For many years now, the strategy of teamwork has been widely used in many organizations. One of its motives is to translate organizational values into specific rules of conduct created by team members, thereby, allowing the creation of self-managed identification with organizational goals (Webb, 2006). Many contemporary theorists believe that working in teams tends to solve most if not all challenges faced by organizations. It tends to end the bureaucratic form of control, improving efficiency and productivity while providing employees an avenue for socialization, self-actualization and participative management (Johnson and Johnson 1987).
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It is important to organize work around teams in some cases. For instance, in other to ensure the successful outcome of the National Health Service (NHS) project in the UK, general practitioners, IT experts, project managers and other professionals would need to collaborate and work together. However, behind this seemly pleasant style of work lie certain undesirable traits and characteristics.
The essay begins by presenting popular understanding of teams and some positive ideologies that support the use of teamwork. It then goes further by critically analyzing these ideologies and identifying some unproductive characteristics exhibited by teams. The premise of this essay is not trying to be cynical about the benefits that teamwork offers but rather expose some traits which reveals that it does not ‘always’ benefit organizations, and particularly, its members. This would profit us by having a broader understanding about its strengths, shortcomings and implication about its use.
WHAT ARE TEAMS?
Teamwork as an approach to how work is organized is not new but rather historic; probably older than the phenomenon ‘formal organization’ (Benders and Van Hootegem, 1999). Management literature began sensing its benefits in the 1920s (Wilson, 2004). Studies reveal many companies using teamwork as a way of organizing work (Cully et al. 1998; Cohen et al., 1996). Today, ‘team player’ skills usually needs to shown be potential employers to stand a chance of employment.
A team is a small number of people with complementary skills, committed to a common purpose, having set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993, p113). Teams are thought to be ‘special form of groups’ because members have a more shared focus in all regards as opposed to seeking individual goals. Teams develop direction, commitment, and momentum by working to shape a meaningful purpose (Wilson, 2004, p206). There are some teams regarded as self-managing teams because they have more authority to self-regulate throughout the task (Cohen et al., 1996).
Teamwork has been popularized to be a remedy for solving inflexible structures to work and alleged inefficient bureaucratic control, and enhancing employee higher-order ‘growth’ and ‘relatedness’ needs by job enrichment and empowerment (Bratton el at., 2007, p313). Socialtechnical theorists claim that teamwork improves employee discretion, thereby leading to commitment, motivation and satisfaction (Wilson, 2004). Teams enhance organizational dimensions by providing flexibility, motivation and learning (Knights and Willmott, 2007).
Effective teams has also been framed as always task-oriented with confluence, having participative and shared form of leadership and tending to overcome the subversive forces of power, conflict and emotion (Sinclair, 1992).
CRITICAL ANALYSIS ABOUT TEAMWORK
In reality, teams are not always composed of the clearly perfect picture that ideologists and management gurus claim it to be. Team members are still humans and could exhibit their sense of individuality and purpose, which at certain times could be conflicting. Some views about teamwork are unitary (Burrell and Morgan, 1979; Storey, 1995) which only assumes cohesion not conflicts between members thereby writing off teams that actually exhibits tension and strife as not ‘real’ teams. In addition, the focus is centrally on achieving greater productivity with little emphasis to feelings, personal reflections or experience of team members (Metcalf and Linstead, 2003; Wilsons, 2004).
To claim that teamwork is always beneficiary to the organization and its members, certain measures are required to ascertain its effectiveness. Does teamwork always produce remarkable results? Are team members always satisfied with the environment set for them to operate in and create themselves? Are they always willing to continue contributing? Do organizations always have control in channeling team outcomes? It appears that from the enjoyable and seemly pleasant surface of teamwork lie a murky side.
Rhetoric of exploitation by working harder
Teamwork is a sleeker form of oppressing labour to suck out optimal performance. It allows employees work ‘harder and smarter’ (Parker and Slaughter, 1988), intensifying labour from workers (Knights and Willmott, 2007; Wilson, 2004). Teamwork’s goal is to cultivate organizational values into members by making them more participative and giving them a bit of autonomy, thereby instilling in them passion to thrive and work further even outside their contracted job schedule without being paid. Moreover, team members in addition to their tasks have to supervise other colleagues ensuring they do their work. Teams have huge responsibility in ensuring delivery of tasks despite varying situations such as absenteeism, slackness or even change of members. These places profound burden on the rest of the team (not the organization) as additional efforts is required to nullify them as seen in the NUMMI case (Parker and Slaughter, 1988; Knights and Willmott 2007). Team members embrace self-dignity by striving harder to ensure the team’s success work not minding additional labour.
While this benefits organizations who are obviously looking for maximum labour at minimum cost, it does not for team members because stress levels, tension and pressure are heightened as work is intensified and could lead to negative effects on employees’ well-being (Wilson, 2004).
Concertive control and surveillance
The strategy of teamwork is an effort to improve the traditional bureaucratic control. However, a tighter form of control, ‘concertive control’ tends to exists within team-based work (Barker, 1993). Similar ethnographic study by Kunda (1992) showed similar control used to gain unstinting commitment from employees.
Traditionally, management was responsible for setting rules and regulations for employees. With teamwork, members set their own rules possibly forming stricter punishment for defaulters (as seen in Barker’s case at ISE). Team members monitor actions ensuring total conformity with norms, meting out punishment to defaulters (Sewell, 1998). Employees feel additional pressure knowing that they are under surveillance from other team members, which may pose unhygienic to working environments.
It appears that the freedom that teamwork promises seems contradictory to its reality. As Barker (1993, p435) rightfully argues that powerful combination of peer pressure and rational rules forms tighter form of cages as opposed to contemporary claims. It is worthy to note that teams are not truly effective if they get the job done but self-destructs or burns everyone out (Roberts and Corbett, 2009, p150).
Conflicts of power and leadership traits
Many contemporary theorists believe that groups that do not have conflicts over power or authority and have good interpersonal relations pass as real or working teams. However, studies show that groups do experience various forms power (French and Raven, 1959) which is not equally distributed (Fiorelli, 1988).
The most influential or powerful individuals could maneuver the team efforts to possibly suit their own interests rather than the teams. Janis (1985) notes that political factors due to autocratic leaders cause high decision-making errors. Less powerful members have no choice but to concede to the opinions of these elite members despite the fact of their convictions about its failure. Decisions readily accepted unanimously without contests, weakens the efficiency of teams (Sinclair, 1992). ‘Groupthink’ (Janis, 1972) existence is likely in teams that try to reduce conflicts by cohesiveness and consensus without critical analysis and evaluation. The output of work in this case is not thorough and lacks excellence since further evaluation and alternatives may not be considered. An illustration is the famous NASA Shuttle Challenger case in 1986 where the engineers had to concede to launch the shuttle despite their concerns about its safety resulting into tragedy.
It is difficult to eradicate the concept of leadership in teams, as they are important to their efficiency (Sinclair, 1992; Roberts and Corbett, 2009). Wilson (2004) argues that there difficulties in recruiting team leaders because the perception about their qualities varies. Bad leaders not being able to steer the team in its right course often lead to counterproductive results.
Emotional conflicts and Resistance
Teams are prone in displaying certain emotions during tasks that deters its efficiency (Ashkanasy el at., 2000). In the findings by Alan (2005), emotions are positive at the start of the project but tend to be negative as the project grows affecting the overall team process. McKinlay and Taylor (1996), Ezzamel and Wilmott (1998) shows emotional conflicts arise from unfairness and inequalities of peer evaluation system such as attaching benefits to individuals and variations in pay. Others causes include the need for belonging or frustrations having to conform, ‘social loafing’ or too much dominance by some members. All these negative emotions can produce actions that restrain team members towards putting in their best thereby impeding teamwork results.
In the pyramid case, the system of peer review was a disciplinary mechanism by management to encourage individual performance and prevent free riding in the team but employees’ opinion that all team members should get equal benefits since the overall output was a team effort disrupted management’s strategy. Contrary to ‘hegemony’ theory that management always exercises dominant influence over teams, it does not always appear so. In some teamwork cases, elements of conflicts and contention causes member to demand more control over their work process than what is available to them leading to renegotiation of managerial authority boundaries (Vallas, 2003). His study shows evidences of organizational tensions, contradictions and solidarity among workers restricted management’s hegemonic control over their culture. This might frustrate management’s strategy of imbibing their agenda into teams.
Present managers might also frustrate organizations plight for teams because it might render them no longer necessary. Teamwork draws employees to micro-management of tasks (Milkman, 1998) and Peters (1987, p296) argues that because teams become self-managing, they tend to eliminate first-line supervisory jobs. This means that their services might become redundant or hinder their chances of promotion as seen in the traditional era of management (Sims, 1995).
Time efficiency issues
Meetings are places where teams spend lot of work time discussing issues and arriving at decisions (Briggs, 1997). In a research conducted by Olson and Olson (1999) on educators in the U.S., team members indicated weaknesses in effectiveness of meetings and timelines. From experience, being in team meetings could take a huge amount of time giving little time for the actual task. Covey et al. (1994) highlights the importance for strategies to help groups maximize time indicating the possibility of getting too engrossed in fruitless meetings.
There are some instances whereby individual performance is preferred to teamwork. Teamwork at times lead to frustration and ultimate failure when there are senses of hidden agendas, lack of understanding, poor leadership, wrong mix of team members and unhealthy team environment such as stress and unrealistic expectations (Yeung and Bailey, 1999).
There is no single experience of teamwork as Knights and McCabe (2000) finding shows three classes of people’s experience as bewildered, bothered or bewitched. It is therefore inappropriate to claim teamwork is always beneficial to its members. In addition, team systems may open up possibilities beyond those which management intends (Derber and Schwartz, 1983).
It is clear as some research suggests (e.g. Wall et al., 1986) that teamwork increases productivity. However, we need to understand when the concept of teamwork holds true. By just applying the framework of teams without properly exploiting those grey areas, it might tend to hamper rather than nourish organizational performance as some cases also show that ‘teamwork do not necessarily lead to organizational performance’ (Bratton, 2007).
As Katzenbach and Smith (1993), rightly points that it is important for organizations, in other to make better decisions, know when teams can be encouraged and used. To add further, they must also be aware of those negative traits found in teamwork so as not feel disappointed in unanticipated outcomes.
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