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Consensus building, or team sabotage?

Posted by A Friend on 11 January 2009

A popularly talked about management concept, particularly from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, are self directed work teams, or SDWTs.

SDWTs are conceptually an autonomous team of individuals who are given by their organizations a specific set of objectives to meet; but beyond that, they are left to manage themselves and their objectives the best way they know how. SDWTs are formed with full empowerment, transparency, and accountability of individual team members in mind; even team leaders or managers are nominated by the team, and are often rotated on a regular basis.

That is the idea. In reality, a lot of SDWTs are formed merely because some manager heard about it in a coffee shop conversation or read about it from a book he got from Borders. It can also be a roundabout way of sending a group of people out on their own because management do not want to deal with them directly anymore. A lot of SDWTs formed do not have clear objectives, are not given the true autonomy required so they can manage themselves, and are handed down management-nominated leads.

The SDWT that is the topic of our post today was such a case. The team had a strong leader who had always fought for the team’s cause to management, but that leader resigned. Instead of getting the team to nominate a new leader, management mandated to appoint a new one.

The newly appointed leader was perhaps the most qualified, but the point is she was not chosen by the team, thus she did not have the support and empathy of team members that the previous leader had. As an individual, she was also not as popular to the team as the previous team leader: she was known to have personal issues with various team members.

Shortly after her appointment, this leader called for a team meeting, to discuss the team’s objectives for the next year. Consensus building is vitally critical in SDWTs – important decisions are made by the team, not by individuals.

One of the main discussion points during the meeting was training. Because of budgetary constraints that year, not everyone could attend training, so the team had to decide who among the members should be attending. At the end, two were chosen.

On the way home after the meeting, two other team members, merely because they take the same public transport route, had more chances to talk about the meeting outcomes. One of them was particularly concerned about the decisions made about training, specifically the choice of who should be “given the privilege”; he thought that some kind of favoritism was at play.

The other member did not agree, but when pressed by his concerned teammate for concrete reasons why or how the selections were made, he could not give a reasonable response. So this team member took it upon himself to send an email to the team leader, asking for clarifications around why and how the selections were made.

The team leader did not take the email nicely. She sent an email response back to the member saying that if he had issues, he should have been open enough to the team and raised these during the meeting. Furthermore, she said that she was going to forward the email to the team so the team could resolve it.

The team member quickly responded and said that he did not have an issue with the decision, and that he was in fact only asking the questions in good faith for another team member’s behalf. He further requested the team leader not to forward his email to the team as (1) it was likely to be misconstrued by some of the team members, and (2) since he was merely asking questions, there was no need to involve the team.

The team leader ignored the member’s reasoning and proceeded to forward his original email to the team, and even included a stern reprimand about openness, communication, consensus building, and teamwork. She pointed out that if the member was not happy with any of the decisions made during the meeting, he should have raised the issues then instead of going behind his teammates’ backs.

The team member felt he had no choice but to respond to the email, and he did so in a very aggressive way. He took the team leader to task about why she forwarded his first email and not the second, which would have clarified a lot of the points she brought up, including the point about him only acting as an intermediary; and that her inability to answer very basic questions about team decisions showed an utter lack of leadership.

As a direct result of this incident, the team did not have a single meeting for three months, and members became cold to, and quietly suspicious of, each other. This, in turn, led to none of the team objectives, aside from the two team members continuing to attend the aforementioned training, being met.

In this situation, the application of the SDWT concept appears to have been a failure; but why?

If you wish to read more about SDWTs, this is a useful portal that you can start from.


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