Harvard University

Why Teamwork is a Bad Idea

Before you think teamwork is the answer and spend large sums of money on “team-building” exercises, maybe you should consider whether your place of business needs teams at all. Perhaps more would get done by leaving your people alone to do what they already excel at. Forcing people to join teams simply for the sake of “inclusion” is a bad idea.

The 20-60-20 rule applies to all organizations, companies, committees and teams. The top twenty percent of the members will be go-getters – those who want to change the world before five o’clock. The bottom twenty percent will be “slow-getters” – those who do just barely enough to not get fired. The remaining sixty percent are what are considered to be the collective average – the mediocre performers.

There is no getting around it; every “team” in every organization will be comprised according to the 20-60-20 rule. Forcing people to work in teams is a bad idea especially when most projects do not require collaboration and would, in fact, be better off in the hands of one or two select individuals. But for the sake of workplace harmony, well-meaning but ill-informed managers trot out the, “we’re going to work in teams” philosophy because he or she once read an article touting the benefits of teamwork – without exploring other opinions.

The truth is that there is a real danger in working in teams when the work itself does not call for it.

Jeff Palfini, teamwork blogger offers this advice: “Managers confronted with a new task should always consider whether pulling together a team will be the most efficient way to complete the task. Sometimes it’s faster and less complicated to parcel it out or delegate it to one or two people, especially if the task is fairly routine.”

Forcing your high-performers to sit as equals on a team with “slow-getters” is the most expedient way to irritate a high-performer. As well, “slow-getters” become increasingly frustrated by how quickly the committee is moving forward. The collective average in the middle simply sits by and watches as both the high performers and slow getters battle for power on the committee. Because teams move forward with all of their members, the voting power of the sixty percent collective average and the twenty percent “slow-getters” will frustrate the minority high-performer.

The most powerful person on the committee or team is not the person in charge. The most powerful person on the committee or team is the person who doesn’t get it the most. The reason being is that committees and teams are all-inclusive. They will not move forward without all of their members. Therefore, the most powerful person on the committee or team is the one who holds it up the most – the one who is least bright.

J. Richard Hackman, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Harvard University and a leading expert on teams says, “Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration. To avoid complacency, though, every team needs a deviant – someone who is willing to make waves and open up the group to more ideas. Unfortunately, such individuals often get thrown off the team, robbing it of its chance to be magical.”

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert comic strip agrees. “To mediocre minds, a brilliant idea and a dumb idea sound exactly the same. Every team will vote out the best ideas and the worst.”

The real challenge to working in teams comes at Performance Review time. Performance reviews are not about the team, they are about the individual. Forcing a potentially prize-winning employee to sit on the team may actually hamper his performance and his performance review.

As Scott Adams says, “in any group of three people there is generally at least one disruptive moron. The dominant team members will get their way over the objections of the meek, no matter how competent the meek might be. Your best time for thinking might be the other guy’s best time to take a nap. If that’s the only time you can have a meeting, one of you isn’t going to be operating at peak performance.”

“Time spent trying to reach consensus on decisions could be better spent acting on the decisions,” says Jon Katzenbach, author of Teams at the Top. “More often than not the team members who possess the knowledge to make an informed decision should do so individually.”

Eventually, in teamwork settings, high-performers will become frustrated with how slowly the team is moving. Meanwhile, the slow-getters on the team will also feel frustration that they are not able to keep up. The collective average in the middle, that 60%, will be the only members of the team left actually doing any work. No great decision ever came from the collective average. It’s why you’ll never see a Park or a Museum ever dedicated to a committee or a team.

So, before you expend a lot of money on your team building exercises and teambuilding consultants, think about whether or not your organization is right for teams. If so, make sure your team numbers are kept in the single digits. Allow high- performers to work with only other high-performers. Allow mediocre performers to work with mediocre performers. Do not simply mix them all together in the hopes that your people will get along better. That is a recipe for disaster.

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