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Leaders: Be Alert to Team Traps!

Given the current penchant for throwing a team at every problem, a word of caution to leaders: For all the good a team approach can yield, there are potential traps to bear in mind. For example:

• Underachievers can hide within teams.
• Creative geniuses can be stifled by teams.
• Team members can default to the least common denominator, settling for consensus solutions that leave virtually everyone dissatisfied.
• Even solid individual performers can be constrained by fears, e.g., risking conflict, being left out, losing, or appearing foolish, uncooperative, negative or reluctant.
• The more participants on a team, the less responsibility each member might take for initiation and for outcomes.

In “The Abilene Paradox” Jerry Harvey cites numerous examples of the cost of this phenomenon to businesses as they pursue strategies that no one genuinely endorses. Michael Schrage in “No More Teams” charges that “…teams make it too easy for organizations to lie, cheat, and kid themselves about the way they work. More often than not, a `team’ is as much a political entity as a value-creating one.” Finally, in “The Corrosion of Character” Richard Sennett entitles one chapter “The Dangerous Pronoun”, referring to “We” and the allure of the need to be perceived as a “good team player”.

The point is not to discard the concept of teaming, but to be alert to the potential traps.

If you do establish a team, discuss these concerns from the outset with the team members, encouraging each member to engage fully, to risk conflict, to be forthright in their opinions, to be willing to question and be questioned. Ensure that competent leadership is established, and that the objectives and timelines are clear. You can then monitor the team proceedings and decisions with an eye to signs that the team might be taking a left turn into one of the traps. Pay attention to the level of energy and interest exhibited by the team. Is their motivation sustained, or do they seem to be dragging?

You might also review with the team decisions they’ve made, asking them not only about the outcome, but about the process they used. Finally, be alert to signs of leftovers – evidence that the process wasn’t thorough.

Effective teams, like individuals, require accountability and coaching from a leader who is astute not only about their positive potential, but about traps.


ã 2000, Frank Staropoli

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