The tricky attractions of teamworking

Team Performance Management

ISSN: 1352-7592

Article publication date: 1 June 2000



(2000), "The tricky attractions of teamworking", Team Performance Management, Vol. 6 No. 3/4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

The tricky attractions of teamworking

The tricky attractions of teamworking

The UK Civil Service has seen many changes over the last few years - not the least of which has been the creation of several agencies, with the aim of bringing business practices into the public sector. One (unidentified) agency, created in 1991, is now contemplating the introduction of another business idea - teamworking. It is not too difficult to see that the introduction of teamworking into an environment traditionally characterized by hierarchy, a job for life and separation from the world of business will be a challenge. And the challenge has been highlighted by the results of a survey carried out within the agency to assess the support and likely success of teamworking.

The executive agency has 5,570 people and is run by a chief executive who is answerable to the minister responsible. In many other ways the agency resembles the department out of which it was born. Its structures and organization remain largely intact, with nine levels of hierarchy and many rules and procedures to guide decision-making. The staff are spread throughout a network of national offices and people have well-defined roles and responsibilities. Also, each individual is assessed on his/her own work and performance and remuneration reflects individual performance.

In early 1996, a human resource strategy was adopted with the aim of facilitating:

  • competitive restructuring;

  • continuous improvement; and

  • delegated personal responsibility.

It also sought to develop a valued and proficient workforce.

Teamwork in the ex-Civil Service

Around the same time, the agency decided to consider the introduction of teamworking, as part of the European Commission Leonardo program to promote life-long learning in social service organizations. A university participant in the program was commissioned to carry out a survey of staff to get their views of teamworking as it already existed within the agency.

The agency wanted to know:

  • the extent to which individuals needed to work with other members of staff to get their work done;

  • if individuals thought they already worked as part of team; and

  • whether individuals were in favor of teamwork.

Consulting with staff

The results provided uncomfortable reading for management. Although only a small proportion of the entire organization took part, it was deemed to be representative of the organization as a whole in terms of gender, length of time spent in the agency, and grade. Tellingly perhaps, the largest percentage (35.4 percent) of respondents had worked for the organization for more than 15 years. Also, nearly 42 percent had been in their present grade between five and nine years, and a further 25.7 percent for more than ten years. It might be argued that effecting such fundamental change in an environment where people have worked in the same job for years might be difficult.

Almost all the respondents reported that they needed to work with others to get their own work done, and 89 percent of them went as far as to say that their job meant that they had to work as part of a team. Of concern to management, however, was the finding that 31 percent of all respondents said they would prefer to work independently, while a few even stated that they would prefer to work entirely on their own. Their reasons included more independence and responsibility and fewer distractions and time wasting.

Staff question managers' motives

Criticism of management also came through in the results. A third believed that management did not even understand what teamwork meant, and even more pointed out that management and staff had different concepts of teamwork. In practice, managers also had trouble letting others make decisions and changing their own individual behavior.

Despite these reservations and criticisms, 90 percent of the respondents wanted the agency to work towards teamworking, even though a proportion of them apparently prefer to work on their own.

The agency's management is in favor of teamworking for a number of reasons. But a successful outcome seems unlikely given the existence of a number of so-called tripwires.

  • Individuals, regardless of whether they work as part of a team, are still managed on an individual basis. That is to say their performance is assessed individually, as is their pay.

  • Managers may pay lip service to the idea of teamwork, but in practice they are still using a traditional command and control approach.

  • Employees are familiar with the concept of teamwork because management has discussed it with them. Unfortunately, it is being put forward as a solution to the many problems that beset the agency, including a lack of creativity and innovations, low morale and high levels of absenteeism.

The evidence available to date suggests that the agency is paralyzed. The management wants to become more efficient and has seen teamworking as the means to this desired end. But little has really changed. Performance and behavior remain much the same and the inheritance of the old Civil Service bureaucracy has not been cast off. Radical change is required, as is extensive training at all levels.

Such a fundamental cultural change as the introduction of teamworking cannot be realized without it.

Dismantle hierachy

Real teamworking, as opposed to the informal arrangements already in place within the agency, creates a multi-skilled workforce, but also a flatter organization. Such an organization offers fewer opportunities for traditional promotion up the managerial ladder. Something has to replace seniority promotion if an already low morale is not to fall even further.

The inescapable conclusion of the survey is that the benefits of teamworking will only be achieved once the hierarchy has been largely dismantled. Furthermore, the appraisal system needs to be redesigned to take into account teamworking capabilities and the acquisition of skills.

The agency has set itself four difficult targets:

  1. 1.

    competitive restructuring;

  2. 2.

    continuous improvement;

  3. 3.

    empowerment; and

  4. 4.

    the creation of a proficient and valued staff.

None of these is achievable at present with the traditional management structure and attitudes largely in place.

The human resources department may have the ideas in place and be fully behind the concept of teamwork, but their efforts will count for nothing unless and until the management adopts the concept fully instead of merely tinkering with it. As in any other organization, the commitment of senior management is essential. At this agency there still appears to be a long way to go.

(This précis was previously published in Human Resource Management International Digest, July/August, 1999.)

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