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Excerpt--Diverse Teams at Work

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By Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe

2003, 259 pages, Paperback

ISBN: 978-1-58644-036-7

SHRMStore Item #: 61.12501

Order from SHRMStore or call (800) 444-5006

How Diverse Teams Work

The shift to hierarchical organizations that manage by control to ones that encourage, enable, and expect employees to make decisions and solve problems has been underway for the last few decades. Getting this grassroots involvement to happen through a team structure has been a more recent emphasis, which has brought greater focus on group dynamics. What makes a team productive? How does a team function optimally? And, more relevant today, how does the diversity of team members impact the group's output? Answering these questions requi res a look at how teams function.

The Four Dimensions of Team Building
Some teams run like well-oiled, meticulously maintained dynamos, while others clunk along, sputtering and choking, barely getting ahead. Yet the "clunker" and the "Rolls Royce" teams have something in common. They share four dimensions in which teams operate. Understanding the four dimensions is an important step in knowing how to lead your team to success.

Task: Focus on the Product. All teams are organized to produce something. Whether the product is as tangible as a report or a machine part, or as intangible as improved communication or increased morale, it represents the team's reason for existing and forms the basis for its goals and objectives. This task focus is one critical cornerstone of the team. When team members understand clearly what their task is and are committed to it, they can set their course and organize the sequence of their work. When tasks are unclear or when there is lukewarm enthusiasm about accomplishing the articulated goals, productivity and progress suffer.

One administrative team saw its task perfectly. In order to keep this health care institution alive in the increasingly competitive '90s, it needed to devise a new and more effective marketing strategy. Team members were clear about the task they were focused on and were committed to coming up with a plan that would produce results. Meeting over a period of months, they redesigned the services they provided, added new ones, and found effective ways to communicate their offerings to their potential customer base. Their clarity and commitment to the task gave them the needed focus so that their energy and ideas were honed in on a very specific and important goal. Critical questions for teams regarding this dimension are: What is our reason for being? What are we supposed to be accomplishing? and What are our goals and objectives as a group?

Relationship: Focus on Human Dynamics: Because teams are not made up of robots but of living, breathing people, there is another factor, that of human relationships. Some teams work diligently to create harmonious music, while others only produce discord. On your team will be a whole range of human relationships. In some cases, there may be long-standing animosity; in others, co-workers have built strong bonds. Informal leaders can bring team members together or cause the group to split into warring factions. Formal leaders can be the focus of loyalty and respect or antagonism and jealousy. When positive, these human-to-human connections built among team members form the basis for support, cooperation, and team spirit that not only make for high morale but the kind of effective communication and creativity that lead to greater productivity.

In one cross-functional team charged with improving the climate of tolerance in the organization, all team members were passionately committed to the task. What they were less devoted to was each other. Each meeting became a grueling session filled with conflict, which left team members asking themselves, "Do I need all this grief? All we do is argue." It took months and many process interventions, including relationship-building activities, to get the group to coalesce and feel like a team. It also took strong facilitation to keep them listening to each other without judgment and to help them continually refocus on their common ground. Critical questions for the team to consider regarding this dimension are: How well do we communicate and get along? How well do we support one another, especially during difficult times? and What are our rules for how we want to treat one another?

Shoulder to Shoulder: Working Together. "Foxhole buddies," "in the trenches," and "through a few wars" are common phrases that express the comrades-in-arms feeling that develops among team members who work together to achieve results. The shared experience can develop a bond, a common ground that brings people closer together. This feeling that "we're in it together" is often strengthened by adversity. A common enemy, obstacle, or deadline can often bring a group together quickly. No matter how different members may be, a shared task can give them a way to come together and develop a connection that forges team spirit.

On one team that had been growing slowly but was constantly plagued by self-doubt and weak relationship bonds, the turning point came when they had a specific task, that of producing a companywide newsletter. Spending two days in a workroom grouped around three computers going at once, the team hummed. The energy was palpable as they got excited about their product, relied on each other for help, and could see real, tangible progress. They developed columns and crossword puzzles on the spot as their creation emerged before their eyes. "This was our best session yet," one member commented, getting many nods from teammates. "We got so much done."

This avenue is the essence of building teams through working together shoulder to shoulder. Questions for the team to think about regarding this dimension are: Where do we need to work together? Where are we interdependent? Where can we help each other?

Chapter 6 can help you answer these questions.

Process Intervention. Teams don't grow only when members work side by side. They can also be built through intervening in the mechanics of how a team works together. Creating special learning experiences outside of the regular work of the team at retreats, training sessions, and team meetings is useful for relationship building, developing understanding, and conflict resolution that might not happen in the process ofworking together on the job every day. These interventions can be used to jump-start a new group, break through a communication block in more mature teams, or stimulate growth on a team at any stage. For example, a work-group may need to learn how to make decisions; hence, a workshop on using a decision-making matrix might be called for. Another team could be blocked by friction, divisiveness or lack of trust among members, so a sequence of trust-building exercises could be implemented at regular, weekly team meetings.

In the previously mentioned team that was working on increasing tolerance, conflicts were obstructing progress on the results. Process interventions were necessary.

First, the team created a list of the norms by which they wanted to operate. Then each session's task was preceded by an activity that had team members share attitudes and feelings with others in the group, thereby breaking down some interpersonal barriers and building common ground. Then, during discussions, when polarization seemed imminent or when egos began to get bruised, the facilitator would stop the discussion and have members share responses to such statements as:

1. Right now I feel ...

2. I feel listened to when ...

3. I feel discounted when ...

4. What I need from others on this team is ...

5. I need to be more tolerant of...

These process interventions helped group members overcome interpersonal obstacles and build stronger connections with each other.

In another example, a team that had poor participation and productivity at staff meetings changed the format and got better results by structuring more interactive communication processes and by rotating the leadership of each meeting. Weekly staff meetings that had once been boring and dominated by one-way communication became lively sessions where real views were aired, problems identified, and solutions generated, all in an environment of shared participation.

To take a look at this aspect of teamwork requires asking questions such as: Where are we blocked in our task accomplishment or in our relationships? What is keeping us from achieving our goals and creating barriers in communication? and How do we deal with conflicts that emerge on the team?

Return to the Book.

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