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Conflict, Management, and Team Dynamics in a Consulting Environment

Posted by on July 16, 2015

How to keep Specialised teams “Special”

Consider the modern SME – various individuals come together to create a group considered a “company” based on their set of skills and expertise. This “set” can be specialised functions that only they can perform, or generalised skills that can be amalgamated across functional areas to perform virtually any type of task. These are people who, individually, found that they could no longer perform in a corporate environment which limited their creative and innovative scope, or put boundaries on the extent to which they could initiate actions to produce outputs to match their vision. In short, these are strong minded people who have a self-perception of the “black sheep” in the working world – and are happy about being called that.

Often SMEs tend towards consulting firms, not having the capacity to be self-standing. By networking – through whatever means considering the 21st century’s online potential – consultants are able to gain clientele who then ask for expertise, knowledge, and guidance from the consultant. This seems a simple process of “you have what I want, therefore I will pay you for that.” But with this sort of mentality, the idea relies upon an individual who has the wherewithal to provide the service to the clientele, and not necessarily a team or the collective “company” (or brand thereof).

The question is therefore raised: is there any place for teams within a consulting environment? Anne Donnellon (1996) refers to the emphasis on team work as “brouhaha”, and she cannot be blamed for such an expression. The use of teams to create greater (in terms of better and more) outputs can very easily be referred to as an “over-excited reaction” (Dictionary.com, accessed 2015-06-10). However, should a consulting firm (or any SME for that matter) wish to grow, it will need to start putting into place teams to take on bigger projects that will generate the income and profit to re-capitalise on the company’s growth.

In short: yes, teams are important aspects of all companies notwithstanding size. Therefore it is important to look at how teams are created and managed, and what this may mean for the performance thereof.

To begin, consider Bruce Tuckman’s (1965) process of team construction:

TuckmansPhasesofTeams

Although this is a relatively straight forward stage-by-stage illustration of team collaboration, it is important to understand that teams are not a linear, two-dimensional construction of mechanised pieces. Each phase can revert back to another at any point – for example should a new individual join the team, then the member automatically experiences the norming phase even though the team itself may be in a phase of performing.

Indeed, teams in the simplest sense are an organic, heuristic, and learning or growing entity. Therefore, each of these phases of the team can be considered a cell of the growing organism, and as “blood” moves from the one cell to the next, this does not eliminate the previous cell – it remains in muscle memory and can be reverted back to at any moment. In this sense, the “blood” of a team continuously brings forth memories, knowledge, and experience, to each phase of team collaboration.

The metaphor of “blood” brings forth a rather impressionistic interpretation of “team spirit”; however this can be considered the underlying subconscious aspect holding a team together. It is an invisible link that bonds and ties people to each other above and beyond a mere “goal” that all parties seek to meet. It is the effervescent force that gives life to something called a “team”.

And like all life forces, there are stages of growth – sometimes in spurts, and other times in slow progressive expressions of maturity in different forms be it physical, emotional, or task oriented. As a team progresses from one phase of team collaboration to the next, so the spirit grows within and between participants of the group. The stronger the force that bonds the people together, the greater the likelihood of receiving commitment, loyalty, and positive productivity created through motivation and a generalised “happy” morale. This is not something that can simply come from one person – it is a cohesive merging of all of the different people and their perceived ties to each other and to the purpose of the group. They become a special team because they are special to each other individually.

Of course, for shorter term task teams, the likelihood of this bond being overly strong is very limited but, once again, consider the consulting environment. These are specialised individuals who may come together to complete a task, go through the phases of team construction relatively quickly, and then adjourn with the slight regret of maybe not having spent enough time with the team on an individual basis rather than a task basis. However, that spirit has already been formed, and upon re-norming when the team may be called together again, the spirit will rekindle and grow from only a slightly de-volved version of where it left off growing. Consider perhaps that the team spirit merely went back into “bud” form as it hibernated during a period of stagnation, only to be provided the opportunity to “blossom” once again when the circumstances and environment called for it.

This is, perhaps, why task teams work so well – they are teams that are never fully capable of sifting through the emotional undertones associated with the storming phase due to the serious urgency of task completion. The question for these participants, however, may lie in the value and worth that they get out of this type of interaction – do they really achieve the synergistic qualities associated with teamwork? Are they really a team? Or are they merely a group of people working on separate pieces of a task, thereby gaining no task identity or fulfilment thereof? These questions are serious enough to consider when taking into account an individual’s personal relation to the meaning of worth that they are able to self-conceptualise towards themselves and the work that they do on a day-to-day basis.

However teams are, more often than not, a formulation of individuals based on circumstantial creation of departments and functions. Should a person start working in a company, they will automatically filter into one of these definitions, and as such be assigned a myriad of preconceptions from the rest of the organisation (consider the ideas that the marketers have of HR, or engineers have of IT etc.) and then within that department various conceptions based on the roles that have been assigned purely on administrative foundations (for example in HR being placed for your skills in remuneration and benchmarking and now this is who you are based on what you can do). So the situation is a “team” that has been brought together because of the general potential to become a functional unit. Can this really be considered a team? Or, once again, merely a group performing a part of a task and never fully seeing the impact of one’s efforts?

Perhaps within departments, actual teams are constructed. These can be the longer lasting teams that are in it for the long-run; the people within a department that naturally gel together to get work done and get it done well. When brought down to this level, the likelihood of teams being formulated is very strong. In addition, the likelihood that the “spirit” of this team is strong is also raised. The extent to which parties in this team will look out for each other, be committed to the cause of the team as well as each other, and then be loyal to meeting the needs of the team and the individuals that make up the team is exponentially greater.

Consider then when the team loses a member. Consider then when an individual that makes up such an important aspect of that team’s structure and performance and spirit is threatened. Consider the results that this will have on the team.

Who is responsible for the detrimental impact that this action will have on the very structural nature (physically) and dynamic nature (emotionally) of that organism? For surely we have identified a team as an organic creation of various facets that impact on the functionality of the cohesive whole? It grows and moves and feels even – else why have the need for team interventions? Else why have the need for team building?

This is the reality: people are treated like mechanistic parts – cogs and nuts and bolts and hinges and levers – each with a so-called “purpose” within the greater “machine” that is an organisation. But people are more than mere singular functional forms. People are adaptable and grow in conjunction, in collaboration, and in parallel to others around them. The more synergistic the alignment of people to people – not just people to purpose – the more functionality one will be able to gain out of the correct collection of thoughts, skills, and abilities.

Should a member be removed, the spirit deteriorates. And it will take much more than a simple “keep things professional” to reformulate what once was there. Not only is that person’s role left gaping wide, but also the places that the person touched in others remains empty. Another person could, of course, enter the group. But then consider the retaliation, resistance, and feelings of resentment towards the new member – particularly if the removal of the old member was against the will of the team. It can be superimposed, therefore, onto Leadership and Management to control the environment enough to allow fluid movement of the new member into the team. That being said, Leadership and Management cannot expect the “gaps” of the past to be fully fulfilled by the new member. Those gaps may rely on deeper constructs falling outside of “professional” barriers such as camaraderie, trust, and faith in one another. Such a thing will not be built up over a day, and cannot be expected to be built up back to the same formation it was before.

In such situations where an individual is removed (or self-removed as the circumstances may allow) from the team, the entire dynamic of the underlying tones of team performance may shift. The outward functional performance may still remain “face valid” – still perceived by others as “good” work produced by the team. But, the likelihood of this work remaining good for a long time may not be as favourable had the shift in team dynamics not occurred. The recommendation, therefore, in a situation like this is to explore – in a substantially less traditional manner – the underlying tones driving activities within and around the team. Methods of interventions include elements like adventure team building however the issue with such a method is that it limits the time to “tap in” to emotional underpinnings rather than task orientation and motivation to perform and reach a functional goal. As such, other options do remain open for perusal, particularly since “adventure” team building events are shorter term and allow for subconscious removal from the problems often faced at the workplace. Whatever is decided to be done, it is important that it be done quickly and done properly to eliminate the chances of further detriment to the remaining team members.

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Wonder White Rabbit hopping off…

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