The most annoying pitfalls of teamwork–and how to fix them

Watch out for social loafing.
Watch out for social loafing.
Image: AP Photo/The Roswell Daily Record/Mark Wilson
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The point of corporate retreats is to teach employees about the value of teamwork. But one popular exercise often demonstrates the pitfalls of teamwork as well.

The idea is for a group of people to move a boulder across the finish line by pulling on a rope that’s attached to it. As more and more people join in, the boulder starts moving. Eventually it nudges over the 30-foot mark.

Yet if you’ve ever done this exercise, you might notice that each additional person who contributes to the effort helps move the boulder faster—but not as fast as you might think. Everyone seems to be working hard, yet a group of 12 hardly seems to be more powerful than the group when it was only six.

The problem lies the well-documented phenomenon of social loafing (pdf), in which people exert less effort collectively than they do individually. And it’s just one of the many issues that plague teamwork. Here are some of the biggest problems to look out for—and some prescriptions to help you avoid them.

1. Overemphasizing abstract goals
Steve Jobs was known for inspiring keynote talks that emphasized how his company could change the world. Such goals are uplifting, and can make work feel more meaningful. But when companies overestimate the motivating power of abstract goals, they risk failing to pay attention to more concrete, personal rewards. If employees don’t understand how working toward the company’s vision will benefit them personally, it can be hard for them to commit.

The solution: Make sure that big, collective goals align with the small, personal goals that drive performance.

2. Underemphasizing roles

Many teams think that merely getting the right talent in play is all that it takes for a team to be successful. But research has shown that you need clear structure and well-defined interdependent roles in order to best leverage the strengths of those on your team. A dream team doesn’t mean much if everyone’s unclear about their individual responsibilities.

The solution: Well-structured teams generally outperform those with more raw talent. Take time to find the roles and structure that make sense for your team.

3. Making too many rules

Humans love rules. Our ability to make and follow them is what defines us as a species and allows us to interact as social beings. So it’s no surprise that many teams try to plan for every possible situation and create rules for all potential contingencies. But this approach is both time-consuming and ineffective. Instead, it’s much smarter to make and implement only a few big rules that will have a big impact on your business. Starbucks CEO and founder Howard Schultz, for example, notably decided to bring back in-store bean grinding to help restore the brand’s reputation and performance.

The solution: Focus on the few rules that are likely to make the biggest difference in your team’s culture and performance. These typically relate to how you will share information, make decisions and resolve conflicts.

4. Ignoring reflection

We’re very susceptible to a phenomenon known as outcome bias, in which people judge the efficacy of their decisions based on whether or not the ultimate outcome was successful. But teams often have room for improvement even when they meet their goals—and sometimes, people make good decisions and still don’t achieve success. In a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, it’s important to make room for reflection both when things are going well and when they’re not. Yet too often, companies limit time for formal reflection to annual retreats and quarterly reviews. In reality, reflection needs to be taking place with much more frequency.

The solution: Remember that check-ins need not always be huge affairs reserved for day-long retreats. They can be as simple as a weekly stand-up meeting.

5. Failing to sell the change

You can be right but ultimately still be unsuccessful. Such was the case for Lloyd Braun, the ABC executive who was the champion and driving force behind the smash television series Lost. Braun was so convinced that his idea would be a hit that he barreled through green-lighting the most expensive television pilot budget to date at a cost of $12 million. He did not take the time to get others on board with his vision. So even though his intuition was correct, he was fired before the show even premiered.

The solution: Willpower and charisma aren’t enough to push through change. Work hard to get the rest of your team to buy into a new idea so that you have their collective support.

In the end, good teamwork is about being mindful about how people are working together. Make sure to check in frequently to close the gaps between what you say you want to do and what you’re actually doing.