Kellogg World Alumni Magazine Spring 2007Kellogg School of Management
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Team building

Better teams don't just happen — they're built by design

Action learning brings critical team skills to students

By Romi Herron

Within an organization, cultures, professional experiences and personalities often present team challenges. Leigh Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations, says many managers realize they are underperforming in experiential team dynamics.

Striving to improve the connections among colleagues, some leaders clear out the cubicles and turn to off-site team-building excursions. Whether the day's agenda promises rock climbing, go-cart racing, or other customized experiences designed to bring colleagues together through non-professional accomplishments, Thompson challenges the notion that such efforts alone can actually enhance teamwork in appreciable ways.

"Off-site team endeavors may be great for a release, and team members will surely learn something about their own physical limits or personalities that helps them develop as leaders," says Thompson, "but when the team returns to the work environment, they tend to illicit the same dysfunctional behaviors."

To counter this tendency, the Kellogg Team and Group Research Center (KTAG) offers students innovations that inspire meaningful collaboration and address the fundamentals of team success. Through efforts such as teaching improved communication and emphasizing the need to reward top performers and establish accountability, KTAG scholars are helping shape tomorrow's team leaders.

No more free riders

While some leaders take their staff on excursions, others may address subpar performance simply by breaking up the group and effectively giving up. But successful managers don't quit, says Thompson.

"Instead of dismantling teams, re-engineer them to determine how individuals can move things ahead," she says. "At Google, employees are required to send an e-mail to everyone on their team letting them know what they have accomplished. When people are individually accountable, they are going to expend more energy to achieve the goal."

This strategy reduces the so-called "free-rider problem" in which team members block productivity by relying on others to get the job done, Thompson explains.

"Make team members identifiable, get people involved, strengthen team cohesion and provide team performance reviews to address the free-rider problem," she says.

Recognizing exemplary performance is critical to maintaining motivation to over-produce among top employees, says Thompson, an expert in negotiations and team creativity who has published nearly 100 scholarly articles and chapters and has authored six books. In her Leading and Managing Teams course, she explains that these approaches apply to the three key team types: tactical, problem solving and creative. Regardless of the team, innovation among the group is essential for success.

Support for divergent ideas

Sujin Lee, visiting assistant professor of management and organizations, also teaches Leading and Managing Teams. She says that leaders should establish supportive culture for their teams early.

"In a supportive team culture, divergent ideas and viewpoints can be exchanged without being interpreted as an ego threat," says Lee. Also, a leader's clarity in setting the team's goal will have an impact on the outcome, she notes.

"Without this, unhealthy dynamics, including within-team competition, power conflicts and self-interest may result."

Also critical is a midpoint team evaluation by the leader, says Lee, when the leader will check for any symptoms of unhealthy dynamics and then communicate with others to determine the causes.

"Team leaders should make every effort to support every member of the team in actions and words, which is not easy," says Lee. "Doing so requires awareness of its importance and long-term implications ... In many cases, people stay with or leave a team or company because of the level of respect they have for the leader, and people can be highly motivated to work hard for those leaders they respect."

Self assessments and peer feedback, such as those Lee includes in her classroom, can provide valuable insights for teams, she adds.

'The best' is not enough

Even with personality assessment tools, however, developing a team roster is more than just choosing people with the most gleaming qualifications, says Katherine Phillips, associate professor of management and organizations.

"Sometimes the combination of 'the best' is actually not the right group of people given the social and political landscape or the organizational environment," says Phillips.

Getting superior performance out of a team requires attention to interpersonal and group dynamics — process leadership — that will help the team reach its potential.

"It's not enough to have smart people surrounding you to ensure that you will actually get value out of them," says Phillips. "Harnessing that value is critical for whatever professional endeavors our students pursue."

To do that requires an understanding of the team's role in context and how both the team overall and its individual members will be evaluated. Says Phillips: "We teach our students how to evaluate the context so they can draw on their broader skills of social networks, motivation, decision making and organizational change skills, to build an effective team."

Experiential learning builds proficiency

When she begins her marketing role at General Mills this fall, Emily Schultz '07 will be eager to apply insights from the experiential learning of Kellogg courses such as Leading and Managing Teams.

"The real power of teams was illustrated in a group consulting project," says Schultz. "Working with a Greek organization at Northwestern, my team provided a thorough analysis and clear recommendations for increased effectiveness and efficiency of their weekly committee meetings."

Brian Herman '08, found a particular lesson from the course valuable for demonstrating the need for team creativity and cohesiveness.

"We discussed the saliency of shared information in meetings, through an exercise in which a group was previously directed to promote a person based on profiles provided," explains Herman. "We each had different information on the individuals, and although we listed it on the board in our meeting, we ultimately picked the second-most-qualified person, who happened to be the person with the most shared information, although not the most positive information."

Thompson then illustrated how the group selected the less-qualified person, Herman says. At that point, students realized that their decision was based on the amount of shared information associated with the candidate.

KTAG's dynamic learning environment is optimal for students to understand other perspectives and team dynamics — and how to leverage individual talents, an essential skill for effective team leadership. With these tools, Schultz knows that she is prepared for real challenges of team leadership.

"In a company like General Mills, which depends on high-functioning, cross-functional teams to accomplish key business objectives, Professor Thompson's teachings, as well as peer experiences, in-class simulations and our final group project, will be indispensable as I continue my career."

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