“Teamwork” is the mantra of today’s workplace – but too few executives know how to manage and support it. That’s the conclusion of Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, author of the new Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy. For starters, she says, the fast-paced demands of modern corporate life have rendered stable, carefully-selected, long-term teams obsolete: “We often don’t have the time and luxury to get it just right before the moment has passed,” she says. Instead, teams have yielded to a more fluid, ad hoc series of relationships – “teaming,” in which groups come together for short-term projects, often crossing geographical or other boundaries.
Here are three preventable mistakes managers often make in overseeing teams – and ways to prevent them.
Assuming teams magically take care of themselves. “Companies or managers will recognize that a certain project requires people to work together,” says Edmondson, “and then their strategy for facilitating that is to tell people they’re on the job and hope it works itself out.” That’s simply not going to cut it these days. Some managers lionize the chaos of innovative work – but, says Edmondson, “it still has to have a certain structure and discipline to get it right.” That might involve helping your team develop a process to ensure each member speaks up about their experience or what they know about a problem, specifically taking the time to synthesize and analyze their findings, and then make a decision.
Making your employees feel nervous. Interacting with a new group of colleagues can be stressful, says Edmondson. Because you haven’t yet built up trust, there’s an increased emphasis on protecting your reputation and not looking stupid – which can inhibit meaningful dialogue and progress. “When we’re managing our image, we’re reluctant to admit to shortcomings or mistakes, to ask for help, or even to blurt out a potentially good idea we’re not sure will be well-received by others,” she says. “Our desire not to look ignorant or incompetent is easy to manage as an individual – just don’t ask for help – but, of course, it’s bad for the organization.” The secret, instead, is “to let down my guard and think a little less about what others might think of me and focus more on the job.” But that’s only going to happen if managers – through their own openness and humility – create what Edmondson terms “a climate of psychological safety” at work.
Forgetting that different divisions and teams have their own language. If you’re collaborating with partners in other industries, companies, or even divisions, you may be in for a jargon-laden surprise. What did the CMO says about the CMS and how it impacts the CDM software? Things that seem obvious to you may be opaque to others – and vice versa. Says Edmondson, “What I might take for granted as an expert in one realm, someone else won’t know at all. But in what’s called the ‘curse of knowledge,’ if I know it well, I tend to think any idiot knows it.” That creates a barrier because – as above – no one wants to look stupid by asking too many questions. But it’s the only way to ensure everyone has a shared understanding. The task for managers, then, is to be aware of the challenges of communicating across boundaries and prepare for it, perhaps by creating “guides” to the other’s language, or just making it clear that questions are OK.
What examples have you seen of how teams work together successfully – or not?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on April 11, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.