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TEAMING: Why Groups Struggle

n1534940476_7083When the phone rings, it’s often an organization or business calling to talk to us about a group or team that is having problems with communication, personalities, or group dynamics.  As a result, the project or task isn’t coming together as everyone anticipated.  In fact, in one case the project had been delayed 7 months at a cost of over half a million dollars.  It seems impossible that group dynamics could have such a detrimental effect, and yet, it does.  Let’s look at why.

   Many people fail to realize that there are three things going on when a group is working together:  the task/assignment, the processes being used and the relationship interaction.  The task/assignment requires the group to build and commit to a common goal that is specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented and time bound.  The processes include the approach the team will use to reach the goal, the way information will flow and be shared, the problem solving methods that will be used and the way decisions will be made.  The relationships include how roles are defined, how leadership is managed, the personality differences, and the manner in which conflict is resolved.  When we step back and look at all of these elements, it’s no wonder that a group can so easily derail.  It’s been our experience that the derailing occurs because so many of these elements are not dealt with at all by the group.  They are expected to just happen, and they don’t.  For example, there is no group that would be so naïve as to think that decisions won’t need to be made along the path of a project timeline.  However, very few groups have a decision making or conflict resolution protocol spelled out and agreed to by every member.  As a consequence, decisions start being made on an informal, ad hoc basis that ultimately tests all three elements:  task, process and relationship.

     Before we look at a few critical fixes for groups, I’d like to share some interesting data*  that hopefully will reinforce this need to structure a group’s approach more proactively:

1.  Faced with the majority of people who agree on a particular approach or decision, we are likely to adopt the majority perspective whether it is right or wrong. (Ash, 1956) Interestingly, a majority of 3 has the maximum influence; larger majorities do not have more influence.  In addition, we will convince ourselves of the truth of our position by limiting the information we will take in, reading only information that explains, justifies and corroborates our position (Nemeth and Rogers, 1986).

2. Research shows that people who maintain a dissenting viewpoint, even when they are right, risk the possible rejection from the group.  The group will “dislike those people, make them feel unwelcome and essentially reject them.”

3. Anonymity is an important way to reduce this conformity.  Another way to reduce conformity is the presence of a dissenter.  When one person dissents, others feel free to do so as well.  And if a person has a “buddy” or what we call a “me, too,” in the dissention, 33% of conformity will drop to 5%.
4. Directive leadership is linked to reduced flow of communication and less information considered, to fewer solutions explored, to discouragement of opposing viewpoints and to increased self-censorship (Flowers, 1977; Leana, 1985; Moorhead and Montanari, 1986).

Years ago, B.W. Tuckman* introduced us to the Development Wheel (view wheel) for group process that suggests groups develop through four stages:  forming, storming, norming and performing.  This progression is never neat and tidy, but there are some critical tasks that must be accomplished in the forming stage, for use later on during the group’s storming stage.  When these elements are missing, the task, process, and relationship components begin to fall apart.  Here are a few that we know are critical to a group – or team’s – success:

1.  Development of a Help/Hinder list (view sample here) or some specific ground rules that spell out the behaviors the group finds acceptable and unacceptable.  Members must then be empowered to mention problem behaviors, and individuals must be required to stop the behaviors.  This is simple to do in the beginning (when everyone is relatively agreeable) and almost impossible if a group enters storming without any behavior commitments.

2. Development of a charter (view sample here) or detailed list of expectations, including the high level goal, the approach, the sub goals, the key activities, authority level, role expectations, and time expectations.  Starting out with an email from the project sponsor with a brief goal statement is not sufficient information for a group to do well.   Nor does it work for a sponsor to come in with everything arbitrarily decided. 

3. Development of some key protocols (view sample here) for how meetings will be structured, communication will be handled, conflicts will be resolved, problem resolution structured and decisions made.  These must be written out and committed to by consensus of the group.

4. Development of a RASCI chart (view sample here) for all key tasks that defines who is responsible, accountable, expected to support, consulted and informed.  “Holes” in the RASCI are a key indicator that roles, responsibilities and authority are unclear.

In the beginning of a group’s work, it seems cumbersome to take the time to put these four elements in place, especially when everyone is so eager to get started on the project/task.  Like so many things in life though, a foundation built on sand will crumble or wash away, whereas a strong foundation will withstand the group storming that will soon follow.


B07TEA002TEADeborah Mackin is author of the popular teaming book series. The Team-Building Tool Kit, the first book, is now in its second edition (view book):





· Influence and Persuasion in Small Groups by Charlan Nemeth and Jack Goncalo, Institute of Industrial Relations Working Paper Series, University of California, Berkeley, 2004.

· B.W. Tuckman, “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups,” Psychological Bulletin, 63 (1965): 384-399.

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