Teamwork Vs. Accountability
You would be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of teamwork than yours truly. I spend much of my time extolling the virtues of the team approach to clients because it achieves better results for their organizations. As the old saying goes, however, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything starts to look like a nail.” There is such a thing as too much teamwork.
Example: I once worked with a Fortune 500 manufacturing company in which the CEO was a “Teamist Extremist.” There were teams for every purpose imaginable; teams for coordinating, teams for resource sharing, teams for brainstorming, even a high level “dream team” whose primary duties included creating more teams. All major decisions seemed to be made by consensus, and the executives I was coaching had so many meetings to attend that they had a hard time getting the work of the organization done.
Curiously enough, in the midst of all this teamwork and dreamwork the company was hemorrhaging cash at an alarming rate. Ultimately all the TQM, TLC, and T&A (Teamwork & Analysis) couldn’t prevent the final TTFN (Ta Ta For Now). Ultimately the company was acquired at a bargain basement price by one of its major competitors and then dismantled. There was team spirit galore, but the person ultimately accountable for the performance of the company didn’t provide the leadership and accountability that it needed to succeed.
Simply put, an entire business team en masse cannot be held accountable for performance. This approach places unrealistic demands on all the members of the team. All decisions have to be made by consensus, which becomes extremely labor intensive, time consuming, and frustrating for the team members. Requiring this level of agreement is fertile ground for high levels of potentially destructive conflict.
Example: You are the manger of a national sales force. You have a regional “leaderless team” that is performing poorly, but what action do you take? When you try to establish causality and accountability, you inevitably get the “I’ve got it; I thought you had it” explanation from the members of the team. If performance is extremely poor, what do you do? Do you replace the entire team?
Here is my point: teams cannot be held accountable, only individuals can be held accountable. Take full advantage of teamwork by all means, but make sure someone is accountable for achieving final results. This is how you avoid the “stuff happens” syndrome in your organization. Furthermore, make sure that the leader has enough authority and control to be held accountable for the results fairly. It’s a sad day in Mudville when a leader with great potential fails due to insufficient empowerment.
We Homo sapiens are very social creatures, i.e. “herd” animals. We seek each other’s company, and to avoid debilitating levels of conflict we develop dominance hierarchies or “pecking orders” so that interactions are less demanding and stressful in our day-to-day lives. No, this doesn’t mean that your supervisor is a better human being than you, but rather that you have agreed to let him or her have more decision making power in your work situation so that you don’t have to fight that battle every day. Then you can use your energy toward other goals that are more important to you.
In general we tend to be “cognitive misers” (Hamilton & Trolier, 1986). That is, we seek ways to live life that require the least amount of our cognitive resources (brain power) for any specific task so that we have resources in reserve when we need them. Establishing clear decision making hierarchies is one way we can accomplish this, so plan for this phenomenon by building it into your organizational structure. As for specific applications of this principle, I highly recommend that you think long and hard before you appoint co-chairs, enter a 50-50 partnership, or attempt to manage by committee.