Fostering team “magic”

Professor J. Richard Hackman is the author of Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, which focuses on creating the conditions for successful teamworking.

Spotlight: How can companies gauge whether an individual has the necessary leadership potential – i.e. how can team leaders best be selected?

J. Richard Hackman: Psychologists have long recognized that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. Where candidates who might be suitable for a team leadership position have not had much scope to flex their leadership muscles, the selection process should explore potential leadership behaviour. My recommendation would be that, rather than conducting a barrage of personality tests, an organization should put would-be leaders in situations in which it can gauge their behaviour.

The key to leadership selection is, of course, to identify good “raw material”; this is the responsibility of a well-designed behaviourally-focused selection process. But the process should not stop there. Many believe that when good people are selected you can simply give them their head. But I disagree. The selection of the best people for team leadership roles should be followed by a process of development to ensure that areas in which they are already strong can be further strengthened, while help and coaching can be provided in areas where weaknesses have been identified.

Spotlight: To what extent do the personal attitudes and behaviour patterns of perhaps highly individualistic team members complicate chances of success?

J. Richard Hackman: We have to recognize the existence of “team destroyers” – people who will undermine any team you put them in. Such people may be so unskilled in working collaboratively with other people, or so individualistic in their focus, that they should be invited to make what may be an excellent contribution to their organization as solo performers. However, there are many fewer such people than one might think.

The reality is that, when teams encounter problems, or things aren’t developing smoothly, team members frequently engage in a process of “scapegoating”. They will pick on an individual to whom they assign personal responsibility for the difficulties. That person may then be labelled a “team destroyer”. Scapegoating is not random. The individual selected tends to be different to the majority of the team, perhaps because of age, functional speciality, gender or ethnicity. Knowing this, we must guard against blaming individuals for problems that are team problems.

So, what can we do to decrease the chances that somebody who may have a more individualistic orientation will actually hinder the team in its work? There are some key conditions that increase the likelihood of team success. Three of these strike me as critical. First, is the team actually a clearly bounded group of people who accept a shared collective responsibility for the outcome, i.e. a real team? Second, has the person who created the team or the team leader established some basic norms of conduct and made these explicit, ensuring that all team members understand that certain behaviour is unacceptable? Third, and this can be a sticking point – is the reward system of the larger organization such that collective team performance is recognized and rewarded, or is the team operating in a context in which only individual successes really “pay off”? The risk of individual team members disrupting the team is much reduced if the answer to the first two questions, and first part of the third question, is “yes”. Team success and a good group exert a powerful restraining influence on the behaviour of team members.

Spotlight: How would you define a “truly self-managed performing unit”?

J. Richard Hackman: A “truly self-managed performing unit” is one where the team as a whole has responsibility not just for doing work but also for monitoring and managing how that work gets done.

When I talk of team leadership per se I am not referring to the particular personality traits or behavioural style of any one person – not even the person who occupies the role known as “team leader”. What I am discussing is whether the kinds of functions that need to be accomplished for a group to do well are being accomplished.

If the leadership “wheel” can rest on multiple shoulders, so much the better. This increases the chances that the group will be effective in monitoring its environment and any changes in this, and in assessing how it is doing internally, and where corrections need to be made. It will then be more likely to develop and refine a performance strategy that is well attuned to requirements.

Spotlight: Do the design and support of a successful self-managed team typically take into account the individual skills and characters of team members?

J. Richard Hackman: Certainly. When you compose a team, you need to pay great attention to ensure that the team includes members who have the knowledge, the skills and the experience that are required for doing the work. But you also need to ensure that the team has a diversity of knowledge, skills, perspectives and experience. A team cannot derive the real benefits from being a team if all team members are the same whether demographically, or in terms of their knowledge base or skills repertoire. To derive real benefits you need diversity. One of the most common problems in teams is that people aspire to be “comfortable” with one another, believing harmonious relations are a facilitator of team performance (which they are not). When members themselves select who’s going to be on the team, they tend to choose people who resemble themselves. But it is the diversity of knowledge, skills, perspective and experience that is so important; to try to build a team that has the “right mix” of personalities or behavioural styles is a fruitless exercise.

Another problem is that teams tend to be too large. This often occurs because team-builders want to ensure that the team has adequate resources or to establish representation on the team of every function or constituency that will receive the team’s output. This can only too easily lead to formation of a team of 18 people or more, which may be politically correct and cover every eventuality but is far too large to accomplish anything. As a rule of thumb I advocate single digits in team numbers – my preferred group size is six people. With more than ten members you are almost certainly going to have difficulties.

Spotlight: You mention your scepticism at the reported achievements of self-directed work teams. How can productivity gains be assessed?

J. Richard Hackman: My simple three-item checklist for assessing how well a team is doing is: are the clients happy? Is the team getting stronger as a performing unit over time? And, do the individual members of the team find in their work more learning and fulfilment than they do frustration? If the answers to these three questions are “yes”, I guarantee you that, over time, barring any catastrophic external event, the numbers will be fine as well.

Excerpted from an interview with J. Richard Hackman by Emerald Publishing editor Sarah Powell.

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