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Team Charters and Plans Proved a Winning Combination

As a team builder, I require each client to create a team charter to record the members’ teamwork agreements. As a certified project manager, I know the power of properly constructed plans for task work. A study from 2009 provides powerful evidence that investing time in high-quality charters and plans can mean the difference between beating your competition and getting beaten. Neither by itself was enough.

If you happen to have an MBA, you may be familiar with the “Business Strategy Game,” co-created by a business professor to test the skills of budding managers. The study article in Journal of Applied Psychology says each group of students poses as the top leadership team of a global athletic footwear company. They make a variety of decisions through weekly rounds. The computer assesses how the team is doing and provides feedback. For the study, the researchers chose for the performance measure “a weighted index of five factors: after-tax profits (40%), bond rating (20%), return on investment (15%), market capitalization (15%), and sales revenue (10%).” From this the computer calculated a 0–100 score. “This approach is akin to the ‘balanced scorecard’ approach, in which different performance indices are combined,” the authors write. The study was conducted by John Mathieu and Tammy Rapp of the Univ. of Connecticut Dept. of Management. Mathieu is an oft-cited expert among teamwork researchers.

The average age of the players was 28½.The scientists tried to balance gender and ethnicity in the otherwise random team assignments, and factored out GMAT scores and grades on other class tasks in their number-crunching to make sure the charters and plans were the likely causes of different performance.

After two practice rounds of the game, every group had to create a team charter. The researchers required much of the same stuff I recommend, including team goals, roles, rules, and performance management methods. They included contact preferences I put instead into a Communications Plan. They had members write about their individual backgrounds, providing details I draw out through an extensive introductions exercise. These teamwork scientists then added a twist I found especially interesting given some heat I got from my topics on personality assessments when first published as blog posts. Members also were asked to describe “individual business-related strengths and weaknesses, including factors such as content knowledge and work experiences,” and “preferred work styles, particularly as related to teamwork…” No tests required.

The class instructor and, separately, a rater who didn’t know the students, graded the charters and plans for their completeness. “For example, some teams simply stated that ‘they would arrange meetings as needed,’ whereas others attached a detailed schedule including where, when, and for how long each meeting would occur,” the article says. “The best charters also noted procedures that members should follow if they had to miss a meeting or if they had to contact other members.”

The two graders looked at consistency as well. “For example, if a team stated that it placed a premium on consensus yet said it would vote in instances of disagreement, its charter was inconsistent.” Meanwhile, each team created a detailed business plan, which was graded with similar criteria. The raters’ results were averaged as the measure of quality. The document ratings and team performance scores accounted for 30% of a class grade.

The game then began for the 32 small teams and continued through eight weekly rounds. “During each round,” the article explained, “members used decision support software to make and integrate dozens of decisions concerning plant operations (e.g., plant upgrades, closings, capacity); human resources (e.g., wages and bonuses, hiring and layoffs); warehouse and shipping (e.g., exchange rates, speed vs. cost of delivery options); sales and marketing (e.g., variety of shoe models, pricing, celebrity spokespersons); financial resources (e.g., cash flow, bonds, and loans); and other strategic decisions.”

At the end, the teams with low-quality charters and low-quality plans had failed, with an average score around 25 out of 100. The “mixed” teams (low/high and high/low) ended up together around a 50. The high/high teams blew the rest away, ending up around a 75. (I could not find in the article whether those were actual score averages or were translated to a relative scale, as seems likely given the 25-50-75 split.)

The computer spit out results after each round, and the authors found the patterns just as interesting:

  • The high-charter/low-plan teams had the best scores after two rounds, but then began to drop.
  • High/high teams caught up between rounds 3 and 4 (out of 8, about halfway) and kept climbing.
  • Low/low teams did not drop as quickly at first as low/high teams, but their paths crossed between rounds 3 and 4.
  • After that, low/low teams dropped rapidly, while low/high teams leveled off to catch up with the high/low teams at the end.

In this figure from the article, “Chart” refers to the charter and “Strategy” to the plan:

In the second edition of The SuddenTeams™ Program, I dropped the well-known “Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing,” model of team development from 1965. In its place I use what I call, “The Team Mesa.” The best research to date on actual teams does not support the old model, showing rather that successful teams with end dates tend to rapidly improve performance around the halfway point. That is, performance looks like a mesa in the American Southwest: a desert floor, an angled cliff, and a flat top. (Teams without end dates never climb the cliff, scientists have said.) Mathieu and Rapp say their results add further support for this midpoint transition.

A team charter should contain at least:

  • A mission statement.
  • Goals for the next year or two.
  • Values or rules.
  • Role descriptions.
  • A stakeholders list.
  • Teamwork procedures (for meetings, member conflicts, etc.).

The study implies that a project team also needs either a high-quality project plan including a task breakdown, schedule, budget, and more, or a robust Agile process. For other teams I put in place a similar “Mission Plan” for accomplishing their goals, creating end dates so they climb the cliff.

Mathieu and Rapp conclude succinctly, “Our findings suggest that the time devoted to developing charters is time well spent.” Putting in the extra time to create high-quality documents made the difference in this study. “However, team researchers have acknowledged for many years that the norm in teams is not to take time out to explicitly make plans for how team members will work together,” Mathieu and Rapp lament.

If your team does not have a detailed team charter and work plan, guess who they’re talking about?

Source: Mathieu, J., and T. Rapp (2009), “Laying the Foundation for Successful Team Performance Trajectories: The Roles of Team Charters and Performance Strategies,” Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 94(1):90.

In Defense of Procedures

I understand the resistance to documenting processes, really I do. First there are the managers who go ballistic if you vary one iota from what is written, even when the variation saved money or got the work done faster. Then there are the procedures someone from two or three levels above hands down as if from a burning bush. How about the employer who downgrades your performance appraisal for “not following procedures” that haven’t been updated since the computer was invented? Ooh, ooh… how about the agency that sends an auditor with zero experience in your field to check your compliance, yet refuses to believe you had good technical reasons for stepping outside the flow diagrams?

Yeah, I know. I’ve worked at a university, a couple of the world’s largest corporations, and a nuclear weapons laboratory. I’ve seen all of that.

But your team should write down or chart its processes anyway. At the base of every quality and efficiency improvement method—Six Sigma, TQM, CQI, you name it—are the questions, “Do you have written procedures, and do you follow them?” You simply cannot achieve maximum cost-effectiveness and minimum stress without examining how you do your work. By far the best way to do that is to document it either in standard operating procedures (SOPs) or flow diagrams.

The mere process of doing so creates efficiencies every time I lead a team through the effort. Someone almost always says, “Why do you do it that way?” In discussing the answer, one person realizes the other is doing it more quickly or cheaply and the team adopts the better practice. Often someone, usually a less experienced member, asks about a step, “Why do you do that?” And sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know,” or the empty, “Because we’ve always done it that way.” In both of the contracts I did at Microsoft the teams dropped time-wasting steps, realizing they were artifacts of days gone by. At one place, another team got rid of an entire form.

Especially in a complicated process, having the team agree on how to go about it can eliminate conflicts down the road. You have one debate around the conference table instead of repeated arguments every time the process is run. When the inevitable day comes that an expert team member leaves, you don’t have to worry as much about the knowledge they take with them, because you have documented some of it. Plus, you save a heckuva lot of training time for their replacement. The new person gets a head start by going through the procedure documents and trying things on their own. Not only do you cut how long it takes to get them productive, you also take less trainer time from one of their teammates, keeping that person’s productivity up.

Now that I’ve convinced you… tell me I have… let’s see if we can address some of the objections from the rest of the team. To have the most impact and create support from the start, the people who run the process have to be the ones who document and improve the process. The people who do the work know the work better than their manager does. It’s fine to bring in an expert, but make sure that person understands their role is advisory: The team must make the decision if you are to get complete buy-in. If you don’t, the new procedure will be ignored by some, and you’re back to the efficiency and conflict problems.

You don’t have to document everything. Unless you are in a highly regulated industry where you have to be pickier, you can use what I call the “80/80 Rule.” To start, document those processes that take up roughly 80 percent of your team’s working time, to a level of detail that will cover 80 percent of the times the process is run. Under the Pareto Rule, the first “80 percent” will only require documenting roughly 20 percent of your processes. The second 80 leaves some wiggle room to flex to circumstances and empowers individuals to use their best judgment. Later consider adding SOPs or diagrams for disasters and for complex tasks done rarely, like an annual inventory. In disasters this can save critical time and reduce the impact; for complex tasks, you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.

Here’s a basic method for documenting processes:

  1. Start the discussion by asking: “What triggers this process?”
  2. Ask: “What happens (or ‘should happen’) next?”
  3. Repeat the previous question until all steps are covered for producing the product or service.
  4. When done, ask: “Did we leave out any logical steps?” (Tip: Make sure every “if” has a step for the “if not” alternative).
  5. Set an action item for someone to create a flow chart and/or procedure document with numbered steps.
  6. At the next team meeting, review and revise the procedure as needed before formally adopting it.
  7. Set action items to review the document in three months, six months, and annually after that to keep it accurate and identify improvements.

There are tons of books and Web sites that will give you more details, probably more details than you need in many cases. I have found the steps above are enough for most situations.

Whatever method you choose to use, the point is, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, SOPs have been misused, improperly imposed, poorly devised, and left to rot. Put the team in charge of them and give it the flexibility to change them when the SOPs aren’t working, and you’ll avoid all that. If you can give them a share of any money they save, I’m betting you’ll be stunned by what happens next.

Role Clarity as Important Off-Stage as On

Usually for fun—in the sense that it’s usually fun and usually not for pay—I do an occasional backstage gig, returning to my undergraduate roots. Working on a production with a dance school got me reflecting on how the lack of role definition can cause friction on a work team, and how easily that friction can be minimized through simple communication.

My job on that show was easy compared to the rest of the “running crew” (techies who work during the show, not just setting it up and “striking” afterwards). All I had to do was run projections displayed on a curtain at the back of the stage using PowerPoint on a laptop, plus raise and lower the houselights and make onstage fog. All of it boiled down to pushing buttons. However, as the only official crew member onstage—the others being in a booth at the back of the audience—I also served as the eyes and ears of the stage manager. The SM “calls the cues,” which is to say she was telling the lighting guy and I when to do our next things. Next to me onstage, but not on headsets to the booth, were the technical and artistic directors of the company.

Both were wonderful people whom I enjoyed working with. Like most directors and choreographers, the boss gets perfectionistic during a run. Most backstage personnel do, too, if they’re any good. But usually the boss is not backstage during the production, turning things over to the SM. It was sometimes unpleasant to be stuck between the bosses onstage and the person literally running the show in the booth. The former could not hear what the status was of the sound and lights. Furthermore, to save money, we had never run a “dry tech” in which the nonperformers talk through the “cues” (technical changes such as a shift in lighting or sound). So the stage manager didn’t know she was supposed to call each next projection cue with the next light cue, instead of calling it later with the music cue as she was doing. Meanwhile, the bosses kept pushing me to go with the next cue without recognizing the pattern. At more than one point I literally had three people talking to me at once and saying different things.

This is not intended as a complaint, but rather an allegory. How often have you found in the working world that you were getting different messages from well-meaning stakeholders who clearly weren’t talking to each other? How often has the fix been a simple matter of getting them together briefly? In this case, after the dress rehearsal, the stage manager rightly insisted that we run a dry tech right then. It took maybe 30 minutes, and as a result the performances went fine minus the usual minor glitches. Certainly the bosses and audiences expressed their approval.

Another friction point was cleared up when the stage manager gladly ceded the cue calls on the curtain to the director. Again I had been stuck between the SM telling us to “go” and the curtain puller refusing to do so. The director had told the puller she would make the call, but hadn’t told me or the SM about this change from the norm. After a rough rehearsal, I told the SM, and she had no issue with the change once told about it.

A few minutes to clarify who was to do each task, and to talk through how the work of the show was to be accomplished, would have saved far more time as well as heartache on the parts of five people. Anything like that going on in your team?

Strong Leadership and Formal Policies Reduce Board Conflict

There are many ways managers can reduce conflicts in their teams without squelching new ideas. Too bad more don’t use them, because a new study gives voice to the critical role of managers in managing disagreements.

This latest evidence is unusual in two ways. First, it comes from research conducted on nonprofit sports boards instead of companies or classrooms. These create sports opportunities “by overseeing the strategic development and delivery of programs, player and coach training, and allocating scarce resources,” the study article says. Second, the study is based on structured interviews with 20 board members in Canada, by sports management researcher Shannon Kerwin of the Univ. of Florida and kinesiologist Alison Doherty and Alanna Harman of The Univ. of Western Ontario. Though I warn against reading too much into studies using small samples, this is different because it adds a level of detail to other larger studies and brings their findings to life. In fact, the subjects had participated in a previous survey about conflict.

From a larger number of respondents who volunteered, the scientists chose 12 who reported low conflict on their boards and eight who reported high conflict. However, the scientists switched one from the low-conflict to the high-conflict group because the person’s interview answers made clear there were more disagreements than the person had reported on the survey. There were 13 males and seven females averaging 5.5 years on their boards.

Kerwin, Doherty, and Harman asked about three types of conflicts:

  • Task conflicts—”substantive disagreements among group members about the tasks being performed (e.g., group members disagree about where funding should be spent).”
  • Process conflicts—disagreements about “how a task should be accomplished (e.g., group members disagree about who will do what tasks).”
  • Relationship conflicts—”personal rather than substantive disagreements (which) tend to be emotional, involving tension and friction among members…”

The research team conducted interviews lasting about an hour each, covering specific questions based on previous studies but also following up on themes that emerged during the interviews. Interviews were audio-taped, transcribed, and then coded to clump similar answers.

In general the respondents rejected the term “conflict.” One, for example, gave the study its title when they said, “‘it’s not conflict, it’s differences of opinion.'” Most talked about “disagreements,” which is where I think there is a disconnect between scientists and consultants that also has prolonged a debate in the scientific community about the value of conflict. As shown above, scientists have chosen to define “conflict” as “disagreements.” But the majority of people in the study and whom I observed in my consulting practice used the word more like the first definition in The American Heritage Dictionary: “Prolonged fighting.” For reasons you’ll see, Kerwin, Doherty, and Harman conclude that managers should try to eliminate the negative view of the word. I think it would be much easier for scientists to start using it the same way everyone else does.

The interviewees reported a range of intensity in board disagreements ranging from mild discussions to what most people would call “conflict.” Disagreements were viewed as good, which is consistent with the research literature on decision-making. As one person put it, “‘The more opportunity to discuss an issue and bring in information that is varied and is based on different experiences and different perspectives, the better opportunity you will have to make an objective decision.'”

Another said the principle they lived by was, “‘if the whole board agreed on something there is something wrong with it'” (groupthink, in other words). Given other findings, they probably meant this in regard to bigger decisions. Not surprisingly, low levels of disagreement were reported on less complex decisions.

Task disagreements were viewed as good for decision quality, even when intense, due to “idea generation, increasing understanding of issues, and making decisions in line with the organization’s mission.” However, intense process disagreement was seen as a negative for making good decisions, and “heated personal conflicts were perceived to reduce information and communication and oftentimes resulted in decisions that were based on personal agendas rather than current strategy,” the researchers state.

“Ten participants noted they had been frustrated, stressed, less satisfied with their role, or had suffered burnout and withdrawal from board activities due to intense conflict within their group,” the study article says. I noticed that one of those people was in the low-conflict study group! Four of the 10 had considered leaving their boards. The article concludes, “all three types of conflicts were perceived to consistently result in frustration and stress.”

No participants thought demographic diversity led to higher disagreement. “Diverse priorities, personalities, and experiences” did, however. For example, one person noted differences between people who had been athletes and those who had not. Another mentioned a good worker who was nonetheless “talking behind the back” of board members.

One key to reduced intensity of disagreement—less conflict, I would call it—was “formalized policies, regulations, and codes of conduct,” the article says. To that point a participant remarked, “‘Once we have policies and procedures I think we will have a lower level of frustration and disagreement; but, that will not be for quite a while.'”

Because formal policies must be facilitated by the team leader, this leads to the other key to less conflict. “‘I supposed it comes down to leadership in that there is not clear direction or clear leadership in our board as to how things should get done,'” one interviewee said.

A board leader gave a specific example of how things should be: “‘Everybody knows they are going to get a shot to say something. So really, unless there is a lot of passion, they really don’t interrupt each other because they know they are going to get an opportunity to have their say.'”

The researchers write, “Strong, active leadership is one condition that was described as minimizing the intensity of conflict and, as such, it is incumbent on the board leader to take control of their board meetings and proactively create group norms that include open communication and discussion.”

If you are a team leader, you are on the hook. Choose to blame others instead of taking these steps, and to be blunt, the conflicts you suffer are more your fault than anyone else’s.

Source: Kerwin, S., A. Doherty, and A. Harman (2011), “It’s Not Conflict, It’s Differences of Opinion: An In-Depth Examination of Conflict in Nonprofit Boards,” Small Group Research 42(5):562.

Mind Your “Team Mind” to Raise Team Performance

How team members “think, make decisions, plan, design, perceive, and remember”—in other words, how information is processed as a group—will clearly impact how the team performs. But many managers focus on the outputs of the process instead of the process itself. For example, if they don’t like a plan, they will send it back with some changes and questions. When they have to go through this several times on every plan, they understandably become frustrated. Often, though, they will either yell at the team for whatever they perceive the problem to be or start doing the plans themselves. Instead, perhaps they should stop to look at the understanding the team has about what they are planning or the planning process itself.

It may have been Edwards Deming who first said the majority of what appear to be individual performance problems are actually process problems (I confess I didn’t record the source, and a Web search didn’t help). The AntiClue blog has made the same point, and it’s one of performance consultant Don Clark’s main causes of performance problems (three-quarters of which are mostly out of the individual’s control). Almost all process problems boil down to someone not having the information they needed when they needed it, if you include as “information” knowledge, skills, procedures, external decisions, etc.

A study confirmed that managers need to pay much more attention to how their teams get, use, and store knowledge. Psychology professor Leslie DeChurch and management professor Jessica Mesmer-Magnus teamed up to draw relevant data from 65 studies into “team cognition”:

  • The American Heritage Science Dictionary defines cognition as, “The mental process of knowing, including awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment.”
  • The professors describe it in the team setting as including both “the nature of team member interaction” and “conditions that dynamically enable and underlie effective teamwork,” so it’s both a process and a group mental state.
  • Psychologists Nancy Cooke and Jamie Gorman, the sources of the first quote in this post, put it succinctly: “team mind.”

Cognition is measured two ways. One compares the understanding of some topic across each pair of members on the team. For example, the similarity and accuracy between members A and B, B and C, and A and C are averaged to get a team cognition figure. The other way looks at the team’s overall view of some topic, measuring members A, B, and C together. The DeChurch/Mesmer-Magnus study looked at the ways these two approaches, the type of team (decision-making, action, and project teams), and other possible factors might affect the relationship between cognition and team performance. I won’t go into all the details, but it was clear that the more a team had a shared perception of its work, the better it performed. Though more true on subjective tests like ratings by managers, it also seemed to impact measurable performance. This appears to operate in part by improving work processes and member motivation, but a higher level of team mind by itself raised performance.

The authors suggest that managers pay attention to whether perceptions are shared among team members and in what ways. Cooke and Gorman use the example of a team that works with boilers, pumps, electronics, and motors. Everyone on the team could see a strong connection between all four of these in their work. In a more complementary kind of shared cognition, a couple of members might see connections between the first three items, while another set of members might only see a connection between pumps and motors. Between all the members, however, the team mind sees a connection of all four. In the latter scenario, you can surely see the potential for misunderstanding if those different views were not understood and respected. That is, complementary cognition is okay so long as the people who don’t see the pump/motor connection defer to those who do on matters affecting the motors.

Accuracy of cognition is also important. For example, say you work in a pharmaceutical plant where following a standard operating procedure (SOP) is required by government regulation. It’s not enough for one or two members to understand the SOP thoroughly. If the whole team doesn’t understand it, you increase the risk of a regulatory breach.

DeChurch and Mesmer-Magnus make the interesting suggestion that you perform job task analyses on the work the team does and then “structure important support systems (e.g., measurement, performance appraisal, and reward structures) to develop and shape the collective cognition needed for successful teamwork.” I was trained on job task analysis while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory. An outsider observes people while on the job to determine the steps they go through and thus the knowledge, skills, and information necessary to succeed at the job. That done, the researchers say, leadership and training would be likely methods to ensure the team develops the proper cognition.

Or “team mind,” as I think I’ll start calling it. That term makes for all kinds of punny opportunities:

  1. What kind of team cognition does a group of soil scientists need?
  2. A dirty mind.


  • Cooke, N. J., & Gorman, J. C. (in press), “Assessment of Team Cognition.” In P. Karwowski (Ed.), International Encyclopedia of Ergonomics and Human Factors, 2nd Ed. Taylor & Francis Ltd.
  • DeChurch, L., and J. Mesmer-Magnus (2010), “The Cognitive Underpinnings of Effective Teamwork: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology 95(1):32.

What Teams Believe Impacts What They Do

Teams who think they can succeed are more likely to do so. Such “obvious” statements sometimes prove wrong, but I am happy to report that teamwork science agrees with this one. The story doesn’t end there, though. What do we mean by, “think they can succeed?” Get the details wrong, and you might make a mistake with your team.

Researchers separate this concept into “team efficacy,” the belief the team can achieve “a specific task, or a set of specific tasks,” and “team potency,” the perceived ability to do various tasks. A below-average volleyball team in a strong conference might have a high sense of efficacy when playing the last-place team, but low potency beliefs when considering its overall schedule. Business researchers Catherine Collins and Sharon Parker proposed the team efficacy definition can be broken further into:

  • Outcome efficacy—”beliefs about their capability to achieve team performance.”
  • Process efficacy—”a team’s belief about their capability to work together as a collective on processes across the entire life-span, from establishing team goals to coordinating team tasks, and managing interpersonal relationships.”

Collins, of the Univ. of New South Wales, and Parker, at the Univ. of Western Australia, surveyed managers in an executive MBA program to tease out those details. Using two groups of managers divided into 139 class project teams, the researchers compared grades earned by the teams to their answers on those surveys, which were taken two to four times over a period of up to two years. Data analysis revealed potency and the two types of efficacy were distinct from each other. Each belief led to better grades, but outcome efficacy had by far the biggest impact.

The researchers also compared the three beliefs to team citizenship behaviors. These boil down to the willingness to support others on the team outside of one’s expected role, the team-level equivalent of the organizational citizenship behaviors discussed previously. An example survey question was, “Members of my team help each other out if someone falls behind in their work.” Team citizenship behaviors have been shown to improve team performance, and there was a strong correlation in this study as well (+0.58). Team process efficacy had about as strong an impact on citizenship as outcome efficacy had on grades. Outcome efficacy had only a moderate effect on citizenship. Team potency, the general belief in the team’s ability, had no impact.

In short, a team’s belief in its ability to achieve a better grade led to better grades, probably by helping them set more challenging goals, put more effort into getting information, and push through troubles, the authors say. But its belief in its processes made members more likely to help each other out.

You may be thinking performance is all that really matters, but think a little more. Citizenship contributes to performance, and more importantly, other research has shown it directly relates to job satisfaction, turnover, and absenteeism. These affect what you pay for performance. If you have to replace people more often, pay overtime, hire temporary workers, or turn down work because you don’t have the people to get it done, you lose money.

The issue comes down to a question usually associated with bar fights: “What’s your problem?” The authors write, “if team performance is the primary concern of managers, team outcome efficacy needs to be bolstered, whereas if team citizenship is low, interventions for team process efficacy would be a higher priority.” As I said in the first paragraph, focus on the wrong belief, and you’ll be using your time inefficiently, if not wasting it. That said, you can’t ignore one for the other if you want both maximum performance (output and quality) and lowest costs, which I assume you do.

To raise outcome efficacy:

  • Negotiate goals with the team instead of imposing them, pushing the team to stretch but being realistic about what members can do given their skill sets, resources, and workloads.
  • Ask what resources they need and make sure they get them (or modify the goals accordingly).
  • Treat setbacks as normal—that is, even if you have to scream into your seat cushion in private, don’t let them see you over-react.

If instead you need to raise process efficacy:

  • Document and improve your processes, as discussed above.
  • When someone comes to you for help they could have gotten from a teammate, gently walk them into the other person’s office (or get on the speakerphone if the team is virtual) and ask the other to help.
  • Assign team members to tasks in different groupings, so they can develop a better understanding of each person’s skill set and higher trust through good interactions.

As a reporter years ago, I covered an education conference in which the speaker told of a group of students who had flunked a general math class three times in a row. A new teacher was brought in. He decided to teach them algebra instead. They all passed. The speaker’s point was that people can rise to higher expectations if you convince them they can.

This can be taken too far. There’s a reason I define the “R” in SMART goals as “Realistic.” But you cannot reach the mountaintop if you don’t aim for the stars. And you won’t set a foot on the trail if you don’t think you have the resources and ability to get up there.

Source: Collins, C., and S. Parker (2010), “Team Capability Beliefs over Time: Distinguishing between Team Potency, Team Outcome Efficacy, and Team Process Efficacy,” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology 83:1003.

Improve Knowledge Management through Teamwork

In the 1990s, knowledge management was a hot business topic. Classes and certifications were growing. Articles extolled the importance of capturing information in a way it could be reused by others in the organization. S.L. Chau tied this to business advantage in a 2011 journal article with an ungainly quote from the Xerox Corporation: “’Knowledge management is responsible for creating a thriving work and learning environment that fosters the continuous creation, aggregation, use and re-use of both organizational and personal knowledge in the pursuit of new business or organizational value.’”

Chau, of the Hang Seng Management College in Hong Kong, says knowledge management (KM) brings “benefits like enhancing employees’ competencies, generating innovation, reducing costs and bringing about business transformation.” He explains, however, that “it is the way in which information is conveyed and the meaning that the individual infers from the information that create knowledge.” Putting a bunch of data in a SharePoint site does not create knowledge. Other people must not only know the information is there, but how and when to use it.

Sadly, I find the same KM deficits in teams today that I saw early in my career. Lowlights include:

  • Projects slowed because only one or two people have a critical skill set, though a small investment in cross-training could solve the issue.
  • Team members surprised to learn a solution they spent hours researching already existed on some intranet page or in a teammate’s head.
  • Functional groups that struggle with routine tasks because they have not taken the time to document their processes.
  • Groups that waste significant time in meetings debating a previously made decision because they didn’t record it.
  • The Won-the-Lottery Syndrome, which brings work to a halt when a key member is unexpectedly absent. (I once filled in for nine months for a project manager who was hit by a car while bicycling.)

Chau writes, “it is generally assumed that the development of information and communication technologies (ICTs) can facilitate information exchange and presumably knowledge sharing.” By ICTs he means, “databases, email/voice mail, teleconferencing, videoconference, knowledge repositories, groupware, etc.” The problem with this assumption is easily portrayed by an older maxim: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” The best efforts I have seen to implement KM were hampered by people unwilling to use the process or system, as providers or users. Even if they write down their knowledge, they merely dump it into the system with the assumption the search engine will lead those who need it to it. These systems often have a folder hierarchy and tagging methods by which the person could pass along crucial context on how to use the information. Rarely do I see these used in a systematic way.

On my old TeamTrainers Web site, the word “team” appeared hundreds of times. You could not easily find the definition of a “team” by searching for the word. So I used the phrase “definition of a team” in the text when that’s what I was doing. The menu option for the relevant page, “What is a Team?,” was called “Team Definitions.” When I defined the word in a blog post, I applied a “Definitions” tag. This takes extra effort that, frankly, few humans will put in without extra motivation (building my business visibility was mine). And that’s just one method of KM, along with cross-training, mentoring, and others.

Chau says this is where teamwork comes in. Quoting another researcher, he writes, “’knowledge creation or knowledge generation is typically an activity that is accomplished by a team of people rather than by individuals working alone.’” But certain elements must be in place for teamwork to increase knowledge exchange, Chau says.

“Without a value system that emphasizes high employee involvement and encourages knowledge sharing, positive teamwork impact will be undermined,” Chau advises. “Knowledge is volunteered and cannot be conscripted,” he adds. Continuing the theme, he says “an organic structure in terms of flat and decentralized… power and control will be conducive to more collaboration. In such a flexible structure, teams can be quickly assembled, deployed, refocused and disbanded… to fit particular needs of an organization.”

Organizational and human resources practices can hurt or help. Chau lists specific suggestions including:

  • “Hiring and Selection—Attaining an optimum level of diversity in team composition (while) maintaining a proper fit between the individual and other team members.”
  • “Training and Development—Placing emphasis on training and development as an investment rather than a cost…”
  • “Motivation and job design—Stressing on personal growth, autonomy, sense of achievement and intrinsic elements. De-emphasize hierarchical relationship(s) and encourage more cross-disciplinary collaboration and team-based job design…”
  • “Performance appraisal and compensation—Performance is also assessed on the basis of knowledge and expertise sharing and the value added thereon… Team-based incentives should be offered to stimulate effective teamworking and creation of social capital.”
  • “Others—Creating necessary communication platforms for teams like more social gatherings for informal and face-to-face communication/open dialogue; build a supportive and trustworthy environment and create a shared context for knowing and a learning culture, etc.”

Diversity can create new knowledge through “creative abrasion,” Chau says. But I’ll note it can also cause knowledge hoarding. His next point often makes the difference: “mutual trust is a prerequisite for those ‘learning’ activities like storytelling, mentoring, experience sharing, face-to-face discussion, etc., to take place.” Unfortunately, you cannot create trust, no matter how many “trust falls” your team does. It can only develop through repeated positive interactions in the regular work environment. Implementing his other suggestions from the bullet list above facilitates that process.

Chau’s suggestions for creating teamwork that helps KM match the principles I use in my teamwork coaching, which makes sense given that he is drawing from the same body of research. This topic thus breaks no ground on what you should be doing in your team to get the most production at the lowest costs and stress. It merely provides yet another reason to do it.

Source: Chau, S. L. (2011), “Maximizing the Impact of Teamwork on Management of Knowledge in Organizations,” European Journal of Management 11(3):25.

Reduce Border Wars Among Teams

Much of the research I have reported on here focuses on actions within a team. Most of the teamwork literature has focused on internal group dynamics.

However, “teams do not operate in a vacuum,” two Israeli researchers noted in a paper. Every team needs resources from others to get its work done, and will try to gain resources while protecting those it has. I have never worked with a team that did not need to shore up its communication or coordination with another team in the organization. Typical changes we have made include bringing in representatives to team meetings when discussing topics that could impact the other team, and creating communication plans that lead to each team getting the information it needs from the other on time. But there is another fundamental, rational step few organizations emphasize.

The researchers are organizational psychologists Anat Drach-Zahavy of the nursing school and Anit Somech of the Educational Administration Department at the Univ. of Haifa. Based on their reading of the research literature, they discuss in their paper in Small Group Research four types of “boundary activities” at the junctures between work teams:

  • “Bringing up borders” refers to team processes that raise members’ energy and team attachment and focus members on the team’s tasks (real teambuilding, in short).
  • “Buffering” aims at closing the borders to protect the team from negative input and retain its resources.
  • “Scouting” is used to get “ideas, support, information, and other resources” from outside the team.
  • “Coordination” means the team collaborates, negotiates, and shares feedback with other teams.

Drach-Zahavy and Somech suggest factors that will lead teams to use one of these boundary activities more than the others. The basis of their model is the alignment of how much help the team needs from other teams to accomplish its tasks—its “task interdependence”—with its “goal interdependence,” the degree to which it has the same aims as other teams. Legal teams in the same firm but focused on different areas of the law have low task and low goal interdependence, the authors say. Other than the main goals of serving clients and making money, they don’t tend to share objectives and don’t need much from the other teams to accomplish those. These teams would usually be “indifferent” to each other, the authors say. I would add that in many cases they aren’t “teams” at all. A pair of tax lawyers directing some paralegals is a “work group,” which is important to recognize because work groups gain little from general teambuilding activities.

Based on my experience with teachers, I don’t agree with Drach-Zahavy and Somech’s example of low-task/high-goal interdependence teams: teachers focused on different subjects trying to lower the dropout rate. Although there can be subject-area silos in schools like any other workplace, most teachers I know will cooperate with anyone to help their kids. A better example is a pair of sales teams of the same company and region selling very different products. Usually the region has several sales goals all teams share responsibility for, but the teams require little of each other. In this case, a team might try to “free-ride” or to avoid being “the sucker team,” but either way it may tend not to work as hard, Drach-Zahavy and Somech say.

A high-task/low-goal example they give is hospital teams of doctors, nurses, and specialists. These must work together closely to treat patients, but otherwise can have such different reward systems, career goals, and places in the hierarchy that they end up competing with each other in all other ways.

Finally, a high-task/high-goal combination might occur in “a telecommunications organization in which the R&D team and the customer service team are assigned joint goals to increase market share.” R&D would need feedback from customer service on product needs, and customer service would need the R&D team to fill those needs. Obviously, these teams would tend to cooperate, Drach-Zahavy and Somech write.

The researchers suggest other factors that might combine with task/goal alignment to influence which boundary activity the team focuses on. Teams more similar in demographics (race, gender, etc.) tend to identify with the group more readily from the start, and thus may be more likely to compete with other teams except in the high-task/high-goal condition. In that condition a diverse team might find it easier to reach across team borders because they aren’t tied to the team by our natural in-group/out-group biases. A team with more power, like the doctors in the hospital example, may work harder to protect itself (and thus its power) than would a less powerful team. Indeed, the studies I have seen from health care settings regularly find nurses more willing to cooperate with each other and other job roles than doctors are. Whether the organization has built a strong culture or is in a market with a lot of uncertainly might also affect the degree of cooperation, according to the researchers.

Because of all these factors, Drach-Zahavy and Somech have a more nuanced recommendation than simply establishing shared goals: eliminate the mixed combinations, they suggest (low-task/high-goal and high-task/low-goal). If your groups don’t need to cooperate much to maximize your profits, by all means allow them to have goals that make sense given their tasks. As the authors say, “although each team acts as an independent entity, (it) does not encounter conflict with its counterparts, and contributes to the organization’s overall performance.” This echoes my refrain that you should not try to enforce teamwork where a true team is not needed.

In all other cases, you can greatly increase cooperation between teams with the simple act of aligning their team goals to each other and the company’s. However, what I run into time and again are companies that have no goals; don’t share them with their workers; or don’t make them measurable, so they are useless for team motivation.

Source: Anat Drach-Zahavy and Anit Somech (2010), “From an Intrateam to an Interteam Perspective of Effectiveness: The Role of Interdependence and Boundary Activities,” Small Group Research 41:143.

A Winning Way to Raise Employees’ Feedback

I always hesitate to write about “duh findings,” study results making so much sense, you wonder why the scientists bothered. But I know why they bother. Sometimes the expected answer proves incorrect. Also, though the information makes sense when you think about it, without the study you never would have thought about it. Those thoughts can lead to new insights.

Two Univ. of Maryland researchers asked a simple question, also the title of their study article: “When and Why Do Central Employees Speak Up?” As they point out, “When employees speak up openly on work-related matters, they aid in the early detection of problems and opportunities… and help their work groups respond successfully to unexpected situations…”

Logically, workers who are the most central to your work processes are the ones you want to hear from most. They are the most likely to see problems in the workflow or differences in the way teammates do the same work, for better or worse. Business professors Vijaya Venkataramani and Subrahmaniam Tangirala came up with the idea of surveying people of the same bank in India. This eliminated a lot of the factors that could complicate an experiment’s results. Everyone was in the same country within a distinct culture; subject to the same corporate policies, procedures and culture; in similar-sized units; doing basically the same work as the other groups. The professors asked about positive voice behaviors, defined in another study as “emphasizing expression of constructive challenge intended to improve rather than merely criticize. Voice is making innovative suggestions for change and recommending modifications to standard procedures even when others disagree.”

The survey asked group members whom they interacted with most (to identify “central employees”) and other questions about other members. Central employees were found to speak up more only if they were considered influential, which was affected by whether they were considered good at their jobs (duh!). Even then, they spoke up only if they identified with the team, as shown by agreeing with statements like, “When I talk about my [work group], I usually say ‘we’ rather than ‘they.'” The professors suggest that managers who want employees’ feedback should improve their job skills and build team spirit. I agree.

But, I ask, do managers really want their people to speak up? I hear about plenty who claim to, but in reality discourage critical input. This led me back to the library to look up the voice study mentioned above. Respected teamwork researchers Linn Van Dyne and Jeffrey LePine at Michigan State Univ. wanted to know if people really draw a distinction between actions that are part of the job and those that go beyond the call of duty. You may again be thinking “duh,” but at the time (1998) scientists had not tested the assumption. Van Dyne and LePine (gotta love that rhyme) looked at “in-role” behaviors versus two kinds of “extra-role behaviors,” helping behavior and those voice behaviors. They used survey items about each worker such as:

  • In-Role:
    • “fulfills the responsibilities specified in his/her job description.”
    • “meets performance expectations.”
  • Helping:
    • “volunteers to do things for this work group.”
    • “attends functions that help this work group.”
    • “helps others in this group learn about the work.”
  • Voice:
    • “develops and makes recommendations concerning issues that affect this work group.”
    • “speaks up and encourages others in this group to get involved in issues that affect the group.”
    • “speaks up in this group with ideas for new projects or changes in procedures.”

The researchers surveyed 95 work groups at 21 employers plus each group’s supervisor. Each person rated themselves and four peers, and the supervisor rated every member. Van Dyne and LePine also did something too few researchers do, testing twice over six months. This makes it more likely the result you see at Time 2 (T2) was caused by the factor tested at Time 1 (T1). Otherwise, you only know there was a link between one description of the subject and another, not which caused the other.

In the Van Dyne and LePine study, people reported as helpful and speaking up at T1 (and T2) were rated more highly by everyone at T2. The effect was small, only adding 3% over in-role ratings. But if your manager is deciding between giving you a 3 or a 4 on your annual appraisal, that’s enough to make the difference. And it didn’t hurt ratings, I’m pleased to see.

I know from other studies that teams fostering open debate perform better than ones where no one speaks up, and people seen as helpers get more help from their co-workers. So if you are a team member, it is worth your while to take on extra job duties (making yourself more central) and non-job duties, including speaking up in the ways described above. Since self-ratings on extra-role behavior had no link to supervisor performance ratings, you might ask an honest someone on the team whether they think you help and speak up appropriately. If you’re a team manager, this research adds yet another reason to provide ongoing training to improve your teams’ job skills and reinforce team identity. The monthly “teambuilding activity” is not what I mean. This has to be a daily effort involving your every interaction with the team.

One point the Maryland researchers missed, I think, is that making more workers “central” to the group’s efforts could encourage more positive voice behaviors. You can do this by providing more cross-training, so more people take on the critical roles as needed due to overload, absences, and people moving on. There are so many wins in that for you, them, and the company, I would run out of hyphens to describe the situation: “Win-win-win-win-…”


  • Van Dyne, L., and J. LePine (1998), “Helping and Voice Extra-Role Behaviors: Evidence of Construct and Predictive Validity,” Academy of Management Journal 41(1):108.
  • Venkataramani, V., and S. Tangirala (2010), “When and Why Do Central Employees Speak Up? An Examination of Mediating and Moderating Variables,” Journal of Applied Psychology 95(3):582.

Rewarders Got Richer than Punishers in Cooperation Studies

Group members believe in using rewards instead of punishment to foster cooperation and will back that belief with money, according to a study on cooperation in groups. If you use punishment instead, you are acting irrationally to your long-term harm within the team, the article suggests.

Toko Kiyonari and Pat Barclay of McMaster Univ. in Canada set up a series of studies in which undergraduate students in groups of four were given a choice: keep $5 Canadian, or donate it to the group. The researchers said they would double the donated total and split it among the members. Each person was gambling on how to get the most money: by cooperating, or by the “Take the Money and Run” approach, as the Steve Miller Band would put it. They were seated at computers in cubicles too high to see over, given code names in secret, and not allowed to communicate directly.

In each study, after that first round of decisions, subjects were told via computer who donated and who didn’t (by code name). The researchers refer to those who didn’t as “defectors.” In the second round, subjects then were given three more dollars they could keep. For the initial study, some players were told they could also spend the money to reward the others, with each donation tripled by the researcher. The remaining players were told they could pay to have three times that amount removed from one or more of their group members as a punishment. In the first study’s third round, they were told how much each code name had supposedly given as punishments or rewards, but those figures were faked to place each name into one of three categories:

  • someone who cooperated in the first round (by donating money to the group) and punished a noncooperator in the second round (by donating money to have money taken from the other person),
  • a first-round cooperator who did not punish in the second round, or
  • a “defector” who did not punish.

At that point, some could again punish and the others could reward as in the second round. Finally, all players were surveyed to find out how much they liked the other people.

Of those who cooperated in the first round and were allowed to punish in the second, 61% did. So did 24% of the defectors. When allowed to reward, 89% of defectors and 84% of cooperators did. But in the third round people did not tend to punish nonpunishers from the second round. The surveys showed that the majority didn’t like people who punished in the second round. This runs counter to the saying of “you’re either with us or against us” as quoted in the study article.

In contrast, second-round rewarders were themselves rewarded “such that the rewarders actually received more money from group members than the nonrewarders did,” the researchers write.

The second and third studies used similar methods, but varied what the subjects were told about the actions of the others and what actions they themselves could take. These had similar results as Study 1 in that people did not punish nonpunishers, while rewarding those who rewarded in each round. Again, people who punished were not viewed as well as those who didn’t. Over all the studies, people who actively rewarded came out ahead financially, above punishers and people who neither rewarded nor punished.

In short, cooperation was rewarded, and rewarding of cooperators was rewarded, but punishment of defectors was not. “They did not regard punishment—even punishment for failing to provide a public good—as a socially desirable act,” Kiyonari and Barclay write. Reward is the basis of cooperation, not punishment, the authors suggest.

Let’s put this in business terms. Say you and I are on an Inside Sales Team. The team decides that any member approached by the Outside Sales Team for help should drop everything and do it, because we need a better relationship with that team. Maybe we’re trying to get the Marketing Team to make a change and want Outside support (there’s a pun there). Say we then find out two of our eight members refused to go along, telling Outside members to go… “sell” themselves when they asked for help. In the next team meeting, two members yell at the defectors, two more opt to thank and praise members who cooperated with the Outside Team, and two say nothing. Later, when 360-degree performance appraisals go out, what happens?

These studies say most of the cooperators will ding the defectors on their teamwork and give higher ratings to the cooperators, obviously. But most of the team will also downgrade the people who yelled in the team meeting and upgrade those who used praise instead. Those who sat quietly will not get downgraded, however. More research is needed, as the scientific cliché goes. After all, if you try to stay mutual friends with people who are divorcing, often you will be forced to make a choice by one person or the other and cut off if you refuse.

The article nonetheless shows the relative “rightness” of using reward instead of punishment when trying to build cooperation in a group. Subconsciously, it’s what people expect. This leads to some interesting guesswork as to why people still resort to punishment if we have evolved to rely more on rewards. They authors speculate it may be because justified punishers earn trust even if they aren’t liked. Plus there is what could be called the “bully explanation”: “By demonstrating that one experiences anger toward defectors and that one will irrationally punish them… punishers demonstrate that it is not in others’ best interests to defect on the punisher.” The scientists point out, however, that this is irrational behavior.

We know from repeated studies that people usually quit due to their managers, not their employers. Yet bad managers persist, and companies refuse to do anything about them until too late. Sounds irrational to me.

Source: Kiyonari, T., and P. Barclay (2008), “Cooperation in Social Dilemmas: Free Riding May Be Thwarted by Second-Order Reward Rather Than by Punishment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 95(4):826.

For Whistleblowers, Team Ethics Outweigh the Leader’s

I have a confession to make. Once in grad school I cheated on a test. But in my defense, I didn’t realize it at the time, because everyone else in the class was doing the same thing. More about that after I tell you why I bring it up.

Ignoring the “right and wrong” discussion, there are a host of practical reasons for wanting to know about unethical behavior in your team. Unethical acts increase costs, sap morale and productivity, drive out good workers, and expose you to lawsuits. In a study that surveyed 34,000 workers in 16 manufacturing or technology firms, one person in five said they had witnessed unethical behavior (the 80/20 rule yet again). Only half of those folks reported that behavior. That’s a lot of potential damage slipping through the cracks, more than 3,000 incidents in that study alone.

Unfortunately, getting team members to report bad acts may take more than acting ethically yourself. They are less likely to if they think others on the team wouldn’t, according to a set of studies reported on National Public Radio. (It was nice to hear teamwork science reported in the major media.) I read the studies, and the data suggest a worker’s peers have more influence over whether to be a whistleblower than the boss does.

Scientific results are more credible when they appear consistently in both laboratory and “field” studies, and this set fits the bill. The one above was a field study. Another was kind of both. It asked about intentions, not actual incidents, but was conducted among 197 workers in a single company.

The third was a tightly controlled lab experiment. Volunteers in a university research pool were told they were in a study about the effectiveness of virtual teams. They would only communicate by computer using instant messaging or “chat.” The team’s mission was to recommend whether their company should try a new business venture. They were to rely on what they already knew, not use the Internet to get more information.

Actually, neither the team leader nor the study participant’s other four team members were real. The others’ chat messages were prewritten by the researchers to test participants’ responses, written well enough that no one caught the deception. The fake messages from the team leaders either emphasized ethical behavior or didn’t mention it. That is, the difference was between a highly ethical leader and one silent on the subject, not between an ethical one and a cheater.

Partway into the exercise, one of the fake team members reported looking up something on his smartphone. Some people’s “coworkers” encouraged the behavior, while other participants saw messages like, “We should follow the instructions we were given.”

Those who saw the anti-cheating responses were more likely to report the cheater to the researchers after the simulation. In all three studies, a person’s intended or real choice was influenced by both coworker and leader ethics. If both the leader and the rest of the team seemed to do the right thing, the individual was more likely to. If either the leader or the team seemed unethical, the person was less likely to blow the whistle, and if both leader and team weren’t ethical, they were even less so. The most disturbing result for a team leader reading this is that the team’s ethics had more impact than the leader’s on the decision.

The means of this impact was fear of retaliation. Surrounded by people of character, you feel safer reporting a problem. I, and the researchers, also thought people wouldn’t report because they thought nothing would be done. That issue did not come into play in the one study that checked it.

Overall the factors studied had a small correlation with an individual’s whistle-blowing decision. But the researchers point out that any increase in whistle-blowing is positive for a company. One bad ethical lapse can cause major headaches; the actions of a few unethical people—and many who failed to report them—nearly killed the Barclays banking giant.

Speaking of lapses, back to my test. The instructor usually had us work in pairs or teams in class and for homework. Even though he did not assign us to such for this exam in which we had several days to demonstrate our research skills, he also didn’t think to say we couldn’t. Everyone continued the practice of the class, creating their own groups and sharing information. Somehow it didn’t cross a dozen grad-student minds that this was an exam, and we were all cheating! When the instructor found out, he threw a fit. He interviewed each person individually as the school decided what to do with us. I remember him asking me why I hadn’t thought I was doing anything wrong. Rephrasing this into modern business terms, I told him we were acting consistently with the culture he had created. The school let us off with a warning, but he threw out the grades from the exam.

The researchers in these studies write, “rather than looking at (survey) responses to questions about ethical leadership and coworker ethical behavior separately, ethics officers should look for indications of consistency and inconsistency across levels.” The studies did not address the question of whether ethical behavior by the leader could cause an entire team to be more ethical. Still, I think your best odds of getting the behaviors you want is to harp consistently on what those are while also modeling them. Show zero tolerance for ethical fudging, and weed out people who struggle with the boundaries. The environment you create will determine the results you get.

Source: Mayer, D., et al. (2013), “Encouraging Employees to Report Unethical Conduct Internally: It Takes a Village,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 121:89.

No Performance Improvement Plan? You Failed the Firing

“If you fire someone without giving a behavior-specific plan & time to improve, you failed, not them.” I wrote that on Twitter, and it became my most forwarded tweet in months. Clearly I hit a nerve, no doubt a raw one among the many people who have been fired without getting a performance improvement plan. Most of those managers acted unethically.

Yes, I said “unethically.” Unless an employee committed an illegal act, firing them without ensuring they knew what they had to change, in time to do so, and they knew the consequences of failure, fails the ethical test of every philosophical system I know of and the Golden Rule. It treats the employee as a replaceable part instead of a human being with feelings and the civil right to earn a living, ignoring the human right to due process and ability to grow. It also harms the morale of their supporters in the company, and usually steals money from the company in the form of unnecessary costs.

The Society for Human Resource Management and other sources have reported that replacing a worker costs the employer up to 50% of the position’s salary. I’d like to know where they get that figure, but there is no question a firing creates at least these costs, mostly applicable to both regular employees and contractors:

  • Administrative time to process the termination.
  • Unemployment insurance costs—In the U.S., a company’s firing history may determine how much they pay into state unemployment programs.
  • Hiring a replacement—This requires creating ads, placing ads, productive time lost in interviewing, and administrative time to process the new hire.
  • New-hire orientation—Besides the cost of formal “on-boarding” training, productive time is lost by the manager and coworkers getting the new worker up to speed.
  • Net productivity—The work the fired employee would have completed between the firing and the time the replacement is equally productive is lost, though somewhat balanced by extra work others had to do prior to the firing because of the fired employee.

Pay a position $35,000 a year, and SHRM says you threw away $17,500 in profits. Even if the replacement’s net productivity is 20% higher than the fired person (worth $7,000 annually), it will take you 2-½ years to make up the firing/hiring costs. These days, three years is considered long-term employment.

I have been involved in about 50 hirings, and am proud that I only had to fire one of those people. I am more proud that person was not surprised. Nor was another I inherited and had to fire. Making the best of a bad situation was as easy as creating a performance improvement plan or PIP. I had spoken to them multiple times about the behaviors I needed changed, documenting each instance after I perceived a pattern. With most employees over the years, that has been sufficient. In these two cases, the documentation suggested each was either unwilling or unable to change—or that I had not been clear enough. Like all people, managers often overestimate how well they have communicated, especially on uncomfortable topics. To erase that doubt, I drafted a PIP which:

  • Specified the observable behaviors that needed to change, meaning actions others could see or hear—If you fire someone for a general word like “attitude,” the animal part of your brain is doing the firing, not the rational part.
  • Provided a specific time frame—I recommend four to six weeks, long enough to establish a trend in the right direction, but short enough to cut the company’s losses if the PIP doesn’t work.
  • Offered help in the form of training, books, and/or mentoring.
  • Stated that correcting the behaviors might not be enough to prevent a termination, but failure to change them would definitely result in one.

Then I met with the employee, let him read the draft and ask questions, and gave him a chance for input. This was not a negotiation, though. I might reword parts of it, and I was willing to put whatever they wanted in the “help” section within reason, but a firm stand told the employees they faced stark choices.

Each of these gentlemen made a good effort, but it was not enough. The inherited one should never have been in the position; he just didn’t have the fundamental talents required. The other was the best fit I could find in a tight labor market at the point where I had to hire somebody. Nonetheless I was surprised he could not make the change. A month later I found out why. He died of a terminal illness I didn’t know he had. Imagine how I would have felt if I had arbitrarily added to his burdens by firing him without forewarning and fair treatment. Instead, I can remember him being gracious, even friendly, freely admitting he had not met the plan’s objectives and thanking me for trying to help.

The one other PIP I did, again for someone I inherited, also worked out well. She requested a transfer instead and landed in a role that was a better fit. That, too, was a win for both of us and our employer.

I have been fired thrice. An early firing was valid, given that I did not yet have the skills to manage a mid-size motel. The other was by a manager whose group was on pace to a 100% annual turnover rate and who himself was fired a few months later. The third one remains a mystery. I’d been given few corrections, had complied, and they were easily outweighed by my measurable successes.

In each case, the initial pain was nearly as bad as when someone close to me died. I volunteered at a grief center for five years, so I know that emotion well. I presume you as a manager would not wish the loss of a loved one even on your worst employee. That being the case, you have an obligation to protect that human from similar shock and pain, and your company from wasted costs, by doing all you can to avoid the hurt.

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