Earlier this year I
took up a position on a team, and we started out on a very
optimistic note, with everyone pulling in the same direction.
But recently, due to internal competition, mistrust has arisen
among us. (I believe this is because our company still has
a reward system that is based on individual performance, not
team results.) Now I'm really uncomfortable, because I think
we should be aiming at group excellence, not individual victory.
Should I stay with this team? If so, how can I survive?
Unfortunately, the conflict
you describe -- between the performance of the team and the
good of individuals on it -- is one of the biggest stumbling
blocks to making teams work. And, as you suspect, companies'
failure to recognize team performance -- again, a widespread
phenomenon -- may be at the root of it. But, says Lynda
McDermott, president of EquiPro International,
a consulting firm based in New York City that has helped iron
out team problems for big clients including Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard,
Bankers Trust, Virgin Atlantic Airlines and Mobil Oil, "when
I go into a company where teams are not producing the results
they should, I ask a whole series of diagnostic questions.
And whether the company's pay policy overemphasizes individuals
is usually not the central problem."
The first step in squelching
"over-competitiveness" is to make sure that both
team efforts and individual contributions are valued -- and
that one is not at odds with the other. "Team versus
individual doesn't have to be an either-or proposition; There
has to be clear accountability at both levels," McDermott
says. "What is this team trying to achieve? And who is
responsible for each piece of it?" If that's not clear
to your team now -- and it sounds as if it isn't -- it's something
you all need to sit down and talk out. "People often
become 'over-competitive' and begin trying to undercut one
another because they are afraid that, in a team setting, their
own contributions will get lost in the shuffle," adds
McDermott. "And without clear goals and clear accountability,
that does happen. So it's essential to hammer out who's doing
what, and why."
Beyond that, McDermott
notes, "people will unite behind a 'common cause,' some
compelling objective that everyone can buy into. When that
happens, individual differences tend to fade into the background.
So one question to ask here is, why is there (apparently)
nothing uniting your team? Has the team somehow lost its focus?"
If so, it's up to the team leader to get things back on track
by reiterating just exactly why the team exists in the first
place, and making sure that everyone understands the point
of the whole exercise. Sometimes, the real difficulty is that
there is no good reason why a particular task needs to be
done by a team at all, McDermott says: "The idea of teams
has become so fashionable that some companies are trying to
apply it to everything they do -- but not every task is suited
to this approach. It's not one-size-fits-all. So, in cases
where people have trouble working together because they really
have no common goal, I've recommended disbanding teams altogether
and using some other structure instead." It's hard to
say, without knowing more of the facts, whether this is true
where you are -- but it could be.
But, alas, certain people
just have the wrong personality for teamwork -- i.e., are
hypercompetitive and perennially mistrustful of others. If
you make a real effort to analyze and fix what's creating
the internal strife there, yet one or more of your teammates
keeps throwing a wrench into the works, you may indeed want
to look around for some other team to join. Life is too short
to allow someone else's neurosis to trip you up.