Organizations can reap many long-term benefits from encouraging employees to work intelligently together. Personal power and influence do much to create and manage successful organizations. However, the bulk of the work done in organizations requires several people working in concert toward a goal.
Just imagine the immense potential that comes from collaboration. Meetings offer the ideal opportunity to collaborate. While a meeting is the convening of a group, the nature and management of groups seems to be one of the deeper mysteries of organizational life. How can managers transform groups into powerful teams? In spite of a group’s attempts to “get things done,” stifling
conformity hampers many groups, and powerful business concepts such as empowerment, teams and synergy become simplistic, ineffective buzz words.
If groups are so problematic, why do we bother with them? Why do we continue to have staff meetings, task force meetings, operation meetings, teambuilding, planning meetings, and all the other kinds of meetings that we love to hate?
We work in groups for three reasons. First, only several people working in concert can achieve goals of the size and complexity required by most organizations. Second, when productivity and creativity are needed, they can come from synergizing differences in backgrounds – skill, rank, function, age, race and gender. Third, there are as a rule several stakeholders or individuals who are most invested in decisions regarding those organizational goals and want to be involved in the decision-making process.
Accordingly, groups are the fundamental units of organizations. And, they can actually save time. Group meetings are the most effective means of communicating among people who need to share information and reach a common understanding about that data so they can make and implement good
decisions. Complex tasks require extensive dialogue if they are to be done well. Letters, memos, voicemail, e-mail and other non-dialogue means of communications are useful for documenting the results of meetings; however, they do not allow the reciprocity that is critical to effective communication.
Some managers try to coordinate small numbers of employees by meeting one-on-one with each person involved in the task or project. This school of management holds that if everyone simply does his or her job, everything will be fine. Such a philosophy is effective for relatively uncomplicated tasks that do not require much coordination. For example, a claims processing unit at an insurance company may work effectively without meetings.
Other managers who have been victims of too many unproductive meetings eliminate group meetings altogether and suffer the consequences as more and more things fall through the cracks, more deadlines are missed and more productivity is lost because of misunderstandings. Other managers avoid these pitfalls by enforcing strict time limits. With this approach, whatever people can cover in the time allowed will work out fine, and whatever doesn’t get covered, even if important, is left to the vagaries of individual effort.
In general, many managers and their employees see their group meetings as useful, even fun, and many others see them as a necessary evil. What is the problem here? Why do intelligent, well-intentioned, good-hearted people who get along well fail to function as a collective?
There are three basic reasons. First, many managers don’t recognize the holistic and systemic nature of groups. Second, many of them aren’t sufficiently competent to handle conflict. And third, many do not have the skills to use the differences within groups to make good synergistic decisions that are fully owned by all involved.
Group effectiveness is an uphill battle, largely because of our negative beliefs about groups, which have been reinforced over time. Our beliefs become self-fulfilling, as we expect our newest group to be just like all the others. We assume that the power dynamics will be win-lose, that our ideas will not receive attention or our warnings will go unheeded, that the real issues won’t surface. We may attempt to be a positive force within a group but will soon surrender when we get no support from others, who nevertheless may tell us afterward that our ideas were right on target.
Powerful individual action certainly can create positive change in the dynamics of a group, however, such action is too often viewed as beyond the perceived norms of acceptable behavior and with little probability of success, a difficult perception to overcome. Accordingly, beliefs about the group solidify into ineffective behavior that seems to defy attempts at constructive change. Such groups become dispirited as their members collectively resign themselves to being unable to make a difference. No wonder a common response is “Oh no, not another meeting!”
Regardless of these problems, much can be done to make group effective and then turn them into powerful teams. Developing effectiveness in groups requires a basic level of functionality minus the hostility, conformity or dispirited ennui that squanders so much productivity. Effective groups become powerful teams when they learn from differences, empower their members and make consensual decisions. Powerful teams contribute substantially to the creation of infinite organizations.