Impact of Teamwork on Organisational Problem Solving

Can Groups and Teams be seen as the “silver bullet” to solve organisational problems?

Reflect critically on this issue drawing on theory and research.

 

Introduction

In recent years, the implementation of groups and teams has become more commonplace in firms: 78% of US workplaces use teams (Allen and Hecht, 2004) and 72% of UK organizations involve their core employees in formal teams (Kersley et al., 2013). However, scholars have generally been divided about the effectiveness of teams in solving challenges in the workplace, with varying empirical results and evidence. Despite their popularity, are groups and teams always beneficial to workplaces? In observing the drawbacks of implementing teams, it is suggested that alternative factors are equally important in solving organizational problems.

This essay attempts to show that teams are not the “silver bullet” for all organizations by critiquing populist theories on benefits of teams, discussing additional problems that may arise from teams and lastly, by questioning the assumptions of this essay. Although Katzenbach and Smith (1993a, p.45) defined team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable” and working group as “a small number of people working in a collaborative style with individual input and accountability,” I will use groups and teams interchangeably and not draw a distinction between the two terms for the most part of this essay. This is in line with many writers (e.g. Allen and Hecht, 2004), who regarded them as the same and that teams are two or more people working interdependently towards achieving a common goal.

Section 1: Critiquing popular theories on benefits of teams

Historical view of teams: Sociotechnical systems theory (STS)

The term STS was originally coined by Emery and Trist (1960) to describe systems which involve a complex interaction between people, machines, and the organization’s external environment; it was about utilizing the human and technical aspects to make an organization more effective. STS was the basic foundation for the empowerment of teams, arguing that as workers gain more autonomy over their jobs, team members can make greater use of their skills and judgment to better tackle organizational problems (Cohen et al., 1996). Groups were suggested as an alternative to routine Tayloristic and Fordist frameworks by reducing boredom and by allowing workers to be more involved and interested in their tasks.

This works in theory, but teams may not be that autonomous or beneficial in practice. Murakami (1997) studied the introduction of teams in fourteen car plants worldwide and although teams were given some autonomy about work distribution and internal leadership, he found that managerial power in the most important areas of car production remained unchallenged. Barker (1993) argued that while teams may appear to give workers more autonomy over their jobs, groups may represent a more subtle and intensive form of control as team members can control each other’s actions through surveillance or social pressures. Besides that, research has indicated that in becoming group members, individuals “often lose their problem-solving facilities, become emotionally segregated and blame others for their failure” (Wells, 1980 cited in Sinclair, 1992, p.616). In line with that, Naquin and Tynan (2003) agreed that teams receive joint credit for successes but often blame team failure on an individual member, leading to conflict within the group.

Dunphy and Bryant (1996) argued that the implementation of self-managed teams shifts the burden of problem-solving from managers to employees, leading to intensification of work and heightened stress levels. This is in line with Rothschild and Whitt (1986) who revealed that groups can often be a source of stress rather than satisfaction and have a negative effect on employees’ well-being. Nevertheless, even if some workers enjoy their job more through teams, there is no evidence that this will always lead to improved performance. Some researchers have suggested that job performance leads to job satisfaction but not the reverse (Bagozzi, 1980). And even if it does improve individual performance, it may not necessarily lead to organizational effectiveness in solving problems (Sinclair, 1992).

Belbin’s Team Roles

Another theory which popularized team effectiveness was Belbin’s model of team roles. Belbin identified nine team roles/ contributions that are seen to be crucial for organizational effectiveness (Belbin, 1993). Each team role is considered important because it helps to provide a good balance for achieving tasks. The essential contributions are solving problems, exploring resources, coordinating tasks, imparting drive, evaluating information, developing team members, implementing ideas, perfecting details, and providing knowledge. Some modern workplaces form teams on the basis of Belbin’s team profiles as they supposedly allow organizations to recognize and use others’ strengths to best advantage (Belbin, 2014).

To a certain extent, Belbin’s model of teams and team roles may appear to solve certain organizational problems. For example, problems at organizations may occur due to ambiguity and role conflict. When there is role ambiguity, workers are uncertain which responsibilities they should tackle, leading to anxiety. This may also lead to conflict if one worker believes that another is impinging on their role, putting newcomers in a difficult position as they are apprehensive of taking on tasks (Slaughter and Zicker, 2006). By clearly defining team roles using Belbin’s model, organizations may be able to avoid some of these problems.

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However, Belbin’s model has been re-examined with mixed results. For example, Fisher (1996) argued that Belbin team roles have little psychometric support and that it is unreliable to use it as the basis for team roles. Another criticism is that Belbin insinuated that there are only a limited number of ways in which people can usefully contribute to teams when in practice, roles are complex and varied. Imposing team roles onto people and expecting them to contribute to workplaces in a certain way may lead to stereotyping. For example, an individual who is actually more efficient working alone may be accused of being a bad employee just because they are not a “team player” (Sewell, 2001). Apart from that, Belbin’s original research mainly focused on upper-management level executives in Britain in the 1970’s, consisting mostly of middle-class white men. This does not mean that Belbin’s theory of teams and team roles cannot be applied to other cultures, but it could be biased as the research was based on a specific demographic.

Katzenbach and Smith’s “Wisdom of Teams”

Katzenbach and Smith (1993a) argued that teams will always outperform individuals when teams are properly understood and supported. They suggested that the mutual accountability, commitment, and skills of team members will encourage open discussions and critical problem-solving. The better teams will move beyond individual responsibilities and pursue team performance goals like increasing work quality or responding to customers faster, reducing inefficiency problems. Storey (2007) argued that this theory adopts a unitarist view of management where employees and managers are constantly in pursuit of higher productivity, which may not always be true in practice.

The main critique is that Katzenbach and Smith wrote from their personal work experiences (Wilson, 2013). Their research had no solid empirical evidence and while they claimed to collect information through interviews, they did not divulge how they analyzed the data. They were also inclined to ignore public service sector or third sector examples, which could make their findings biased. Additionally, this theory played down the intrinsic qualities of organizational problems such as job satisfaction or workers’ feelings and personal motivations. Metcalf and Linstead (2003) argued that this approach is “masculinist” as it adopted a view that only emphasized better performance, with the “soft” components such as sensitivities and feelings of members being marginalized. However, to successfully solve organizational problems, we should consider both masculinist and soft aspects as organizational problems can be related to both. Hence, this theory fails to explain why teams would be the solution to all challenges.

Section 2: Problems that arise from implementing teams

Social loafing

Secondly, teams should not be seen as a panacea because they may cause even more organizational problems. One of the problems that arise from teams is social loafing, colloquially known as free riding or laziness. Simply stated, it refers to a situation in which certain members of a group exert less effort than the others (Clegg at al., 2016). Primarily, people exert less effort in groups as they feel less accountable when they know other members will compensate by exerting additional effort on their behalf (Harkins and Szymanski, 1989).

Ezzamel and Wilmott (1998) observed workplace social loafing in a company they dubbed StichCo. When teams were introduced to StitchCo, the younger and more inexperienced workers with no responsibilities were less pressured to increase their wages through bonuses. They were seen to reap the advantages of a shared team bonus, working below the minimum level of efficiency while older workers overcompensated for their lack of efforts. This created resentment and conflict among those workers who were working harder.

Although challenges occur when implementing team roles as discussed earlier, one way of countering social loafing is by ensuring that team members have clear responsibilities and accountability. Theoretically, one would assume that social loafing would be much less likely to exist in work teams because team pressures can be a powerful source of conformance. Sewell (1998) pointed out that non-performing team members may be pressured to perform or leave through immense social pressures. Hence in some ways, conformance and cohesion can cancel out social loafing.

Groupthink

Nevertheless, cohesion in groups are not always beneficial to organizations as it may cause another problem: Groupthink. Janis (1982) coined the term Groupthink when he studied historical situations where teams with prestigious and well-educated members make disastrous decisions, such as the Bay of Pigs incident. One key characteristic of Groupthink is when members choose to stand by decisions that the group has committed itself to, despite evidence that these decisions are bad or disturbing the conscience of its members. Janis argued that the more cohesive the group, the more likely it is for each member to avoid creating disunity. It is not so much that the members are afraid of revealing their objections, but that they will readily accept the majority decision without scrutinizing its pros and cons.

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Groupthink also brings about “risk shift,” an illusion of invulnerability and enthusiasm for a decision that polarizes the group towards higher risk. For example, in May 2015, six banks were fined a total of $5.7 billion for manipulating foreign exchange markets. The traders appeared to reinforce each other’s belief that they were not going to be arrested, allowing them to knowingly break the law (King and Lawley, 2016). The concept of groupthink therefore undermines one of the main argued benefits of teams: workers sharing multiple perspectives to examine potential risks and to better solve problems.

However, Janis argued that this does not mean all cohesive groups suffer from groupthink and that mild Groupthink may not necessarily influence the quality of a group’s decision. Furthermore, there are ways to avoid Groupthink: the team might encourage people to voice their opinions by establishing that any critique of the team’s decision is encouraged or some members may be assigned to analyze all decisions in a critical way. Alternatively, the organization may set up several independent groups working on the same problem and compare the decisions reached.

Section 3: Questioning the assumptions of this essay

Groups vs Teams

We will now discuss if it is possible for teams to be the “silver bullet” when they are defined correctly or implemented in the right settings. One of the main assumptions of this essay is that groups and teams are the same. However, Katzenbach and Smith (1993b) argued that while many workplaces claimed to use teams, in practice, teams are uncommon as most workers are in what they called “working groups.” Working group members mostly work independently and focus on individual performance whereas high performance team members focus everything on the team. Since team members rely on each other and focus on team outcome rather than individual needs, they can exploit each other’s strengths to better tackle challenges.

So perhaps, the failure of “teams” found by researchers such as Hackman (1998) were due to people using the term “team” too loosely in the workplace, when they were in fact, the failure of “working groups.” Katzenbach and Smith (1993b) argued that it is important to distinct working groups and teams so that managers can make better decisions about whether, when, or how to encourage and use teams. By properly defining teams, we can learn when they should be seen as a solution to organizational problems.

Size of teams and organizational context

This essay also used Allen and Hecht’s definition of a team: two or more people working interdependently towards achieving a common goal (2004). This definition is quite vague, when in workplaces, the size of a team is very important and should be defined according to the task. For example, larger teams may be inefficient for routine tasks due to overcrowding, but they are good for complex tasks as smaller teams will not have enough resources or abilities (Clegg at al., 2016). Nevertheless, Laughlin (2011) found that high ability individuals can outperform groups composed of two, three, four or five low ability members. So while team size definitely has an effect on team performance, more research needs to be done to fully understand how different factors mediate the effect of team size on effectiveness.

This brings us to the next assumption of this essay: groups and teams are not the “silver bullet” for all organizations. However, teams can be very effective if they are used in the suitable organizational context. Wright & Cordery (1999) proposed conditions for teams to succeed and fail in outperforming other organizational frameworks and there is evidence that system-wide changes are better at solving organizational problems than individual changes (Bacon & Blyton, 2000). Thus, it is critical to recognize that effective problem-solving does not magically occur simply by introducing teams; time, high-level resources, and revamped support structures need to be in place to create a high performance team-based organization. Only then, perhaps teams can be perceived as a “silver bullet” to organizational problems, although creating the “perfect” setting for every task would be nearly impossible.

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Conclusion

In a nutshell, this essay argued that teams are not the panacea by examining opposing views and limitations of popular theories such as STS, Belbin’s team roles, and Katzenbach and Smith’s “Wisdom of teams.” It also discussed additional problems that may arise and questioned the assumptions of this essay to demonstrate the pros and cons of teams in different situations. Due to the word limit, this essay did not discuss all the challenges which would prevent teams from working effectively (e.g. resistance to teams, leadership of teams). Nevertheless, the original essay question remains important as teams can be effective or destructive depending on how and where they are implemented, so they should not be used sweepingly across organizations. Instead, future research on teams should be done in various industrial settings to properly define teams and to examine other factors which would affect their effectiveness in problem-solving.

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