Observations on Employee Ownership
July 15, 2011"Teamwork" is a concept that evokes almost universally positive feelings. We love the teamwork of the U.S. women's soccer team. We implore our political leaders to actually try it. We tell our kids, "we all need to be a team here." Participating in a team effort where people share common goals and mutual respect is one of the most satisfying experiences we can have, simultaneously addressing our needs for accomplishment, pride, camaraderie, and challenge.
Meetings, on the other hand, are another story. Meetings conjure up distinctly mixed feelings. Sometimes they are great, but often they are boring, pointless, and inefficient. But in the workplace, meetings are at the very core of teams. And we love teamwork, don't we?
I think one of the problems here is that we often approach the idea of working as a team in a very idealized sense. We all have our roles, much as a sports team does or perhaps a project to clean up a beach or help build a house. (I like sports, but if I had my way, sports analogies to the business would, along with military analogies, would be permanently forbidden as dangerous and misleading.) We will all have a common goal (winning) and an easy way to know whether we have achieved it. We'll even be applauded or thanked in the end.
Work teams are not like that. Goals can conflict. A decision may benefit some people more than others. Even if the whole team benefits (such as from buying a new machine), the company may not (in the case of a new machine, if that money could be better used elsewhere). Results may be hard to measure or far off. Recognition is often not forthcoming. Moreover, other than maybe the team leader, roles on the team are rarely defined, even though they functionally exist.
For instance, many teams have a skeptic or two. Research shows that these critical people are often seen as smarter. That's because they can critique new ideas, most of which will have flaws, especially at first. But you need a lot of new ideas to be thrown up to find a few good ones. So you also have your idea people. If these two groups conflict too much, nothing gets done. Many groups have people who don't like conflict and can help find ways to facilitate things so that it can be resolved, but sometimes it is better to deal with the conflict more openly. Groups hopefully also have implementers, people who are good at figuring out how to organize activities to actually put the ideas to work. And most groups have people who are observers. They don't say much, either because they are cynics, they just aren't engaged, or they don't feel confident about their ideas. Forcing these people to become more active can backfire—they will see the meetings as threatening. But finding supportive ways to invite their opinions and involvement can generate some good ideas and, at the least, help them be more engaged. So groups need someone who can help with that.
Of course, the same people may play more than one role, and roles may shift with the issues involved. But many of the bad feelings people can have about team meetings can be eased if team members understand from the beginning that there are people who usefully play different roles. It's also critical to have teams include informed skeptics (as opposed to cynics, who just say no), entrepreneurial types, facilitators, and implementers. And team members who normally play a particular role, such as implementer or facilitator, may on some issues just want to sit back, observe, and let someone else play that role. Above all, don't expect a team will always achieve the seemingly seamless teamwork of the U.S. women's soccer team or the "Miracle on Ice" U.S. Olympic hockey team, at least not right away. Working together effectively is hard work.