Team building in a culture of I


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Why is team building in the US so difficult? Part of the answer may be in the US we build teams made up of people who live, work and conduct business in a culture where the I has greater value than the We.

This paper explores how in a Culture of I impacts can possibly impact team building and what management might wish to consider when building a team

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Team building in a culture of I

  1. 1. Team Building In a Culture of I By James Neils THE CHALLENGES TO TEAM BUILDING IN THE US A visit to any book store or library in this country attests to the attention team building receives. We seem to have no shortage of people telling executives and managers, if they only did this or that, building successful teams could be accomplished. Numerous consultants and consulting firms assist large and small companies, non-profits, start-ups and everything in between to build successful teams. Despite the seemingly inexhaustible supply of books, articles, presentations, seminars, workshops and courses espousing the need and value for team building, it remains an illusive goal for many organizations. Instead of building dynamic and productive teams, the results are often unfulfilled expectations and a search for possible reasons to explain the lack of success. Ironically, the shortcomings of one team’s efforts may lead to the formation of another team to determine what went wrong. That seems to be a rather perverse way for an organization to demonstrate how it values a team. According to some research had the organization been attentive and committed to support the first team there might not be a need for a second. Many authors on the subject have pinpointed what they believe are the key barriers to success and not surprisingly, as part of their work, suggested how to overcome them. Steinshouer mentions four reasons why team building fails in her article Barriers to Team Building & How to Overcome Them, identifying: 1) How people work, which she labeled as Problems of Style, 2) Personality conflicts, 3) Lack of leadership and 4) Individual ambition. Ferguson-Pinet identified five and listed ideas to mitigate these obstacles: 1) Unclear communication 2) Lack of trust in the process 3) Inability to reach consensus of opinions, 4) Not understanding team roles and 5) A lack of a common goal. Brodie offered his solutions in his work, Teams – The Five Common Barriers to Effective Teamwork and listed: 1) Individualism, 2) “Silo thinking”, 3) Lack of trust, 4) Uncertain goals and 5) Lack of constructive debate. Not to be outdone Pell believed there were seven, outlined in his book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Team Building, apparently believing any idiot should be able to build a team, citing: 1) Inadequate plans 2) Leaders lacking leadership skills 3) Poor attitudes among participants 4) Poor training 5) Communication problems 6) Team members who do not work well together and 7) Reward programs that do not reward
  2. 2. Taking a slightly different approach, Jack Zigon, in his book Measuring Team Performance suggests successful teams result when the organization and team identifies and uses metrics prior to and during the project. Without metrics, he believes teams tend to lack clarity of purpose and consistent direction. Supporting other authors, he contends even with metrics teams and their organizations may still face difficulty to determine when and/or whether progress is being made. In their latest book The New Why teams don’t work – what went wrong and how to make it right authors Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley point out several myths about people on teams and team building. They raise the fundamental question of whether teamwork is actually better than a collection of individuals and whether the over emphasis on team building often hurts more than helps. They outline the need to help people assess why they were selected, to learn about others on the team, how management views their tasks and, just as important, how management should respect the decision by those who do not want to be on a team. They also highlight the importance for management to understand the emotional and professional challenges people on teams encounter before and during the work. Citing the work of B. W. Tuckman and his four stages of team development, they pose useful questions team members and management need to discuss and resolve prior to any work. The dynamic nature of the assigned work may require teams to make changes. According to Robbins and Findley once a team begins it should be empowered and respected to make is own decisions. There is no denying what authors have identified as barriers may adversely affect a team’s performance. Why build a team of people who lack trust in each other or the process, suspect management may not endorse or follow their recommendations, or have not been given clear goals and objectives? One wonders exactly what management expects to achieve. Further, the success or failure of a team and the response by management to a team’s effort often sends a message to other employees about the organization’s commitment to building successful teams and the value it places on team work. Collectively the authors’ analyses should not be discounted given the continuing struggle to build successful teams. They have offered sound guidance to help minimize the potential challenges teams may face. Yet, with all of the assistance and the published works that repeatedly highlight the value realized when organizations create teams of personnel, for many the effort fails to deliver results. Team Building in a Culture of I James Neils, Page 2 Jan 2014
  3. 3. Why is team building in the US so difficult? Part of the answer may be in the US we build teams made up of people who live, work and conduct business in a culture where the I has greater value than the We. Team Building in a Culture of I James Neils, Page 3 Jan 2014
  4. 4. RECOGNIZING OUR CULTURAL HISTORY AND VALUES A unique aspect of American culture is our inherent belief in our individual ability to be creative, industrious and to resolve problems and issues. As a culture, we value the can do spirit and identify successes as examples of our industrious nature to produce results. Those qualities are enormously helpful when building teams expected to resolve issues, discover new technology, explore new ideas and meet deadlines. Yet, there is another aspect to our culture which is not so helpful in team building and may play a fundamental role in why team building in the US is often elusive. We are also a culture where the individual, individual achievement, rights of the individual and the spirit of the individual entrepreneur, inventor or problem solver are held in the highest esteem. Even more highly distinguished are those who despite personal challenges bettered themselves, were inventive, industrious and improved themselves and others. This is a culture of individual achievement and a culture of I, even on teams. Consider in how many ways the culture of I is present in American society. State’s issue personalized license plates, we order from fast food restaurants where “ have it your way” is expected and we name streets, buildings, stadiums after individuals and think nothing of it. Resumes speak volumes of what I have done; failing to note it took others, sometimes many others, to make the accomplishments possible. After being criticized and ignored by most US businesses executives and general management for his stance on the use of statistics in the workplace, William Edward Deming traveled to Japan to rebuild their industries following World War II. After notable achievements, returning home triumphantly as the newest guru in management he was asked about his experiences working with the Japanese and what they had taught him. His response was no matter the task or role in a company people are important, especially when they work as a team. While the need for numbers and statistics were heralded as the missing ingredients to successful management, and there is no denying measurement is important, executives often ignored the vast cultural differences between the two nations. Many authors who write about team building have focused on the process and not necessarily on people’s attitudes prior to the selecting team members. Perhaps, in our attempt to identify why team building is so difficult and to simplify the identification of a team’s lack of success, we have missed one major component which is not easily resolved; a culture of I, even as a team member. Rugged individualism, individual achievement, most valuable player, most improved, this month’s Team Building in a Culture of I James Neils, Page 4 Jan 2014
  5. 5. best employee, awards, honors, and on and on extols the virtue of the individual and their achievements in organizations and on teams. A wonderful look at how different the American culture of I and that of the Japanese, where the “We” was nearly revered in their approach work and teams, can be seen in a lighthearted movie entitled “Gung Ho”. The movie is about how American workers and Japanese management interact as they build cars. It is an interesting perspective at two cultures approach team building, team work and the value of the individual. In the end, the Americans come to value the team concept and Japanese managers come to respect the skills and talent of the individuals who make up the team. Team building in the US is not like what happens in other cultures and particularly in Japan that we so easily found a need to copy. Typical of US attitudes about being able to take from someone else and use it here, we took team building from Japan as a means to respond to their ascendency in manufacturing and production. If it works there it can work here. But Japan’s culture of We, is well suited for team building. In the US and its culture of I, regardless of what management gurus or leading authors may claim, team building can often run counter to the recognition that many of the I’s seek. TEAM BUILDING CAN WORK For at the last sixty years there has been recognition and acceptance in the US of the creative talents and results produced by teams of people. This was especially true for the generation who experienced the Depression and then worked through World War II. As a nation attacked, they mobilized, rationed, set a clear course with well defined objectives then formed small and large teams and ultimately achieved dominance over their enemies and all other nations. That generation of workers, managers and organizations then turned their attention to providing itself and the world with the goods and services it needed and/or ultimately wanted. The lessons learned about the value and productivity of team work was not lost on that generation, particularly by those who lives literally depended on another. Turning their attention to building a more prosperous nation, the acceptance of teams in the workplace became more common. Then competition, first between the US and the former USSR, then later economically with Japan played out across the globe further instilled in later generations the recognition and perhaps necessity for teams in the work setting. There are phenomenal examples of what team work can do within the culture of I. In the early 1960s President Kennedy set the goal for this nation to place men on the moon by the end of the Team Building in a Culture of I James Neils, Page 5 Jan 2014
  6. 6. decade. NASA developed the will, the talent and teams to make it a reality: another first for America. Unfortunately, on three major occasions NASA management failed to heed the recommendations and advice from specific teams that was later cited as a contributing cause for a fire that killed three aboard an Apollo spacecraft on its launch pad and the destruction of two Shuttles and death of all crew members. Even when teams do succeed, too often the culture of I returns. How many times have people moved from a successful team to another where the results are less than expected? Players, executives and staff involved in successful teams ask for greater compensation, greater responsibility or simply look elsewhere touting their most recent success. When teams are successful management often rewards a team leader, the “I”, through recognition and/or promotion or make erroneous assumption that the leader, the “I” was the primary factor for the success of the team. The culture of I remains and often is often more important than the We. If rewards are offered why not let the team decide if it is even necessary to compensate one and who that might be? Wouldn’t they be the best to identify who contributed the most and who held the team together? Better than one why not reward the entire team, if team building is truly important. Team building is moving further into organizations that are learning how combining multiple departments and restructuring can improve a way the company responds to crises and challenges or to be creative and innovative. The aim is to remove the “silos” where departments and creative thinking is isolated from the larger “culture” or an organization. Yet, regardless of the alignment, there remain core elements where the culture of I continues to live: my budget, my team and my department. There is nothing wrong with building teams from multiple departments as long as those who invest in team building, teaming and multiple team structures understand how the culture of I can impact and affect the efforts of any team. Despite all of the indicators to demonstrate the high incidence of poor performance, teams do take on significant and complex problems the process can and does work. We need to recognize team building is successful when it creates a culture of “We”. That requires individuals who appreciate and like the culture of I to adapt. But maybe not everyone can do that as easily as we think. It may not be simple and may not be easily broken down into a few parts so that difficulties are resolved with a few improvements. What may be needed is recognition of the dynamics of individuals, the I’s who build a team of We. Patrick Lencioni, who has authored a number of books on team building, published a collection of his essays on management and leadership, Pat’s Point of View. As a coach for youth soccer and Team Building in a Culture of I James Neils, Page 6 Jan 2014
  7. 7. not knowing all the technical aspects of the game, he decided on a different selection process to identify his team. Rather than the soccer skills, he admitted to know little about, he evaluated the prospects, all of whom were in the third grade, on: how they treated each other, what they thought of school, how they interacted with their parents, whether they were actively engaged in the game and how they responded to practice and menial tasks, like gathering the soccer balls after a game. Using this approach, the result was a team who liked what they were doing, liked each other and helped one another. Perhaps as important, their parents enjoyed each other and the way the team was performing. They may not have been in first place, but may have been the best team. At that age, winning might not be the correct objective to achieve. Instead the emphasis might better be placed on learning how to function on and be part of a team. Look at the various reasons cited as to why teams fail and many are not the fault of teams or team building at all. Some of the reasons they cited included 1) Unclear communication, 2) Lack of trust in the process, 3) A lack of a common goal, 4) “Silo thinking”, 5) Inadequate plans, 6) Leaders lacking leadership skills, 7) Poor attitudes among participants, 8) Poor training, 9) Reward programs that do not reward. These are not problems found uniquely among teams. Management seminars, books and speakers constantly identify these as organizational shortcomings to overcome for any company to succeed. It is hardly surprising that teams fail to function in an environment featuring; a lack of a common or unclear goals, poor training, poor leaders and reward programs that fail to reward. Team building in the US may require a new paradigm with complex sets of solutions especially regarding the attitudes and value of people selected for a team. In a culture of I, perhaps team building should focus more on the characteristics of the people who will make up the team. That is not to deny that the challenges once the team is assemble are formidable, for they are. But given the emphasis and the high value placed on the individual, team building in the US should recognize the challenges that occur in the selection of the individuals who will comprise the team. While most writers have focus on the dynamics of the team as it works on a project, it might be better if we focused on the characteristics needed to build a successful team prior to its formation. To identify, as Lencioni did, those people who would be best for a team. This is not to discount the skills needed for a team project, but in team building, the skills might come second to whether the I’s can successfully function as a team and whether the “I” can be second to the “We”. BUILDING BETTER PERFORMING TEAMS Team Building in a Culture of I James Neils, Page 7 Jan 2014
  8. 8. In late Spring 2013, the Gallup organization, in its ongoing effort to measure changes in employee attitudes and behaviors, released the findings from its recent survey. Their findings suggest that out of a 100 million workers, 30 million are actively engaged in their work, 50 million are not engaged and 20 million are actively disengaged. The report noted the overall findings have not changed significantly in the past decade. What implications does the report have for team building? Look at the percentages expressed as a bell shaped curve and ponder whether the finding is that unusual. 20 50 30 Does that seem out of the ordinary for what you might expect from a population of 100 million workers? It appears to follow a normal distribution with the greatest number in the actively engaged and not engaged categories. Consider also that employees move from job to job perhaps shifting where they end up on the spectrum and also that employers hire from this general pool. Would we likely find similar results among personnel in many companies? Perhaps, especially since in the last few years the US Dept of Labor has found employee dissatisfaction highest in years. What happens when a decision is made to form a team? Is the commitment of the person to the company, let alone the team considered in the selection process? It could also mean shifting a actively engaged employee to not engaged or worse actively disengaged because of the team experience. What, if any, criteria is being used to select individuals to build a team? Does anyone actually know who is actively engaged, not engaged or actively disengaged? It probably would help a team if most of its members, if not all, were actively engaged, rather than equally distributed across all three categories and especially those, regardless of the quality of their skills who were actively disengaged from the company. How many companies or managers consider employee attitudes, the perception of employees regarding the company’s commitment to implementing team recommendations, or previous recognition for teamwork completed earlier? Probably not enough. With so much emphasis placed on what happens once teams are formed, on the process of the work, most companies pass over the initial and important step to assess the impact of the Culture Team Building in a Culture of I James Neils, Page 8 Jan 2014
  9. 9. of I. Current research conducted by Hepler and Albarracin on what they term “dispositional attitude” might reveal new ways to select who might perform better on teams. As part of his doctoral thesis, Helper uncovered evidence that a person’s general likes and dislikes often frame the person’s response to seemingly unrelated issues. For example a person who has a strong liking for their daily routine to remain the same and that they control, may not be a good candidate for a team where others might control the routine, even though that person’s skills might be well suited for the task assigned. Although their study is the first of its kind, it is receiving particular attention especially from companies that use personality testing as part of the hiring process. Until social scientist, organizational behavior specialist and others begin to acknowledge and investigate how a Culture of I affects team building performance the likelihood that team building in the US will continue to be a struggle seems certain. Nor is it safe to suggest that even by exploring a person’s view of their role, value and worth on a team that team building will become easier. Factors such as gender differences, attributes of success, age and work ethic may also contribute to a team performance or lack thereof, all of which is affected by the Culture of I. The Culture of I is, however, quite evident on even successful teams and the Culture of I will probably retain a dominant position and influence, especially so in a culture where Facebook and Twitter and other Internet options highlight what the I is doing or thinking. That is not to say that organizations and executives should stop trying or that building teams is impossible. However, unless management recognizes its failures to provide teams with clear direction, accept and implement the recommendations from a team and respect the efforts individuals and the entire group make to contribute to the organization’s greater success, building successful teams may remain a fleeting goal for many. One additional comments from a well respected professional may help to frame the direction management needs to move to make team building yield greater successes and to help improve the We component of the team. Abraham Maslow, who became famous for his social science hierarchy of needs, later worked as a consultant to companies seeking to improve quality performance and production. An entry in the journal he kept from his observations poses an interesting question for management especially when team building: …most of us would argue that we believe in the potential of people and that people are our most important organizational assets. If that is the case, why then do we frequently design organizations to satisfy our need for control and not to maximize the contributions of people?” Team Building in a Culture of I James Neils, Page 9 Jan 2014
  10. 10. Bibliography Barriers to Team Building & How to Overcome Them, Betty Jean Steinshouer, EHow, Internet, Gung Ho, Movie, Paramount Pictures, Ron Howard, 1986 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 104 pp 1060-1076, Hepler Dissertation, Hepler and Albarracin, Chicago Tribune Sept 11, 2013 pp1, 5) Measuring Team Performance, Jack Zigon, Zigon Performance Group, Media PA, 1999 Top 5 Barriers to Effective Teamwork, Lynn Ferguson-Pinet, Internet posting, Yahoo, Blog post July 10, 2009, Building Teams One Conundrum At a Time Pat’s Point of View, Patrick Lencioni, Jossey Bass, A Wiley Company, San Francisco, 2011 State of the America Workplace; Employee Engagement Insights for U.S. Business Leaders, Gallup Inc. Internet,, 2013 Teams – The Five Common Barriers to Effective Teamwork, Duncan Brodie, Ezine, Internet The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Team Building, A.R. Pell, Alpha Books, Chapter 2, pp 15-28, Internet sourced, The New Why teams don’t work – what went wrong and how to make it right , Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley, Berrett Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, 2000. Team Building in a Culture of I James Neils, Page 10 Jan 2014
  11. 11. Mr. Neils’ career includes management and executive positions in for-profit and not-forprofit organizations. Early in his career, he returned to academia and became interested in researching organizational goals, performance measures and financial returns of nonprofit organizations. Although his published works are often directed toward non-profits, his concepts and analysis are equally applicable to for-profits as well. As his career progressed, Mr. Neils recognized the day-to-day demands on executives, especially managers’, were most often at the tactical decision level, leaving little time to improve or develop strategic skills. As a result, he developed a keen interest in strategic thinking, training staff and management issues. His first work was Using Conceptual Models to Improve an Executive’s Strategic Thinking. This paper was a theoretical exploration of conceptual models and strategic thinking. Adapting Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Social Needs” Mr. Neils examined how internal and external forces act on organizations and executives. Following that, he began to investigate how executives might integrate creativity as a way to improve strategic thinking skills. This second article Creativity, Strategic Thinking and Statistical Models questions how commonly used statistic models and creativity might aid an executive’s and staff’s skill to think strategically. Because of the interest generated from these articles, he began to investigate how managers and executives learned to think strategically. His research found most emphasis to be on attributes of strategic thinking people and the need to think strategic, but little on teaching methodology. This prompted, Developing the Skill of Strategic Thinking in which he suggests flowcharting as a possible method to teach staff, managers and executives to become strategic thinkers. Mr. Neils wrote What non-profits can learn from the Obama Campaign in response to a engagement where he argued the need for non-profits to improve their use of data and data analysis. His latest work Team Building In a Culture of I began after attending a convention of Human Resource managers and recognized the strong interest in team building. Mr. Neils explores how cultural forces in the US, that emphasize the value of the individual is a unique component and has yet considered by authors who study team building and by management as they identify person to become part of a team. Mr. Neils belongs to several LinkedIn groups on non-profit management, strategic thinking and performance measures. He can be reached at and skype at James.neils1. Team Building in a Culture of I James Neils, Page 11 Jan 2014