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CAREERS / ETIQUETTE AT WORK | CHAPTER 10: TEAMWORK

An MVP's Guide to Teamwork

November 04, 1996|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hierarchy is out. Teamwork is in.

About 90% of American employees work in a team environment at least some of the time, according to a 1995 survey by the Developmental Dimensions International consulting firm. But spending more time in close contact with co-workers has posed myriad challenges for employees.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: Although I have been on a lot of teams in my day--soccer teams when I was young and teams in biology class in college--I have no idea how to function as a group member at work. How can I best contribute to the team?

--Ineffective in Industry

Dear Ineffective: Insufficient training in group dynamics was cited as the biggest barrier to reaching team goals by about 54% of the 272 organizational managers who responded to a DDI study on self-directed teams.

"People aren't trained to voice their opinions. The most effective teams are those that balance the me and the we," said Christopher Neck, assistant professor of management at Virginia Tech.

To get this training, team members should go to management and request help from a consultant, or go to the bookstore and pick up one of the many books on how to be an effective team player.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I know cross-functional teams are all the rage these days--I work on one. What is the best way to handle personality conflicts among team members from systems, marketing and sales who would rather argue about a problem than find a solution?

--Passive in Pasadena

Dear Passive: "Most people don't realize they have different approaches to conflict that result from different ethnic, racial and gender backgrounds," said J. Stewart Black, professor of international management at Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management in Glendale, Ariz.

Experts agree that even before a team sets goals, it must address diverse styles of conflict management by devising a code of conduct.

To determine how to resolve arguments, team members should discuss how they manage conflict in their departments. Some similarities will emerge that can form the basis for constructive team conduct.

The code of conduct should mention that team members agree not to talk about the team in a negative manner, that the team will resolve its differences during meetings, and that team members don't make maverick decisions that affect the team, said Suzanne Zoglio, author of "Teams At Work: 7 Keys to Success" (Tower Hill Press).

The code should also include steps for dealing with one-on-one arguments. A good way to do this is to devise a system where a person would approach the team member she is disagreeing with and say: "If I'm annoyed with you I will tell you one on one. If that doesn't work, I will pull in another team member, and if that's ineffective, I will pull in a third person--possibly from human resources--to mediate," Zoglio said.

After group members devise a written code of conduct, they can refer to it time and again when team members are at odds.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: Our meetings drag on because my teammates ramble about what color our charts should be or what we should wear for a presentation. How can we avoid discussions that waste time?

--Timely in Torrance

Dear Timely: Many times teams meet because they are required to, and they don't have a clear idea about what they want to accomplish.

"Usually if they are having a problem with time management, they haven't set their goals," Neck said.

Herein lies the largest obstacle faced by most teams: not having a shared purpose.

After deciding on a code of conduct, the next thing a team must do is decide what it wants to produce, how it will produce it and what its deadline is. Every team member should be able to articulate the group's purpose and how it fits into the larger organization's success, Zoglio said.

When team members have petty discussions they should always ask whether those matters relate to the team's mission, she added.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I often find myself doing more work than other team members. How can I ensure that each team member pulls his or her weight?

--Taken Advantage of in Toluca Lake

Dear Taken Advantage of: Every team must come up with its own idea of "justice" for members who don't want to be team players, said Lee Kricher, a DDI vice president of teams practice.

For example, an individual who belonged to one of the teams DDI was coaching was not adhering to a safety policy put in place by the group. To make him aware of the problem, team members asked him to inform everyone in the plant of its new policy, Kricher said.

Teams can also give the freeloader examples of his lackadaisical attitude, and show how that behavior is disrupting the group.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: An individual on my team tries to grab all the credit for each project we do. How can we achieve recognition for the entire group before this person elbows his way past us to kiss up to the nearest manager?

--Wising Up in West Hollywood

Dear Wising Up: Addressing this situation often requires organizational change, experts agree. At the crux of the problem are outdated compensation systems set up to reward individuals and not teams. These systems award bonuses on an individual basis and do not give team members any incentive to work as a group, Zoglio said.

To address unfair compensation plans, team members should ask management for team-based incentives that include monetary rewards or promotions.

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