Teaming and Engagement

This month’s Big Idea on HBR is on Engaging Employees. And given that I’m currently preparing for a webinar on teaming and engagement, I’ve been particularly interested in the first article in the series, on The Power of Hidden Teams.
As the author of The Social Organization which focuses on the importance of teams and groups I’m pleased to see this focus on linking teams and employee engagement. I’m sure being on team does hep engage people – we need connection and relationships, and can often perform better in a team context – which will have a positive impact on engagement too.
And it is an interesting article but to me, delivers less impact than it would have if it didn’t overstate the case. I’m disappointed, again, that authors who accuse others of lies seem happy to deliberately distort evidence to support their own arguments.

I haven’t seen the data so this may just concern the article’s main case study, but the key reason that Jordan is more engaged that Fritz may be that she works on a number of cross functional teams whereas he works in a stand alone function, or silo (and one with a very high management span of 76).
The hospital which employs Fritz is likely to be more successful because of its cross functional approach – which I wrote about in the case of the Cleveland Clinic in The Social Organization. Fritz also gains direct contact with the family which will help her see the impacts of her work, which also adds engagement. Jordan works in a function, which usually means that people work mainly independently and so lacks the relatedness benefits of Fritz’s teams.
Marcus Buckingham uses his data to suggest that Jordan works for a more engaging team leader than does Fritz, and that this reinforces his perspective that engagement comes from the team, not the organisation. But the main case study at least does not support this argument. Instead of this, it demonstrates the engagement of true horizontal / cross functional teams. Which of course is the result of an organisational  decision, not one taken by an individual team / team leader.
So yes, we should design teams for human attention, but more basically, we should design teams to perform what the organisation needs. And that includes a sensible management span with effective managers. Clearly, if your manager does not check in with you more than once a month your engagement is not going to be that great, whether ofrnot you work on a team.
The fact that 83% of survey respondents say they do most of their work in teams suggests people are including any form of group, including functions, within this categorisation. The reason that many teams are more engaging that others will be largely down to the fact that some of the teams are real teams, and others aren’t. So much for good data! 

I do find it interesting that 64% of people say they work on more than one team – this is higher than I’d have thought would be the case and I’m pleased that it is. Though it does make Heidi Gardner and Mark Mortensen’s warning about over commitment even more important.

It also makes paying attention to the whole organisation, not just the individual teams, more important too. And if we don’t do that, we draw the wrong conclusions. For example, Buckingham suggests that it doesn’t matter whether people work remotely, as it doesn’t affect their engagement in their team. But this isn’t why organisations are cautious about this – it’s because it can reduce connection and cooperation across the organisation as a whole.

Buckingham notes that three quarters of people working on more than one team say their additional teams don’t show up in the organisational directory and uses that fact to argue that we need to capture data on all the teams in order to ensure they’re all being managed effectively.

I agree there are benefits in understanding hidden teams and that as the authors suggest, we can increasingly get this data from Slack and similar tools.

However, the greatest benefit is from a teaming approach that fits organisational needs. Unless the formalisation of all these informal teams is done very carefully, doing this will just lead to more criticism of HR and linked functions (a bit like the article’s criticism that HR tries to coerce people today).

The bigger win is developing team leaders and the organisation’s teaming approach, so that when teams are formed they will be well led – rather than intervening to check the quality of each team. And, of course, once again, this is about the whole organisation, not individual teams. Particularly as teams form and unform ever more quickly.

So it’s not true that we shouldn’t do once a year engagement surveys and that we “pretend that we’d found anything useful”. Ongoing digital analysis of exhaust data is an increasingly useful source of data, but the value of an annual engagement survey hasn’t gone away. I also think that doing a functional analysis of this survey data is still the most appropriate form of analysis in most organisations. People may work on additional teams but their most important role and therefore main basis for engagement will still often come from the function. Of course, if the organisation is mainly organised by horizontal teams, then we should slice the organisation horizontally instead.

Also, I also still don’t like Buckingham’s approach of defining engagement as certain responses to 8 specific questions. This may be more reliable but it’s not very valid. It certainly does not provide enough insight to suggest that the 84% of people who don’t respond positively to these questions are “just going through the motions”. And therefore I don’t think he should say that “the quality of team experience is the quality of your work experience” either.

I do still think good team leadership is important, and that it will provide substantial engagement benefits as well but this article doesn’t really help make the case. I’m prepared to believe that the data may demonstrate this – and perhaps without the distorted reporting on the survey findings I’d have been prepared to accept them.

That’s fine – my interpretation of the article does suggest that more organisations should be using a cross-functional team approach – and this is probably the bigger win for engagement.

So, I do still agree with “great teams and teamwork aren’t a nice to have, they’re a must have”. I agree that we should both do and measure more “things team by team, where they make the most difference” and that these are based mainly on intrinsic motivation not extrinsic incentives. And I also agree that we should “train specific teams together” though generic teamworking skills are clearly important too. And that we need to “rethink how we structure the people stuff in our companies – promotion, development, and succession”.
You’ll find out more about how to do all these things in The Social Organization.

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I graduated from Imperial College, London in 1987 and joined Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) as a systems development consultant. After ten years in IT, change and then HR consulting, I joined Ernst & Young as an HR Director, working firstly in the UK, and then, based in Moscow, covering the former USSR.More recently, I have worked as Head of HR Consulting for Penna and Director of Human Capital Consulting for Buck Consultants (the HR consultancy owned by ACS).

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