Reasons behind the Success of Some Workplace Teams

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Workplace teams have been studied to death in recent years, and the verdicts are in. They’re a success—and a disaster. They lead to big productivity improvements—and they peter out ineffectively. People love ’em. People hate ’em.

In fact, says psychology professor J. Richard Hackman of Harvard University, researchers find that work teams cluster at opposite ends of the success continuum. Many function beautifully; many others fail miserably. Few are in the middle.

The good news is that teams have been so well studied and that people at so many companies have worked in teams for many years. All this research and experience have produced new insights into what distinguishes the successes from the failures. What matters most, it turns out, is how teams are managed—and whether the organizations they’re part of provide them with the support they need.

The balancing act

Managers responsible for team performance often fall into one of two traps. Some continue to act like traditional bosses, telling the team what to do and how to do it. Others think they’re “empowering” the team by maintaining a hands-off policy. Neither approach works. The manager’s job, writes Hackman in a study on teamwork, is to “maintain an appropriate balance of authority” between himself and the team.

What does that mean in practice? On the one hand, managers have to spell out the team’s objectives unambiguously and unapologetically. That keeps teams from spinning their wheels over what they should be doing. “To authoritatively set a clear, engaging direction for a team,” says Hackman, “is to empower, not de-power, it.” On the other hand, decision-making authority over the means to those ends should rest with the team itself. Team members can act as a team only if they have real responsibility—such as determining how to achieve their goals.

Practical experience has taught another lesson about teams’ authority: the scope of their freedom of action can and should change over time....
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