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With over 25 years of research and experience, we have observed countless groups struggle with activities in our Team Building Seminars. These groups all had the same common denominators, whether they were strangers or intact work teams, that became apparent during the first activity in which they were asked to work effectively together.
At least four issues were found to inhibit these start-up groups from functioning as a team:
- Task fixation, process blindness
- Power struggles
- Fight versus flight
Task Fixation, Process Blindness
Individual members justify any behavior as okay if it contributes to achieving the end-product – successful completion of the tasks needed in achieving the goal. Little or no concern was exhibited for how the group functioned during the (teambuilding) goal – the process. We were able to magnify this view by placing time limits on performance of our exercises within the team building seminar.
With this view, any means justify the end, like sacrificing team members, forming sub-groups to the exclusion of others, or not getting the commitment of all team members, are justified under the rubric of getting the task accomplished: “We had to do that to get the job done.” Who can argue with success, even if there were casualties along the way? You can, if you were one of the casualties.
In a new group that is fixated totally on task success, individuals focus on their own needs to the exclusion of the needs of others. There is no support, recognition that individual differences are a potential benefit, deferring of egos, brainstorming, seeking commitment, or flexibility. However subtle or covert, selfish competition is justified as necessary to expedite the achievement of the goal.
Internal conflicts generally make up part of the dynamics when establishing a new group. Leadership: do we need a leader, who is going to lead, or will we follow the appointed leader? Teams asked to perform leaderless tasks or act as a volunteer group struggle most with issues of leadership. In many of our team building seminars, groups explain that many of our exercises would have been easier if we had appointed a leader. Yet, after having experimented with appointing a leader, we observed the group’s behavior remained the same. The only difference is that one person, the leader, becomes frustrated by his/her inability to get the groups cooperation and the battle for influence and power still continues.
Dominant individuals scramble to be recognized and gain influence with others. Disagreements over ideas quickly are positioned as win-lose alternatives. Accepting my ideas mean rejecting yours. We have seen high-achieving executives’ egos keep them from “dimming their headlights” and deferring to other team members.
Who’s in and who’s out is another conflict which often exists as part of the dominant-individual struggle. Cliques, groups within groups, and “We” versus “Them” are terms used to describe this situation. In new groups this struggle is fostered by the need to find someone who will support your (teambuilding) ideas. Once found, the divisiveness of positions or lobbying for a majority vote starts. The “outs” resent the “ins” and will resist their ideas, sabotage their plans, or simply refuse to be fully functioning members of the team.
Fight or Flight
Likewise, in many of our team building seminars, the following fight or flight behaviors were observed:
- Unwillingness to listen to others
- Fear of speaking up or fighting for a position
- Low trust in other members, causing withdrawal
- Taking the task too lightly
- Little group planning
- Silence as preferable to vulnerability
Regardless of the behavior, the result is the same: the team loses resources, energy, and creativity. Decisions are made and plans are implemented with less than total group input and support. It is frustrating to be a team member when fight or flight behavior is exhibited. Unless the team is organizationally mandated to remain in existence, this dissatisfaction and frustration among the members will cause it to perish.
New groups are particularly susceptible to this struggle when individual differences recognized and taken into consideration, or generalizations about motives and behaviors are made about the members of a group?
The first common stereotypical behavior to emerge, that we observed, was in male/female roles. More often that not, females are given a secondary role, are not allowed to perform physical tasks like lifting other, and are listened to only as a last resort. A more subtle stereotyping occurs when physical size is equated with strength, balance, and athletic agility. Often, the largest male is often forced into the position of lifting, carrying, or pulling others even when activities in later exercises prove this stereotype, equating size with strength, is false.
We are constantly amazed, after only a brief introduction, how quickly generalizations are made about individuals. These stereotypes serve as blinders and keep the group from using all the resources available to the team.
Action Items for Start-Up Teams
1.Jointly define how the group will function.
The challenge for a new group is to establish a way of operating that will allow process issues to be noticed, discussed, and taken into account as the group works on the tasks to be accomplished. New groups could profitably invest time in talking about some key issues:
- How should we function as a group
- How should we make decisions
- What do we expect from one another
- How will we monitor our process so that it doesn’t become a problem
Groups that become cohesive and maintain effective teamwork balance attention to tasks and to process issues. Effective team members do not fixate on either; they monitor both and openly discuss needed improvements.
2.Create a win-win atmosphere.
When teams are functioning effectively, disagreements or differing views are explored not to declare any one view the winner, but to seek the best decision. A team, where the free flow of information is promoted, creates not a win-lose environment but an environment encouraging discussion that leads to better decisions than any of the original positions presented.
The group will go through a phase when power struggles predominate unless the leader or a team member establishes a mode of operation and has courage to point out when power struggles are occurring within the team.
Functioning teams realize that leadership can shift from one to another member of the team depending on the task at hand. The designated leader knows that leadership can be shared or transferred without any loss of power.
3.Manage fight or flight behavior.
Teamwork means managing fight or flight behaviors so they do not become counterproductive. All members take the responsibility for monitoring these behaviors and focus the group’s attention on resolving them when they occur.
4.Test out your assumptions about team members.
Teamwork demands clarity with regard to what each member wants, needs, and is willing to do. No assumptions are made or left unchecked. Profitable time can be spent discussing each team member’s answers to these three questions:
A.What should other team members do more of because it helps me be a more productive team member?
B.What should other team members stop doing because it hinders my productivity and contribution as a team member?
C.What should other team members start doing because this will help me be a more active and contributing member of this team?
An effective team building seminar will clarify the various roles of team members and prevent stereotypes and assumptions from determining the group’s behavior.
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