Article: 5 reasons why Teams don’t work

Performance Management

5 reasons why Teams don’t work

Research consistently shows that teams under-perform, despite all the extra resources they have. That's because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration.
5 reasons why Teams don’t work


Lionel Messi sensationally declared that he will be retiring from international football after Argentina was defeated by Chile in the final match of the Copa America. Despite having a career that made him the FIFA World Player of the Year for five times, Messi has many times been critically evaluated by many. But the latest defeat was I guess “the last straw that broke the camel’s back”. 

I am not really writing about what led to Messi’s decision – the Internet is full of it. But what I am getting to is a more poignant question in an organizational context. Is winning or losing, a team effort or an individual effort? Or is winning more a matter of stellar performances of individuals? Do teams really work? 

I personally don’t feel teams work best. And there are others who believe that “the whole is greater than the sum of its apart”. But on the first note, J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams shares some insights on why teams do not work in an interview with HBR. He states that “Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration. And even when you have a strong and cohesive team, it’s often in competition with other teams, and that dynamic can also get in the way of real progress. So you have two strikes against you right from the start, which is one reason why having a team is often worse than having no team at all.” So challenges related to motivation, collaboration and coherence damage team performance. 

But then, does it mean that winning lies on the shoulders of one single individual? What if the team is disengaged or poorly motivated? Does the leader need to take on the responsibility? What if the team leader is not recognized or there is lack of direction?

There is a plethora of reasons why teams don’t work, some of which are:

  1. Lack of clarity on the purpose: The Boss says something, the team understands something else. Unless and until there is a clear set of expectations from the top, the work can never be executed as a concerted effort. Clarity on the objectives is a must for the team to perform.

  2. Lack of authority or leadership: This is most often the case with flat organizations. You have teams but you don’t have an authority to which the team members are answerable to in case any project runs awry. People suffer in boss-less organizations.

  3. Challenges of coordination: Perceptions, actions, behaviors, are exclusive to people. Everyone is different. And each has his/her own ways of working. Expecting everyone to be aligned ‘always’ is unbefitting.

  4. Lack of supportive context: Teamwork is not about fostering interactions or resolving interpersonal conflicts. It is about collaborative effort to achieve a certain goal without letting personal preferences come in the way of executing work. And to enable this, team coaching is vital.

  5. Collective effort vs. individualism: At times, collective effort can sometimes subdue creativity and hinder people from putting across their own ideas when plans are being laid out. 

Teams do not become teams in essence just by calling it that. It takes more than just effort, and demands a convincing direction, empowering structures, encouraging organizations and coaching. 

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Topics: Performance Management, Culture, Leadership, Watercooler

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