The Team Approach
We are in a constant state of learning, of evolving, and of becoming more than what we were before.
Change is inevitable. It is a factor in every facet in our lives and is a process that we deal within every moment of every day. We are in continual variations of groups from our family groups, to our church groups, our academic groups and our social groups. There is one group in particular that most adults spend more time with than any other group in their lives. And that is their work group. Those who work forty or more hours a week spend more waking hours with the people at work than they do any other human being. And this is where change can affect more people in more diverse ways than in any other arena they interact within.
Groups have personalities. A group is made up of three or more individuals who have something in common. They have a similar goal, interest, trait, or project. So in some way or form each member of the group has something in common with every other person in the group. When the group works together vocationally, there is an automatic interrelation among the members having to do with organizational structure, position, and duties. These individuals interact on a daily basis conducting their behavior in what has been established as accepted norms. However the personalities of the individuals in the group are what make up the personality of the group and in many cases create the values and norms of acceptable behavior.
What if previously defined and accepted roles are jostled a bit by impending change? What happens when that operation that generally runs smoothly must assess it’s own difficulties and come up with a change or must face a change that is being imposed upon them? Often people feel threatened or destabilized by the possibility of an adjustment in their comfort zone. If a change is sudden and perceived as being forced down their throats people will be much less likely to be accepting of the change.
That is the reason that for many decades now those who study human interaction in the work force have tried to develop ways to allow the worker to be involved in methods of change. There have been concepts called Participative Leadership, Goals and Objectives and Total Quality Management just to name a few. Every area of industry including the military is trying new approaches to involving the workers in decision making and in implementing change. One of the keynotes to most of these proposed management processes is the establishment of a team.
A well functioning team on one day may not necessarily be a well functioning team the following day simply because of a change in a member’s mood, attitude, health or even an addition or dismissal of team members.
The team approach encourages the individual to feel a part of the group as a whole and rather than simply exist as a working part of the machinery, take an interest in the other parts and in the prospect of improving his or her own process. The team approach brings the ideas of employee loyalty and personal interest into the success of the company. It is not a surprise to find that those who are allowed to play a major role in the decision making process are happier with the results of change.
In developing teams to work on specific processes, it is important to ensure that team members are interested in the issues and that they feel they have the freedom to actually effect a change. When team members feel that their input is important and valued they will be more likely to provide their own insight into identifying and solving a problem Before establishing a smaller team to work on implementing or identifying the need for change it is important that the prospective team members feel a part of the total organization and have a belief that they can make a difference. This can mean both having the skill or knowledge to provide valuable input and knowing that upper management is committed to the team outcome.
Team building and team leadership or management can be a delicate process and many factors must be taken into consideration to ensure a successful outcome. Whenever there are individuals involved in a process it becomes a human process and should be considered from that point of view. What that means is that individual feelings, emotions, preferences, values and levels of commitment will inevitably come into play. The team cannot be considered a machine and therefore cannot be expected to operate like one.
So now that we are looking at the team as a human, dynamic process it is understandable that teams must be formed and operated with knowledge and skill in the areas of human interaction. As with any function in the organization there must be a well defined goal. It is important for individuals to “see” the projected outcome and understand the anticipated reward for completion of the entire cycle. I use the word cycle because change is constant, and each major improvement can be considered a cycle in the entire change continuum. Each individual change process can have smaller cycles where short term goals or objectives are established for each step in the process.
When differences arise, it is important to honor the value of all input understanding that through conflict progress can be made.
Being a system of and encouraging of human interaction, there are a few factors that are critical to the success of this interaction. Many of these factors might fit into the category of the once published book written on the value of what we learned in kindergarten. For example: be nice to each other; share with your neighbor; don’t interrupt and let everyone have a chance to talk. Since life and team management are not always that simple, it can help to set some ground rules and post them where they can be seen by the whole group. This can set the atmosphere for an agreed upon standard of conduct.
One of the ideas that is integral to team functioning is the idea of sharing. What this means is that there is shared commitment, shared goals, and shared ideas. Decision making is a group process and the group works to reach common understandings. Unanimous agreement is not always possible but if all ideas are valued and explored then often there can at least be consensus. Specific actions are agreed upon as a group and there is commitment from those who feel they have had input in the decision making.
Ideas, information, and opinions should be asked for. There may be one or two people in the group who do not participate for a variety of reasons. One may feel they have nothing to add that the group would find of value. Another may have lots of ideas but be too shy to speak up. Another may have dwindling interest and may feel negatively about the process or about the group or another group member. Any of these situations can be improved by eliciting and encouraging a response from the person regarding issues at hand. When ideas are shared an environment of candor and acceptance should be maintained. This in itself can relieve natural tension that can build during human interaction. Once information and ideas are gathered, they should be clarified, summarized, and discussed.
Intervention is most effective when it takes place as soon as the problem is observed. Knowing when intervention is needed is a valuable trait in a leader.
If the group gets off the track in discussing matters that although important are not progressive for the issue at hand, those topics can be placed in a “parking lot” as valuable, however, issues that will be discussed at another time. This way the group is re-focused and progress continues toward the goal. Interpersonal problems should be addressed and handled in an open and non-defensive way. However, when interpersonal or procedural difficulties impede the progress of the group, action should be taken to preserve the integrity of the overall purpose.
For example, there are particular traits that some individuals can display that serve to block progress and may indicate a need for intervention from the leader or a team coach. The following behaviors tend to disorganize the team: Deflating others, joking aggressively, seeking recognition, negative opposition beyond reason, attempting to bring back an issue after the group has addressed it, refusing or ceasing to participate, asserting authority in manipulating the group or individuals, displaying apathy, cynicism or continually interrupting others. These types of behavior call for some form of intervention.
Timing is a crucial factor when it comes to this kind of intervention. Examples of appropriate times for intervention besides patterns listed above are: a slow-down in the pace of the group indicating confusion or frustration; difficulty with a particular step preventing moving on to the next step, a breakdown in interpersonal communication; the balance of influence and participation is thrown off by over-bearing or non-participative members; and when tensions threaten to become destructive to the integrity of the group and progress toward established goals.
An important note here is that because this is both a human and a dynamic process, plans should not be adhered to without flexibility and the ability to see beyond structured procedures.
Having steps in the process is the next important factor. There needs to be a plan using systematic procedures and techniques to focus energy. Team members should be familiar with this plan so that they are aware of upcoming steps and can see the process as a whole. This way they can see the benefit of efforts spent at particular levels of the cycle. It also makes for an overall road map through which the team leader can assess team progress and ensure an orderly integration of efforts. An important note here is that because this is both a human and a dynamic process, plans should not be adhered to without flexibility and the ability to see beyond structured procedures.
The team is also a dynamic entity that possesses the ability to either grow stagnant or to improve functioning through it’s “life” span. Understanding that improvement is forever possible, team members and the team leader should be alert for areas where the team could function more effectively. In order for effective functioning to take place, the team leader must elicit commitments toward actions that individuals are asked or volunteer to do. In gaining this commitment it is equally important to follow-up on each commitment not only for the sake of progress but to encourage all team members to take their commitments seriously.
Open discussion of the team’s progress should occur routinely. This can take place at the beginning of each meeting or at the end when a summary of the meeting’s major decisions or progress is provided. Regular attendance and promptness to meetings should be encouraged as a sign of commitment to progress. Whenever possible each member of a working group or action team can be given a responsibility so that they feel more of a working “leg” of the team. Documentation, graphing, surveys, minutes, and time keeper are all responsibilities that can be held by members. Often people will volunteer for tasks or skills that they feel proficient in because they feel that they can be of value in that area.
Building and managing teams are more than just procedural steps in the Organizational Change, Participative Leadership or Goals and Objectives frameworks. Teams can be human powerhouses. Teams can get more done and effect better change than ten individuals on their own. Group energy is unique in that each member is focused on a common goal and each input makes the overall output greater than the sum of its parts. Recognizing a team as a living, breathing, feeling entity can bring more energy to the group than any set of rules or procedural steps. There is nothing more powerful than human desire, commitment, and perseverance. And when those qualities are fostered in a team, the impossible becomes possible.