Effective Teams

An interview with Glenn Parker, Author of "Team Players and Teamwork: New Strategies for Developing Successful Collaboration"
By Vern Burkhardt
Teams are everywhere. During this first decade of the twenty-first century the role of teams and the use of teams to address organizational issues has increased dramatically. Teams in many forms are seen as critical to the creative and innovative success of companies.

In Team Players and Teamwork, Glenn Parker provides specific, practical tools that will help business leaders and team members identify their team-player style and how each style contributes to five key business leadership functions —planning, risk taking, communication, problem solving, and decision making. Drawing on examples from over 50 companies, the book demonstrates how the right mix of these different styles creates a dynamic team whose members complement each other.

Question: Team Players and Teamwork was selected as one of the ten best business books of 1990. This latest edition of the book, published in 2008, covers the impact of the dramatic changes in the business environment in which teams now operate.

For example, teams are now cross-functional, cross-cultural, and even virtual. Have you been surprised by the growth and continued evolution of teams?

Glenn Parker standing at whiteboardGlenn Parker: No, teams were not a fad, gimmick, or quick fix. They quickly became part of the culture at many well-known companies. There were also some early, visible, successes that were widely talked about in books and in the business press.

When brand names such as AT&T, 3M, and Xerox reported great success others began to take notice. It also turns out that, with few exceptions, employees report greater overall job satisfaction when they work in groups—the chance to interact, learn, achieve results and have fun is increased when people are part of a successful team.

Question: You are a hands-on consultant and trainer who works with start-up and on-going teams of all types in a variety of industries. What gets you up in the morning and motivates you in your consulting practice?

Glenn Parker: OK, you can say it, I'm old. Or maybe we should say, "experienced" with more than 30 years in the field. So, yes, I've pretty much seen it all but I am still motivated by people in organizations who really want to work in teams and have a genuine interest in learning how to do it better.

For example, I just started a project with a new client, where the senior vice president's charge to me was, "We have lots of good people who work very hard but we need help in clarifying team roles and responsibilities, running more effective meetings and developing more effective decision-making skills. In addition to working with our teams, tell me what I need to do to support the teams."

I couldn't ask for a better situation. And, as a result, I am highly motivated to do whatever it takes to make it a successful experience for them.

Question: It's clear that your creative capacity is strong. How did you develop your creative abilities over the years?

book cover: Team Players and Teamwork Glenn Parker: I forced myself outside of the box. When clients wanted me to teach the tried and true—that is, what I had done for the company down the street—I found ways to challenge myself by looking for new ways to achieve the same outcome, teach the same concepts or provide the same service.

For example, I recently took the basic meeting management tools that I had been teaching for some twenty years in classroom settings and adapted them for a virtual class on "Facilitating a Teleconference," which is conducted via teleconference.

Question: You describe twelve characteristics or behaviors that distinguish effective teams from ineffective teams. One of these characteristics is style diversity, meaning team members have a broad range of strengths, including attention to task, goal setting, and process.

In your experience with corporations how does style diversity contribute to the creativity required for the team to produce results?

Glenn Parker: We know that when teams have a diversity of approaches to problem-solving, decision-making, communication, conflict resolution, and critical thinking, more creative ideas are the result. Product breakthroughs and service delivery innovations come from a clash of ideas, different perspectives and differences in experience, and not from a group of people who all think in much the same way.

For example, drug development teams in the pharmaceutical industry include representatives from clinical development, drug safety, regulatory affairs, statistics, and marketing, among others. By background and training all of these people approach the issue from a distinctly different perspective.

In the end, the consumer or patient benefits from a new treatment approach that is the result of a diversity of ideas.

Question: Informal climates are often a hallmark of an effective team. At first, the concept of an informal climate seems the antithesis of a productive team.

Would you please describe how informal climates contribute to an effective team?

Glenn Parker: Think about it. Do you do your best thinking when you are tense? Do your creative juices flow freely when you are worried about making a mistake? Is your ability to make a clear decision or solve a knotty problem enhanced by stress?

To all of these questions, the answer is a resounding "no." In fact, studies show that people are at their best when the atmosphere around them is informal and relaxed, when they can brainstorm without fear of censure or ridicule, and when they can freely communicate what's on their minds because they trust their teammates to give their ideas a fair hearing.

An informal climate does not happen by accident. Sometimes, you need to lighten things up with a humorous story, complimenting someone on the team for their good work or other accomplishment, or engaging in a team building activity so team members can get to know each other better.

At one company, we spent more than a year changing the climate on teams to one where people felt free to speak up, because the company had found that many good ideas never surfaced in meetings due to tension resulting from intimidation by some team members.

Question: Disagreement is often a euphemism for conflict. Many of us tend to shy away from the word conflict, because it connotes negative behavior. In the new business world of cross-functional, cross-cultural, virtual teams disagreements are likely. In fact, you suggest that disagreements about the work of the team should be encouraged and accepted as a natural consequence of a dynamic team.

How do you create a climate in which team members feel free and comfortable enough to engage in civilized disagreements that move towards productive resolutions?

Glenn Parker: First, the leader has to make it clear by his or her style, words, and actions that disagreements about the work are encouraged.

Second, the team should establish norms or ground rules that make it clear that members are encouraged to express their opinions even when those opinions are at odds with those of other members, and members are expected to listen to and consider all points of view on an issue.

And it is not acceptable to engage in a personal attack on another team member, denigrate another member's idea, or use a hostile tone or gesture when disagreeing.

Question: You say smoothing over a disagreement is the first cousin of denial. Would you elaborate on how smoothing over disagreements can halt the creative productivity of a team?

Glenn Parker: Let's clarify the differences. Denial is saying, "Problem? What problem? Disagreement? We don't have any disagreements?"

Smoothing over, on the other hand, is saying, "Yes, we have a problem or disagreement, but it's no big deal."

For example, during political campaigns such as the recent presidential campaign in the USA, candidates or their spokespersons often say something like, "The media are making a big deal about this but it's really a very small thing." In essence they are issuing a denial.

Question: In successful teams leadership is shared. A team will have a formal leader but with a successful team leadership functions shift from time to time among team members. Members of successful teams, in which leadership is shared, use words such as our and we when referring to the project and their team members.

In your work with corporations you've encouraged a shared leadership approach. Are there certain industries or fields where a shared leadership approach works better than others?

Glenn Parker: I find good people who want to collaborate in all industries and in all disciplines. Too often, I believe, we are quick to stereotype people and put them into categories that just don't fit with my experience in the real world and, more importantly, are counter-productive.

In other words, to say, "all engineers are… (you fill in the blank)," is a big mistake. I have found collaborative, team-oriented people who are willing to share leadership everywhere. You just have to put aside your prejudices, look for them, and then be open to see their potential.

Question: You volunteer with the American Cancer Society. Your passion for volunteer work is evident from your website. In business your focus is on teams and teamwork.

Do you see a difference in the way teams are formed and operate in your volunteer work?

Glenn Parker: You might think there would be differences but, in fact, there are more similarities. Volunteers are usually busy people, so they don't want to waste their time. They want to accomplish things, and they want their expertise used.

I work closely with Sue Kirkland, director of learning and development for the Eastern Division of the Cancer Society. Sue has brought to volunteer teams many concepts developed in the corporate world and gotten a very positive response.

What she and I found is that people want their volunteer team to have a clear goal, a plan on how to get there, clear roles for members, brief and effective meetings, and recognition of members' contributions. Does that sound familiar?

Question: Your research indicates that there are four types of team players—the challenger, contributor, communicator, and collaborator. A balance of team members with these strengths is ideal, but in practice it is not always possible.

You devote a considerable portion of the book to describing the four team member types backed up by your own research inside corporations. How do you think organizations will use teams in the future when a global economy will require greater flexibility and diversity of skill sets?

Glenn Parker: The world of team players and teamwork is changing as we speak. The environmental conditions for teams have changed in rather dramatic ways and these changes are not making life any easier for teams. Rather, it has become significantly more difficult to develop and sustain an effective team over time.

Teams are now global, cross-functional, cross-cultural and often, virtual. In addition, as teams have become an established way of doing business, the bar has been raised for team success. Management expects a great deal from their teams.

Other factors that result from these environmental changes include:
  1. The team leader's role is both more important and more difficult.
  2. Successful team-meeting management is now even more critical.
  3. Building trust quickly is now even more essential to effective teamwork.
  4. People often serve on multiple teams resulting in divided loyalties and conflicting priorities.

One recent example is Cisco Systems, which is transforming its old "cowboy culture" to a more collaborative culture represented by a system of cross-functional, international boards, and councils organized around major initiatives or product lines.

These changes reflect the need for learning and development in how to be an effective team player, what elements constitute an effective team, and what tools are necessary in order to be successful in this new environment.

Question: Groupthink, where everyone follows the leader and team members are unprepared to speak their mind, is unproductive. The role of the challenger in a team is critical. Would you please elaborate?

Glenn Parker: The "challenger" is the team player style that asks the tough questions about "how" and "why" and "what's the data to support it?" Every team needs a significant number of challengers who will push the team to look at all sides of an issue, question conventional wisdom, think outside of the box, and take some reasonable risks.

The challenger is often not appreciated because he or she forces the team to take more time to carefully consider a decision and confront the tendency to groupthink. However, in a high performing, mature team, the challenger is valued for helping the team avoid making a bad choice.

Question: What thoughts do you have regarding the team President-elect Obama is putting together? Are there similarities to team formation in the corporate world?

Glenn Parker: Long before it became fashionable to talk about Team of Rivals, my website was recommending Doris Kearns Goodwin's book as a great resource for team leaders.

Lincoln recognized, as does Obama, that the best decisions come from a clash of ideas not from groupthink. Breakthroughs come from a team of people with diverse backgrounds, training, experiences, work styles, and values. Obama seems to be assembling a very diverse team of people who will, as they say, "speak truth to power."

More importantly, however, Obama is a listener. From what I've read, he allows everyone to be heard, actively listens to all points of view and then carefully weighs all inputs before making a decision. It's what we call a participative decision-making style.

People want to be part of a team where their expertise is valued, their point of view is considered and they are free to disagree.

Question: With global virtual teams it's difficult to establish trust because team members have limited or no opportunity to interact face-to-face. Increased business demands for more rapid team development and production of results means global virtual teams must establish trust from the outset.

Would you please describe the concept of "swift trust"?

Glenn Parker: Developed by researchers Myerson, Weick, and Kramer in response to demands for more rapid team development and results, swift trust encourages team members to assume all members of the team are trustworthy from the outset.

I encourage new teams, at their kick-off meeting, to adopt a swift-trust norm. There is then no need for all those little trust tests like, "If I see that you do honor your commitments, then, and only then, will I trust you."

In today's fast-paced world of global teams that rarely meet face-to-face, we have neither the time nor the opportunity for an organic trust-building process.

Question: In your book you quote a study in which opportunity to produce quality work and feeling that my work is important were identified by 93-percent and 89-percent of employees, respectively, as the top-ranked motivators. This strongly suggests that employees and teams want to co-own their work.

What role does management have in reinforcing a team-based model where employees own their work?

Glenn Parker: I don't think this suggests that employees want to co-own their work. These data point to the importance of intrinsic motivation. That is, the belief that motivation comes primarily from the work itself.

This is the great lesson of Hertzberg's studies, as well as many others, which found that when people feel their work and the work of their team is highly valued and challenging, they will be motivated to work hard to produce a quality product or service.

Question: Increasingly, team members have both functional reporting relationships in their operational roles and team-based reporting relationships. This dynamic requires strong communication and trust at all levels. The role of the manager in a team-based environment is changing—the manager must be there to support and encourage the team by creating the environment necessary for the team to succeed.

What skills does this type of manager need?

Glenn Parker: Most importantly, the functional manager needs to clearly communicate the importance of the team to his or her employees. It has to be made clear that effective team participation is just as important as technical functional expertise. And then, he or she has to "walk the walk."

The manager has to ask how things are going, how he or she can help, what additional resources are needed by the team, and then provide the time for the person to do the work required by the team. It also helps to use team participation as a factor in employee promotions and rewards.

Finally, the manager must include the employee's performance on the team in their overall performance appraisal process. One clear way to get this to happen is for the organization to reward functional managers on the extent to which their actions indicate support for the team process.

Question: An economic recession creates new opportunities for business and entrepreneurs. Have you considered how the current recession will impact the role of teams within organizations?

For example, will organizations retrench their approach to cross-functional, virtual teams as they try to dig themselves out of these difficult times?

Glenn Parker: Unfortunately, what we have seen already this year is organizations cutting back on providing support for team development. Human resources, learning, and development budgets have been cut which, unfortunately, sends the message that team effectiveness is only important in good times.

On the other hand, team building and other learning professionals must adapt to the changing conditions by finding new ways to provide the necessary supports for teams.

For example, this year I developed a new class on Facilitating a Teleconference, as travel budgets were cut and more meetings were being held via teleconference. I am also working with Cisco Systems, using their integrated audio and video communications technology to deliver interactive team-learning modules with team members and the instructor in different locations.

Question: You are author of more than 15 books. Are you considering writing another book?

Glenn Parker: I am working with HRD Press to develop a series of booklets on various aspects of teamwork such as team meetings, team roles, and team decision-making. In an era of tight budgets, these booklets fill a need for low-cost, focused learning materials.

Question: What books would you recommend on the topic of team work and creativity?

Glenn Parker: There are lots of books I would recommend. There's an annotated list of my favorites on my website.

One new book that focuses on a different aspect of team effectiveness is X-Teams by Deborah Ancona and Henrik Bresman. What's different is that Ancona and Bresman say the key to success, especially in the area of innovation, is the need for the team to look outward—to build relationships with key stakeholders outside of the team.

Team Players and Teamwork explodes the myth that there is only one way to be a good team player. The research upon which the book is based reveals there are four team player styles that are critical to the success of any team: contributors who bring information and focus on the task at hand, collaborators who provide a sense of purpose and get the team to create a set of goals, communicators who look after the people issues and help the team address group process, and challengers whose candor encourages the team to question its goals and methods.

Glenn Parker is president of Glenn Parker Associates of Skillman, New Jersey. He works with organizations to create and sustain high performing teams, effective team players and team-based systems. His clients have included pharmaceutical companies, a variety of industrial organizations, as well as government agencies.

Glenn holds a BA from City College of New York, an MA from the University of Illinois and has studied for the doctorate at Cornell University.

Share on      
Next Interview »