Moving the goalposts

Teambuilding can be wasted on the wrong sets of people. Now is the time to reject group mentality, says David Butcher

Do you ever stop to think about how odd the idea of teamwork is when it comes to co-ordinating managerial effort? Or have you ever wondered how it comes about that we put so much emphasis on running the business using the curious device of "management teams"?

No? But then perhaps you don’t think the idea of putting the words "executive" and "team" together is curious at all. Maybe to you, like many people, it is the most obvious thing in the world to think "team" when you contemplate best management practice.

It cannot have escaped your notice that management teams do struggle to work well together, especially senior management teams, so what is obvious to you may not be quite so apparent to them.

The fact is that teams generally are difficult to use well in organisations. Rarely do they approach the ideal of individual selflessness, mutual trust, transparency and total inclusion that create the conditions for real synergy – the very purpose of teams.

Management teams in particular rarely come anywhere near this. Their members usually have their own agendas and are prepared to co-operate up to a point.

There are often hidden alliances between individuals and political positioning is key to understanding what drives team processes. But it does work after a fashion.

So why don’t management teams come up to our expectations? Basically the problem lies in the way we extol the virtues of teams to deal with most things managerial, and to compound the problem, use an unrealistic ideal as the model for management teamwork.

Calling a managerial task force, designed to meet on only two or three occasions, a "team", is not sensible. Executive committees are not teams, nor are steering groups.

But most important of all, management teams that meet once a week and spend most of their time making routine reports to one another, or deciding who should have premium car parking spaces at the front of the building, are most certainly not teams. I believe it is a fallacy to give them that title.

There are many managerial activities that should not be dealt with through teams. And where there is a need for teamwork, as with addressing fundamental business issues or co-ordinating key operational processes, then it makes much more sense to relax the ideals of teamwork.

High levels of interpersonal trust and openness, for example, require a huge investment in team development, if they can ever be achieved at all. The time and money might be better spent elsewhere, such as on leadership coaching for key executives. Work with the political realities of management teams, not the dogma of team perfection.

The management team "problem" is interesting because we often feel that those teams should be the model for teamwork across the organisation. In fact their inherent difficulties exist in many organisational teams to some extent – it is just that our expectations are high for the management team.

But we should learn from their example. A critical appraisal of when to use a team, and how team-like it really needs to be would at the very least reduce the amount of hype surrounding a rather overused concept.

David Butcher is director of the management development programmes group, Cranfield School of Management, Cranfield University

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