Can you think of an example of an effective working group? I can: a disaster rescue and recovery team. These are groups of men and women who, in the aftermath of a catastrophe, work to rescue the victims and to prevent subsequent loss of life. They are composed of specialists, like engineers, medics, electricians, and dog handlers. In the case of major disasters, such teams are brought in from several different countries. Some of them might never have worked together before. Yet the operation runs effectively. If teamwork is possible in such a diverse group, under intense time and performance pressure, in inhospitable working conditions, and among people who might not even have met before, why can it sometimes seem so difficult in the typical corporate environment?
One advantage rescue and recovery team members have over their corporate counterparts is their professional diversity. There is very little overlap in their individual domains of competence and, so, very few redundant skills. When the team encounters a problem, the person whose skill set most appropriately matches the task takes charge; the hierarchy is unimportant. Compare this with the corporate environment, where the level of skill redundancy is usually much higher. It is likely to be less obvious who should be charged with the task. Even when it is obvious, the hierarchy often plays a more important role than the skill set of any individual.
Clear, Time-Limited Objectives
Lives depend on the effectiveness of the rescue and recovery team, and they know it. They need to make the right decisions, immediately. Nobody thinks about the disaster site they might be working on next month, or in a year’s time. They seek to optimise outcomes only on the task at hand. In the corporate environment, the objectives are more opaque. There might be several, non-complementary objectives, meaning that not everyone in the team is seeking to optimise the same goal at the same time. Often team members might seek to optimise objectives that are unrelated to the task at hand. For example, they might make decisions that improve the chances of success in a subsequent endeavour, or act in a way that justifies decisions made in a previous task.
Imagine a situation where a medic is treating an earthquake victim whose leg has been trapped by a fallen concrete beam. The medic fears that if circulation isn’t swiftly restored to the trapped limb, the victim might lose it altogether, and so recommends bringing in the heavy moving equipment. The structural engineer vetoes the decision: if the concrete beam is moved, the whole building might come down. In such a case, the medic won’t think the engineer is saying this because he doesn’t like her, or is trying to undermine her authority, or make her look bad in front of her boss. Yet, precisely such preoccupations bedevil exchanges in a corporate environment.
Human beings are intensely social creatures. We constantly seek a sense of belonging to social groups, and crave the recognition and approval of those around us. This social motive exists whether we are in a domestic setting or in a professional one. The consequence is that before saying or doing anything in a group setting, people will first evaluate its likely impact on their group membership and status. Actions and comments considered likely to win widespread approval are preferred; those that might result in disapproval or, worse, in social rejection, are self-censored. These social preferences are not always congruent with the organisational objectives.
The same social motive applies to rescue and recovery teams as it does to corporate decision makers, the only difference is how each perceives the path to social status. For the former, thanks to the limited skills overlap and the time-limited objectives, doing the best possible job is the only route to social recognition. The medic gives status to whichever engineer helps her to save lives, even the ones who over-rule her decisions. In rescue and recovery teams, there is an alignment between the social objective and the organisational objective, and this makes those teams effective.
“The corporate ‘engineer’ is sometimes willing to let the building collapse rather than risk any potential conflict with the corporate ‘medic’”
Such an alignment is often missing in a business setting. The corporate ‘engineer’, for instance, is sometimes willing to let the building collapse rather than risk any potential conflict with the corporate ‘medic’, and the ‘medic’ often thanks him for it. As the social motive cannot be turned off, the challenge for organisations is to align the social objectives with their own. This means clarifying goals and responsibilities, so that even in an environment of high skill redundancy, everyone knows who must be charged with which task, and the benchmarks for success. Corporate leaders must also become more adept at rewarding people socially for doing things the organisation wants. People desire a sense of belonging, recognition, approval and social status. These rewards are within the power of all organisations to grant.