not to react when she said something, to avoid being yelled at. She began to dread coming to work in case of another run-in with Charlene, though she really liked almost everyone else and loved the job. What’s going on? Most likely Henrietta has a bully in her workplace.

Bullying is an ugly word, isn’t it?  I started thinking about workplace bullying about 15 years ago when I kept hearing stories like Henrietta’s. At that time very little was written about it. But bullying was a huge topic in the mid 1990’s in England, where it’s been a popular pastime in schools for centuries, and where they’ve been actively addressing it in the workplace for a couple of decades. Unfortunately, we didn’t start really thinking about bullying on this side of the Atlantic until more recently, and are still grappling with defining what it really is.

One of the most useful definitions I’ve found comes from University of New Mexico Associate Professor Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik who says that workplace bullying is “persistent verbal and nonverbal aggression at work that includes personal attacks, social ostracism, and a multitude of other painful messages and hostile interactions.” All those things Henrietta was experiencing probably added up to bullying.

Employees are often in tears when they tell me about a bully in their workplace. They describe interaction after interaction in which they have felt attacked, intimidated and belittled. When I ask them what they’re afraid of, they’re usually unable to articulate what the fear is – they’re just afraid, and it feels horrible. Sometimes they describe physical syptoms as well: stomach or headaches, intestinal problems, sleeplessness, depression.

If you feel like a victim of bullying in your workplace, THERE IS SOMETHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT! For this week, start by writing just two sentences. In the first one, list the exact things the bully is doing to you, and in the second, state what you are afraid of. For example, Henrietta might write: Charlotte yells, says demeaning things, insults me, puts me down, ignores me, makes sarcastic comments, and quits talking when I enter a room. This scares me because I hate being yelled at and insulted and don’t want her to do it any more, I don’t want her to make me look bad in front of colleagues and my boss, to make me feel like an outcast when I walk in a room, or to talk about me behind my back because I’m afraid she’ll ruin my reputation and I then I could lose my job. Once you’ve written your two statements, keep working on them during the next week to make sure they really represent what the bully does and what you’re afraid of.

In my next blog post I’ll discuss what to do after you’ve written these statements. Till then, if you’ve had an experience with a bully at work, please tell us about it.  ~Daphne Schneider

Responsibility Without Power: Leading Teams

You have an exciting new assignment: lead a project team. The subject matter interests you and it’s an opportunity to meet other people in your organization. The problem? None of the other team members reports to you, so how do you lead a group over whom you have no power?

This is a classic example of the CIA principle: you want to figure out what you can Control, what you can Influence, and what you need to Accept and work around. Since you can’t control the others on your team, you’ll need to learn how to influence them. How to do this? Here are several tips:

1. Develop common goals and interests.

2. Figure out how the success of the team will help each member of the team – and communicate that. Usually it will be something beyond “it will make our bosses happy,”  but if that’s all you have, use it.

 3. Focus on getting the work done, not on being “in charge.”

4. Share your own expertise and make your own contributions to the project that are separate and apart from being the leader.

5. Acknowledge each team member’s role and accomplishments sincerely and regularly.

6. Think of the assignment as “relationship building” and approach it from that perspective.

7. Run productive, efficient meetings with good agendas, structured follow-through, and so on. If negative emotions or comments start to interfere with the meetings, address this promptly.  Our earlier post on improving meetings provides some approaches.  Having some fun at the meetings doesn’t hurt either.

8. Function with integrity, honesty, and openness. Listen.

So what about the team member who just doesn’t get with the program and instead seeks to undermine or ignore the project, and you? A one-on-one conversation may help. Ask him or her if they have any concerns, need you to do something different, etc. If that doesn’t work? At this point, you may need to go to either your or the problem team member’s supervisor to see what can be done to get him or her off the dime.

What has your experience been in leading teams when you have no authority over the other team members? ~Amy Stephson