Every time a friend of mine aimsto leave the office in time to beat traffic, her workaholic co-worker insists she finish her part of the newest project before she leaves. My friend has just about had it because usually the team project isn't due for a few more days.
Have you ever been on an office team or in a department where a single team member makes your life miserable or destroys your work life balance?
There are ways to turn things around. It may require a conversation using the most diplomatic skills you can muster. Check out my article on the topic in The Miami Herald.
The tricky business of collaboration
Julie Black, a manager at a South Florida publishing company, was about to have another bad day. Her team member had blown a deadline and she would have to stay late, once again, to finish the project her boss was expecting in the morning.
“It’s so frustrating that one person on a team can create havoc in everyone else’s lives,” she complained.
As NBA playoff season heats up, Miami Heat fans are watching teamwork at its best. But shaping a championship team where individuals play cohesively to pull off a win can be one of the trickiest jobs a corporate leader faces. Workplaces are riddled with dysfunctional teams like Black’s, where a single player — a slacker, a workaholic or a narcissist – can affect the professional and person lives of everyone on the team.
Getting individuals to play together as well as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade can be especially challenging in a workplace culture that places a high emphasis on individual performance and competition. “Even when you have a bunch of egos, at some fundamental level, they need to believe they are working for the greater good of the team,” says South Florida executive coach Alexa Sherr Hartley. “Great players who do not get along with teammates end up limiting their careers.”
Most workers chose the function they carry out, rather than the people on their team or in their department. A team that’s too much alike risks exposure to blind spots. Diverse teams risk contention. But on any team, there may be a person who has a tendency to procrastinate or one who shoots down ideas that would actually move a project forward.
Rebecca Nicholson isn’t exactly someone who shies away from confrontation with a difficult team member. Yet, she knows obvious solutions such as simply kicking the member off of the team, or firing the individual are not always possible. Moreover, she now realizes that a better solution may be reorganizing team structure or responsibilities.
“It’s easy to dismiss conflict as a personality issue, however that detracts from being able to understand what the actual issues are,” says Nicholson, director of special projects for The Wasie Foundation South Florida, who has a doctorate in conflict analysis and resolution. “Sometimes, the real issue creating problems is the processes, the way resources are allocated or the way people understand — or misunderstand — their role on the team.”
Rather than single out “problem’’ individuals, companies often come at solutions with broad stroke fixes.
The most common are teambuilding exercises. For most of us, teambuilding conjures up images of spirited tugs of war, relay races and physical challenges. Now, companies are getting more creative — using charity work, gardening and even glass blowing as bonding exercises.
Emerson Process Management in Sunrise sent its office teams to cooking school to build camaraderie among co-workers. In front of mixing bowls and Bunsen burners, Magali Jarrin and her co-workers were charged with whipping up an entire meal, with each group cooking up a course such as appetizer, entrée, salad or dessert.
“We got to know our colleagues on a different level. When you get to know each other better outside the office, it reinforces communication,” says Jarrin, Organizational Development Director at Emerson Process Management.
At BGT Partners in Aventura, co-founder David Clarke has built team activities into the firm’s culture. The company holds continuous team building events that have included group karaoke, bowling and art projects. Recently, a celebrity drummer gave the entire office a group lesson. “He taught us how to be in rhythm together. By the end of the hour, we had more than a hundred people drumming to same beat.”
Clarke says he sees a noticeable return on investment. At BGT, employees work in teams on client’s digital challenges. Clarke says younger staffers, in particular, want collaboration, and to be a part of a team.
“The foundation of every team is the relationships of the individuals. People don’t work well together if they hate each other,’’ Clarke says. “If they like each other and are happy together, they will work together well.”
With 150 employees, Clarke admits he has encountered a toxic team member along the path to growth. But he’s come up with a way to learn of it sooner, rather than later — an anonymous online suggestion box where employees can submit problems, opinions, ideas and feedback. “It exposes things I otherwise wouldn’t have known about, before they fester and get toxic.”
Some employers bringing in conflict-resolution specialists or coaches to improve team dynamics. Hartley, an executive coach with Premier Leadership Coaching, says she urges team leaders to have direct conversations about expectations and how the team should perform. “It may be simplistic but it really helps.”
Still, there are times when a team manager or leader does need to address problems related to a single individual. Rather than dismiss someone as selfish or a failure and have it affect your work and home life, Hartley suggests confronting the problem without making it a personal attack. “Name the problem in a factual way and how it impacts you. Explain the pattern you observed and make a request for a correction. [Otherwise, you can] forget team building exercises.”
Some conflict among team members is good, say experts. It promotes debate and creative thinking. In a healthy team environment, the leader knows the difference. “People with their own agendas need to be addressed and that’s where the leader comes into place,” says Jarrin at Emerson. Rather than focus on changing behavior of an individual, a team leader may have to change the way he manages the team, she says.
The challenge for team leaders, much like the Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, is understanding that a talented player isn’t always a good team member At Steven Douglas Associates, a talent search and recruitment firm in Sunrise, even the standouts have come to see the benefit of playing well together. Executive recruiter Alan Berger says sharing leads and contacts with his team members recently helped him make a significant placement with a client. “We’re all driven but we have seen the benefit in supporting each other.”
BGT’s Clarke says leaders who want to create an environment where workers are happy, and their personal lives respected, need to hire well. “It’s not about the best, but more about who is best to work together.”