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A True Tale of Team Misfortune
Eight years ago, a Maryland-based manufacturing company introduced self-managed work teams (SMWTs) at the prompting of its charismatic president, a benevolent sort who wanted to do the "right thing."
The company's 250 workers organized into SMWTs and introduced new ideas into the production process. Further, the president did not allow the supervisors who remained to reassert their old authority and resisted thoughts of abandoning the teams at the first sight of problems.
But the president had a gaping blind spot, according to York, Pa.-based work team consultant Royce Campbell. He avoided conflict and tended to paper over problems. "Resolving conflict is one of the most powerful ways that a team can gel," says Campbell. "It can be tremendously empowering for a team to become battle-hardened by 'fixing' the problems that come between people. A team like that comes to feel that there's no challenge it can't handle. But the company missed those opportunities and became nothing other than groups without supervisors--groups with a trail of smoldering problems."
While the company thrived during the first few years of SMWTs, unresolved problems eventually caught up with it, leading to lethargy, a dearth of new ideas and sagging revenues. Of the company's 10 work teams, Campbell described four troubled ones.
Assembly Team #1: When the department manager had difficulty letting go of the reins of authority, the company didn't help him build "coaching intelligence" or provide team members with self-management competencies. Soon, the manager languished and became disruptive to the point where the president decided to transfer him to another facility. The remaining team members included a 30-year veteran, another with three years, and eight temporary employees who showed little initiative.
The elder member of the group began doing little more than waiting on retirement, "revolving-door syndrome" betook the newer employees, and the third-year employee seemed stuck in limbo. Lacking any vitality from its members, a natural group leader never emerged.
Assembly Team #2: This team had one member who was "high-I," or introverted, according to a personality test administered at the company. She was perfectionistic, not a team player, and a hard worker with strong viewpoints. She came across to others as abrasive, leading to confrontations, after which she would retreat by putting up "psychological walls."
She previously had five productive years with the company, but leadership would do nothing to accommodate her, even though she could have filled work roles that were not interdependent with others. Feeling boxed in, she quit. In this case, leadership's intransigence resulted in the loss of a company asset.
Machine Shop Team: This team was facilitated by the staff technician for the first six years, after which he was removed from the role because of recurring production problems and interpersonal conflicts. Yet the technician was competent and was respected by most of his team members. With increasing frequency, the team failed to meet performance standards. In this case, the problems could have been resolved if there had been third-party interventions to solve problems and mediate disputes.
Testing Team: An alcohol-dependent male team member had problems interacting with his female coworkers. Frustrated by his behavior and concerned that he might cause harm to himself when testing products, the team requested an intervention. Instead, leadership assigned him a new team role, but he began to exhibit a Friday-and-Monday pattern of absences that hampered team performance.
Finally, after two years, management coaxed him into treatment. After six months and a pair of unsuccessful rehabilitation attempts, the team's issues with him had only intensified. One morning, when called to the front office for another stern lecture, the employee dramatically announced his resignation. The alcohol treatment, unfortunately, was too little, too late. If the intervention had occurred when first requested by the team, the outcome likely would have been different.
This company's lack of problem-solving apparatus became a liability, resulting in dysfunctional teams with passive-aggressive managers. With increasing frequency, the president berated the underachieving teams with statements like, "Look at the Product Development Department. They don't have these crazy problems."
"Employees on these teams felt as though they were being tagged the 'bad child' and scolded for not behaving like the 'good child'," Campbell notes. "Eight years after the teams were formed … this is a company dying on the vine. It's a shame, because the leadership never gave employees the support they needed to excel."
Rudy M. Yandrick is a Mechanicsburg, Pa., freelance writer specializing in human resource and employee assistance issues.
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