Beyond Survivor: the role of HR in team success

By Tracy Hecht and Natalie Allen
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/10/2001

This past summer brought the hit TV series Survivor — a show in which we heard a lot about teams and teamwork. Many Canadians, usually wearing a bit more clothing than the Survivor contestants, work in teams and are urged to engage in teamwork. In fact, as HR professionals are aware, the implementation of teams has become a dominant HR initiative in the last decade.

Try to find an organization in Canada that does not have teams of one sort or another. There are cross-functional teams, departmental teams, project teams, quality assurance teams, steering teams, and the list goes on and on. Based on the number of organizations that use teams, it would be easy to get the impression that teams are always successful. They are not.

Just as millions of people got hooked on Survivor, organizations appear to be hooked on teams.

The TEAM mantra — Together Everyone Achieves More — is widely accepted. This belief is part of the “romance of teams.” It is a dangerous belief for HR professionals and organizations that are really serious about teams. Why? Because this romantic notion leads one to be uncritical when it comes to the implementation of teams.

It is assumed teams will be successful no matter what kind of environment they find themselves in. And this assumption leads organizations to continue using the same old HR strategies that have always been used — despite the fact that these strategies are completely focused on managing individuals. As a result of their individual focus, these HR strategies are unlikely to produce, or sustain, high-performance teams.

Look closely at the example provided by Survivor. At the outset of the show, 16 contestants were dropped on a desert island, divided into two “teams,” and encouraged to work together to survive. The ultimate goal of every individual, however, was to outlast his or her teammates in order to win the coveted million-dollar prize. The two teams competed against one another in a variety of “immunity challenges” and when one team lost a challenge, that team had to oust one of its members. Back-stabbing and alienation abounded, as each individual fought to preserve his or her place on the island. In the end, what was once a team pulling together became an unforgiving group of individuals whose motto was “every person for him or herself.”

Although not nearly as dramatic, many organizations create the same environment for their employees as that faced by the contestants on Survivor. Employees are asked to “do it for the team,” but the organization rewards and promotes the stars. In fact, many organizations do not even track, or evaluate, the performance of their teams. Instead, they rely solely on individual performance assessments. Similarly, many organizations compensate employees only for individual performance and not for the team’s performance. In essence, employees are asked to behave as team members, but are provided with little incentive for doing so. Stop for a moment and think about the message that is being sent when team members are asked to work for the common goal, but are evaluated and rewarded as individuals.

Unlike the Survivor teams, the answer for Canadian organizations is to stop creating conflicting goals. If teams are going to be successful, they need to find themselves in a supportive environment. For HR professionals, this means recognizing that implementing teams is a large-scale transformation. In the end, teams should permeate the entire organization including its structure, work processes, power hierarchies and — without a doubt — every HR system.

So, what should you do — as an HR professional in an organization that has teams, or is considering implementing teams? Here are some suggestions:

1. Consider the alternatives

HR professionals have a critical role to play in aligning individual, team and organizational goals. Long before teams are implemented, however, HR professionals need to play an important strategic role in determining if the total transformation that is required for teams is appropriate. Drawing on knowledge of work design and the goals facing an organization, HR can help decide whether or not teams fit the bill. If, and only if, you are sure that teams make sense for your organization, then go ahead and embark on the team journey.

2. Ensure your organization treats teams like teams

If you decide to implement teams, or if you already have them, make sure your organization’s HR strategy is aligned to support them. Studies have shown that changing a whole HR system is more effective than changing an isolated HR process. The data also suggest that, with respect to HR processes, it is absolutely essential teams be treated as whole entities. For example, evaluation of team performance and compensation for team performance are critical ingredients in the recipe for team success.

3. Be aware of resistance to change

If you have ever implemented a change, then you have probably encountered some resistance. The implementation of teams is unlikely to be an exception to this rule. If your organization is embarking on the team journey, be prepared to deal with employees’ worries and concerns. For example, some employees may perceive team compensation to be unfair. As you now know, however, team compensation is essential for team success. It will be up to you, as HR professionals, to help assuage employee fears and manage the move to teams effectively.

Remember teamwork is not a survival game. Nor do groups of individuals magically become “high-performance” simply because they are called a team.

Tracy Hecht is a PhD candidate in industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Western Ontario in London.

Natalie Allen is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario and is the director of the Teamwork Research Program. The program is currently recruiting organizations to participate in a study of teams in organizations. If you would like more information about the study, or if your organization would like to participate, please contact the Teamwork Research Program at (519) 661-3013 or Tracy Hecht at thecht@julian.uwo.ca.

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