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An Interview with Dr. Shawna O’Grady, Associate Professor of Management at Queen’s School of Business
Interviewed by Queen’s IRC

July 1, 2008

Respect, not superficial goodwill, is the key to inspired teamwork, says Dr. Shawna O’Grady, Associate Professor of Management at Queen’s School of Business. Great teams work hard at keeping members aligned and making the most of creative conflict. We spoke recently with Shawna about the challenges of creating and sustaining a collaborative work environment.

When you have a team that is generally well-managed, how do you know when things are starting to go wrong?

One of the things that I often notice is when teams stop meeting face-to-face and communicating. Members of a great team will usually want to spend time together and one of the first signs of trouble is when this stops happening. You can have plenty of e-mail and other technology-enabled contact but there must be some time that is spent face-to-face, whether weekly or bi-weekly.

Another thing is what I hear people call “workarounds”, as in, We’re going to work around her. That’s very dangerous. It usually points to an issue of equity, where someone is not pulling his or her weight, and that’s not going anywhere but downhill. It always leads to difficulties if team members avoid assigning work to one or more of their colleagues. It plays to lack of communication. You’re not acknowledging the elephant in the back room.

How is creative tension managed on a team without spiraling into the dark side?

You first need to determine when you want it and when you don’t. Many organizations have a team-based structure and then they think they need to use teams for every decision. You have to remember that simple tasks still require simple solutions. Creative teams are best for complex issues, anything unique, and when you want to have an innovative outcome. Also for when you need strategic alignment across the organization and for anything ambiguous, when you unsure of the outcome.

But organizations often neglect to take the time to allow their teams to recognize what strengths each team member brings to the project. Even taking a half day to build some recognition of different problem-solving styles and how they can each contribute to the creative tension in the room can be extremely valuable.

The second step would be to align the team members to a common purpose around what they are trying to do. Unless you’re in a very creative culture where that dynamic is understood, oftentimes people feel they have to be polite or they have to play nice. Eventually that breaks down and you learn that there is very little respect across the individuals in the team. Without respect, you cannot have a creative outcome or an effective team.

What do we say to the manager who comes in, whether from a different department or from outside, who inherits a group that is just not clicking?

The first thing you need to do is find out the root cause of the dysfunction. It may not be a team-building issue at all but rather a performance-related problem or a resource issue. You should also check whether or not there have been any breaches of trust. I always ask first: Is everyone pulling his or her weight? Secondly, it is tough to build trust or respect if someone has betrayed someone else. If so, this must be addressed and specific expectations clarified before moving forward. Sometimes one or both of the people involved may have to leave the organization to restore a positive culture.

Most of the issues I see fall into two categories. One is a problem of perception. In cases where one team member perceives another one negatively, it usually comes down to a lack of understanding of the other person’s strengths. In that case, you need to go back to teambuilding exercises to help build trust and respect.

The second major issue is alignment around a clear set of norms for working together. In effective team building, you help teams to set these up, but the key is whether or not the team members stick to the norms. Once the team has time to live together for a while, issues begin to arise and expectations get out of alignment. Team members need to confront the lack of alignment to remain effective. A good example is arriving on time to meetings. Some people take this much more seriously than others yet all team members may have agreed to a norm of “No late arrivals”. Sometimes you have to set new norms or confront an issue to re-establish alignment.

Have you seen many cases where organizations fail to “walk the talk” in terms of encouraging strong team work?

A lot of organizations say teams matter but they continue to reward individual behavior. Very few have a good performance management system that backs up teams. This is very important to ensuring team success. People do what they are rewarded for. It’s only natural. When employees an individual puts a lot of effort into helping a team succeed, they or she should be rewarded and celebrated. Also, when a team comes to you as the manager and tells you that one person isn’t contributing and that they’ve tried everything to turn that person around, what is the organization prepared to do? In both cases, we need to be able to send the right messages.

Have you seen organizations use compensation to back up commitment to teams?

Yes, but you have to be careful. What you don’t want to do is have one team in competition with another. Sometimes people will think an easy answer is to have a team bonus system. These can be dangerous because you can have one team winning at the expense of another. The best are organization-wide systems where there is a component of team reward in which each member of the team has an incentive to work collaboratively with each other as well as with other teams.

The other thing to remember is that it does not have to be linked back to compensation. It does have to be linked to accountability. There can be a peer review where team members have input in each other’s evaluation. This way team members receive clear feedback on areas they are doing well and areas needing improvement. If someone is a free rider and taking advantage of the team, An individual lcan be that person can be involved in setting out clear expectations and then coached over a period of time to do better. given a set of expectations to do better and a period of time to make things better. Only if he or she does not change are there negative consequences.

Money is not the number one motivator here. The best way to create engagement and great performance is for people to know they need to do a great job because they will be receiving feedback from peers and that they have to live up to their expectations. Someone who you respect cares and is paying attention. Accountability is also important. If you do well, it is rewarded through celebrations and recognition – possibly pay but not necessarily. And if you do not meet expectations, you know there will be consequences.

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