If there is one thing we can depend on in business, it is the effectiveness of team work. We have all bought into the idea that we can get so much more done as a team than we can alone. To doubt or question this is considered heresy! Since De Bono, we have all been trained, assessed, gamed and indoctrinated into the efficacy of the business team.

To be a member of a ‘team’ is a sign of belonging. People boast over dinner about the number of ‘teams’ they belong to; and to actually lead a team is the sign that you have arrived. There is nothing better than teamwork to achieve great things.

A Team, it is said, is like our extended family, and we see it as an ideal entity, harmonious, well adjusted and serenely successful; just like the family Christmas gathering, only without the overeating!

Indeed, in the military much of the effectiveness of the soldier lies in the nature of teams. Small independent teams operate successfully, and that success is based on a tightly knitted sense of unity; a deeply forged trust in each other and a strong command structure.

Teams, then appear to be the ideal unit for liberal thought, creative ideas and a chance of independent action. They empower people, they allow small groups to have a very large input into their company’s business – But do they?

I know that I tread in heretical waters, but I would like to question some of our beliefs about the heavenly aspects of teams. Because at the base of all dreams is some reality and an awful lot of fairy stories. We need to understand that teamwork does not come with an automatic fairy godmother, but in fact often comes with its inbuilt wicked witch or evil magician.

I am not alone in questioning the freedom apparently granted by working within a team, way back in 1993 Boje and Winsor claimed that the apparent empowerment was actually a deceptive cover for management’s application of control systems, insidious uniformity and workplace oppression. (“The resurrection of Taylorism: Total Quality Management’s Hidden Agenda” Journal of Organisational Change Management, 6)

That’s a long way from De Bono’s sympathetic view of teams; rather they are inclined to the view that the predominance of teams within companies is a subtle way of re-inforcing the four underlying principles of scientific management which deal with control, conformity, time management and indoctrination.

They were merely echoing the doubts expressed earlier by Amanda Sinclair, when she claims that the telling off into teams merely camouflages coercion by pretending it is cohesion; delays action – sometimes until action is impossible – by claiming consultation; that they legitimise lack of good leadership and insidiously disguise personal agendas by expedient arguments and faction forming. (“The Tyranny of Team Ideology” –Organisation Studies, 1992)

There have been many other voices raised about problems associated with teams, dwelling on the perception of empowerment granted by team work against the reality.

There is no denying that organising people into groups makes it easier for them to be controlled and contained. By raising unrealistic expectations about cohesion, by dwelling on unity and consensus, critical and opposing views can be neutered. We all know about ‘Group Think”`

Remember my comment about the use of small groups within the military – I believe that they work so well because of the strong command structure. Within business organisations there is not the culture to create such a structure and the questions I ask are: can the concept of a strong autonomous team co-exist with the concept of strong directional leadership? Is the inherited concept of ‘inclusive leadership’ really a subtle way of controlling the workforce? Does the creation of a climate of teamwork really lead to actually implementation of team decisions?

And finally, by what means can group cohesion be maintained without creating unprofitable conflict? And should conflict be avoided anyway?

Perhaps that is a topic for another day.

Michele @ Trischel

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