#214 from R&D
Innovator Volume 5, Number 5
in Leading Project Teams
Dr. Gemmill is
professor emeritus, at the School of Management and Dr. Wilemon is
director, Innovation Management Program, Syracuse University,
Syracuse, New York.
In an article in
the December 1994 issue of Research·Technology Management,
we reported the results of a field study involving 100 project
leaders in high-technology firms.
The study was designed to assess the “real”
interpersonal concerns and difficulties project leaders
experienced in managing their teams.
We found that
project leaders felt that low involvement, low commitment, and
apathy towards projects among team members were their most
frustrating and serious concerns.
Several leaders reported their teams wasted considerable
time in covering the same ground, while trying to achieve a
consensus on important issues.
Most team leaders also felt powerless and frustrated when
they tried to influence both their team members and the larger
causes of these frustrations stemmed from unclear organizational
priorities, conflicting goals, and a lack of a coherent team or
“You try to
make something happen each day but our organization doesn’t move
very fast. A lot of
people have a built-in resistance to committing to anything.
I get very frustrated when I need their help.”
Team leaders also
felt that they take considerable risk when they deal with such
issues as team apathy, detrimental power struggles, and overly
dependent team members. Much
of this perceived risk centered on fears of worsening the
situation or apprehensions about being too controlling as a
wonder if I’ll make matters worse if I try to change people’s
often told myself that some performance is better than no
frequently mentioned fears were “dominating” the team, failing
or appearing incompetent, and losing control of the team.
When asked to elaborate on their fears, the majority of
project leaders worried that they might overpower less assertive
team members; thereby, not realizing the full benefit of a climate
for open exchange, confrontation, and healthy dialogue. They also
feared getting compliance rather than wholehearted commitment on
the part of team members.
that you need to be assertive and open—not controlling.
I’ve also learned to accept the contributions of others
even though it may be done differently than I would do it.
The more accepting I’ve become of others, the higher the
creativity we’ve experienced in my group.”
leaders were also concerned with “losing control.”
To them, losing control meant being impotent in leading,
influencing, or directing their team. Some noted that such concerns led them to enhance their
influence by gaining active support from top management; by
dealing directly with key team members and functional departments;
and by carefully planning the critical choices and strategic
directions facing the team.
greatest fear a team leader faces is that you won’t be able to
accomplish the project because, for some reason or other, you
couldn’t maintain the support of your key people.
This is an issue that I’m always concerned about.”
were cited by project leaders where they “misread” important
team issues; being unaware of conflicts between team members;
being unaware of hidden agendas of team members; and not
understanding the full meaning or context of what was said.
They also noted they were more likely to “misread the
message” of team members who came from functional areas
different from their own.
told me that they’ve never misread a team or team member, I’d
say they are totally unaware.
You never fully know what people are thinking about and
wanting. You can
minimize this unawareness problem by being very observant, by
asking lots of questions and listening to the responses; and by
gaining high levels of team member involvement.”
We argue that
recognizing fears and not allowing them to paralyze one’s
actions constitute a significant step in developing a team culture
that encourages openness, creativity, and innovative problem
solving. A powerful way for project leaders to deal with important
issues is to take the initiative in developing norms that
encourage group discussion of individual concerns.
Such norms can support the discovery and treatment of
apathy, frustration, and abuse of power.
Project leaders need to demonstrate that these
interpersonal and group concerns are discussible and manageable.
“You learn to
demonstrate the behaviors you want in a team. If you want openness, you have to be open yourself.
If you want conflict to be handled well within your team,
you’d better handle it yourself very well.
When problems develop within your team or group, address
them quickly and efficiently.
Such actions and behaviors send a powerful message about
you and your team.”
We also note that
it’s important to consciously develop norms within a team on the
acceptability and desirability of discussing difficult and
sensitive team issues. Developing
such norms can create a team culture based on openness and a
willingness to explore important human concerns.
The results can be team performance levels that are indeed