Building A Team From Loners - Management
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SECTION: Management

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Building A Team From Loners

Written By: Marilyn Moats Kennedy

Article Date: 12-01-2005
Copyright(C) 2008 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.


Insistance on team work won't disappear anytime soon unless turnover drops dramatically.

If there's a concept that's anathema to many younger workers, it's teamwork. Managers with the lived-in look tell us they've never seen so many employees less eager to "work well with others" or to work with others at all!

The mantra of the individual contributor is "I did this, and this, and this . . ." No wonder. Many twenty-somethings (and a lot of young thirty-somethings) have grown up encouraged by their parents to prize their individuality. They played individual sports as opposed to team sports.

Currently, in high schools across the country, the three most popular sports measured by participation are swimming, running, cycling in that order. Tiger Woods is the enduring hero of the young, and he barely acknowledges that others play golf, much less play with him or influence what he does.

When we ask Boomer managers why they want their subordinates to work as a team, they say it's because they think the whole will be greater than the parts. Maybe, but only if the parts interact.

Boomers also fondly remember brainstorming in small groups. The problem is, many younger workers see brainstorming as a violation of their privacy. Their idea is, "If I have any ideas I think you need I'll tell you about them. Do not attempt to take them from me by force."

What should a manager do? Teaching teamwork is time-consuming at best and a formidable task when trying to proselytize a reluctant following.

Is it worth it? You may not have a choice if top management is in love with teamwork and has given you a mandate to make it work.

How should you proceed? The underachievers will be easy to win over. They'll see a team effort as a way to off-load work onto others while expecting the same recognition and reward as the rest of the team. This, of course, is the main reason productive people hate teams in the first place. Most consider teaming a form of punishment and they're very up-front in saying so - violating another Boomer value: submission to the group.

You will have to buy their cooperation by convincing them of two things:

  • The desired outcome cannot be achieved by an individual contributor. You will never sell team work to a high performer unless there's no other way to get the job done
  • You know all team members are not equal, and you will reward each team member according to his contribution. You will never have the cooperation of those from whom you need it most unless you recognize those who did more and those who did less. Compensation will be commensurate with contribution.
Note that although uneven performance levels are to be expected on teams, there are limits. If you want a real failure, throw in a player who needs "special consideration."

"Be kind to Buddy. He is doing the best he can."

Not only will the team implode but as a manager, you're sending the wrong message: Carrying the incompetent must be more important to you than getting the result.

Let's be optimistic and assume you get buy-in from the troops. Now, in excruciating detail, you must define the behavior you expect. Use examples: "In the following customer service scenario (then give an example) what should the team do and which member should do it?'

Give feedback at every step. "That's right. The person who worked with the customer . . ."

Be prepared to continually clarify and reinforce. Tell them what teamwork really means: If someone drops the ball, the person who observes it first picks it up and puts it back in play, just like a basketball or football game.

For example, the customer has Jack down for the count. Jack is accused of everything short of sexual harassment.
"The shipment was late, incomplete, and sent to the wrong address."


Make your team members understand that this is not Jack's problem alone. Anyone who observes or overhears the tirade should enter the fray to deflect blows from Jack so he can regroup. Emphasize that, in fact, raises or bonuses depend on support of team members. Leave Jack to twist in the wind, and they'll feel it in their wallets.

If you're not completely sold on the idea of teamwork yourself, the troops will discover that and respond with half-hearted, process-heavy performance, sort of like a union "slowdown." In that case, consider bringing in a consultant to do the training.

In the end, many workers are converted to the team concept because shared responsibility also means shared resources, back-up, and blame. A hidden agenda of teamwork is having several people cross-trained to do every part of the job.


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