#255 from R&D Innovator Volume 6, Number 1          January 1997

Teamwork Strategies for High-Level Managers
by Andrew J. DuBrin, Ph.D.

Dr. DuBrin is professor of management at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, New York, and is also a consultant to organizations and individuals. He is the author of many professional and trade books and articles in journals and magazines. A recent book of his is The Breakthrough Team Player: How to Be the MVP on Your Workplace Team (AMACOM, New York,1995).

A research and development manager intent on building teamwork within the group faces a curious challenge.  Many of the standard tactics for building teamwork might not appeal to a group as sophisticated as R&D professionals.  Giving each member of the team a sports cap and a tee-shirt emblazoned with “We’re Number One” might work in some settings but could easily be perceived as patronizing by a group of engineers and scientists.  The purpose of this article is to describe plausible actions the research and development manager or team leader might take to build team spirit and teamwork.  So before you rush out and purchase key rings with a team logo, read on.

Promote a Vision and a Mission

Top executives set a vision for the firm, yet teams can have their own visions that support the vision at the top.  The leader of an R&D team might encourage the team to establish a vision of someday becoming well known in the industry.  Given that most corporate visions are lofty, team visions will usually fit a corporate vision relating to world-class status.  A mission is typically more specific, and more related to implementation, than a vision. It is also tied more directly the team’s presenting reality, such as “providing investigations of new technologies that are noted for their relevance for eventual commercial application.”  Whether you spur the group to establish a vision, mission or both, it will be an important step forward in developing teamwork.

Build Commitment and Confidence

A key teamwork development tactic is for the leader to build the commitment and confidence of each team member as well as the team as a whole.  For the group to develop a strong team spirit, individuals must feel a sense of mutual accountability.  An effective vehicle for building commitment and confidence is to make ample use of positive reinforcement.  Team members should be given frequent reminders of what they’re doing right, and encouraged for actions that contribute to team goals.  Positive reinforcement for an R&D professional might take the form of sending an e-mail message to the company president (and including the professional on the distribution list) praising the person’s recent accomplishment.

It cannot be stated with high certainty that positive reinforcement leads directly to commitment and confidence and builds commitment.  More certain is that fact that giving staff members no positive reinforcement decreases commitment and lowers team spirit.

Emphasize Group Recognition

Giving people rewards for group accomplishment reinforces teamwork because people receive rewards for what they have achieved collaboratively.  The recognition accompanying the reward should emphasize the team’s value to the organization.  Recognition promotes team spirit by enabling the group to take pride in its contributions and progress.  Here are two examples of team recognition:

A display wall for team activities such as certificates of accomplishment, recent publications and patents, and recognition in professional societies

Celebrations to mark milestone such as a the conversion of an R&D concept into a product, the issuing of an important patent, or the discovery of a money-saving process.

Instill Team Spirit by Welcoming All Input

Team spirit elevates with a broad-based contribution to the group effort.  It’s especially important for the high-performing leader to avoid the situation of one or two people being the only contributors during a meeting.  Unfortunately not every team member has the talent to contribute as much as the stronger members. Welcome all input to encourage even modest contributions.  Explain how each idea, each completed task, contributes to the larger fabric of a team product.  For example, a team member might conduct a literature search that eventually leads to an important technical innovation.  Without the painstaking literature search, the innovation might not have been possible.

Create Opportunities for Others

Team spirit, and team performance, will dampen if the leader hogs the best opportunities, assignments, and credits.  One of a leader’s biggest challenges is to provide opportunities for the group and individuals to perform well.  The challenge is more acute when the leader has a strong track record, and the other team members are at an earlier career stage.  Here is an example from outside the world of research and development:

Top management at an entertainment conglomerate decided to investigate the possibilities of opening a theme park. The head of the new venture team was asked to personally visit six leading theme parks in the United States and Canada. She welcomed the assignment but then suggested to top management, “Jeff, one of the quickest minds on the team, is also a theme park buff.  He even wears a Mickey Mouse watch.  I recommend we send him on this field assignment. His insights would be very helpful.”  The executive group welcomed the suggestions. The group knew, without the team leader saying so, that she had passed a plum assignment along to a team member.

Engage in Tasks Performed by the Team

One of my earliest work experiences taught me a lesson about team leadership that is still valid today.  The first day I showed up to work for my entry-level job at a diner, the manager was busily mopping the floor.  I assumed that because I was a new worker, the mop detail would be handed to me.  Instead, the new manager told me, “Look sonny, I mop the floors just like anybody else.  I’d never ask anybody working for me to do a job I wouldn’t do.”

Effective R&D managers are able to demonstrate the same spirit in team building. Many managers may be able to perform tasks similar to those of staff members.  However, in highly technical and professional areas, the technical knowledge and competence of the manager is an integral part of the leadership skills required for effective management. Therefore, the idealized version of the leader who spends all of his or her time formulating visions, crafting strategic plans, and inspiring others through charisma, does not fit team leadership.  The effective leader engages in those activities that are strictly their responsibility, while arriving at a final decision after receiving group input.  While groups demonstrate high productivity and team spirit, the leader is generally involved in facilitating the member’s activities and outputs.

Introduce Humor with Appropriate Frequency

Humor and laughter are excellent vehicles for building team spirit when used with appropriate frequency.  The group needs to laugh enough to raise morale, increase the fun associated with the task, and to stimulate creativity.  The effective leader therefore has a good sense of humor but avoids the immaturity of a nonstop laboratory clown.  For building team spirit, the most effective humor is linked to the situation in the form of a humorous comment.  Bring rehearsed jokes into the meeting is much less effective.  Here is an example of humor that worked in a specific situation. Recognize that outside of the situational context, a statement may not appear so humorous.

An R&D team was attempting to fill a position for a microbiologist.  A team member said she had an excellent candidate, but that his current salary was $3,500 higher than the maximum starting salary for this position.  With a deadpan expression, the team leader said, “Call him back and ask him if he would like to take a pay cut to ease his tax burden.”

Encourage the Use of In-group Jargon

Conventional wisdom is that jargon should be minimized in business.  Yet liberal use of jargon among team members enhances team spirit because it sets the group apart from others in the organization. When dealing with outsiders, team members can then follow the effective communication principles of minimizing jargon.  Teams performing specialized work are the most likely to use jargon.  For example, a member of a quality- improvement team returned from a vacation.  Asked how well he play golf during his vacation, he replied “Far too much variation to achieve zero defects.”  (In this situation, jargon was combined with humor.)

Pick and choose among the tactics for building team spirit and team work from the ones I have described. For best results, combine several of them. These strategies and tactics are important because, although team spirit and teamwork are subjective and abstract concepts, they are more likely to be achieved by design than by fate.

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