Reason 2

Beige lines horozontalThey Think They’re Solving World Hunger When They’re Really Just Making A Suggestion For Dinner

This can be especially damaging. The team puts in all kinds of work and time to come up with wonderful solutions and implementation plans for organizational change and then finds out that all they were supposed to do was identify a few issues so someone or some other team can actually work on them. At this point team members start to hate their team.  In fact they start to hate the idea of any other team that might conceivably be formed in the next decade! Sound familiar?

This is a special case of the first reason to hate work teams – They Have No Idea What They’re Doing. In this case, they have an idea what they are doing but the boundaries are not understood. The team is playing the right game but don’t know what position they are playing.  This reason pops up surprisingly often in the following scenarios:

  • Dealing with the results of employee surveys focusing on things like engagement.
  • Employee ‘participation’ initiatives.
  • Change implementation teams and processes.
  • Action learning projects.
  • And horror of horrors; culture change initiatives!

Teams have this wonderfully annoying habit of wanting to do too much. Give them a project and they want total control from start to finish and are royally offended when organizational processes, like budgets for instance, get in the way!

Now if you’re reading this with the thought that you just wish you faced such a problem, don’t be too quick to act on those wishes.

Organizations don’t work by the annoying habit noted above so why should teams in those organization? Rarely (actually almost never) will a single person or group be able to undertake an entire project from start to finish. Yes, even executive teams! Other people or processes are required to help, to get buy in from, or to take responsibility for parts of the project or initiative. This is just the way things work. So teams need to understand not only what they should be focusing on, but also what their boundaries are, when they need to pass things on, ask for approval or just stop doing stuff.

Like reason number 1, the roll of the boss (or equivalent) is very important here, maybe even more important. So if you are unclear of the boundaries for your team the first step should be to ask the boss.  Sometimes however if you go to the boss and ask, What are our boundaries here? you will get a response something like, ‘Well you figure it out and then come check with me.’  At this point the room should fill up with red flags (the boss likely won’t notice these but you should!). All of these red flags should read, ‘We need to be more specific!’ So ask a more specific question; something like, ‘Well we think we’ll need $10,000.00 to make this work’ or ‘Well we’re going to talk to your colleague in that other department to see if they’re on board’ or ‘It’s going to take us about 6 months to work this through’. This is pretty much guaranteed to initiate a more specific interaction about boundaries and that’s what you need.  It’s like that response to the question “what does quality look like?’ ‘I’ll know it when I see it.’ The boss may not be clear about boundaries but when faced with something tangible, they know what they want or don’t want.

When the role of the team is reasonably defined and its boundaries reasonably understood the team can take pride in its accomplishments, whether they are large or small.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. Have you experienced this reason to hate work teams?  What is your story?
  2. What effective methods have you used for boundary setting with teams?
  3. If you’ve experienced a team that has gone through this, what have you done to ‘recover’?
  4. Do you find it is more common for teams to want to do more, or want to do less?

4 Responses

  1. I have many stories where I’ve experienced people controlling, complying and protecting in order to make themselves look good, smart, valuable, this list goes on and on.

    Tom, I like what you have leaned into,as it relates to when the red flag goes up ask specific questions. Better to find out up front what the boundaries are rather than half way into the project that you find out you are not aligned. Good to have this open, direct conversations and intentionally design upfront what happens when things go off track because they will. It is easier to do it at the beginning when people are excited about the new opportunity.

    Great leaders are clear as to what the expectations are and sharing those with the team. Remember to constantly communicate when things change.

    I think it is human nature for us/teams to what to do more. We want to know we are adding value and it can be very demotivating when we are going down a path only to find out it was not the right one.


    • Wendy, you are the comment ninja! I love it; and your comments. They are making this work better, a lot better.

      I agree very much with the first sentence in your last paragraph. However I also think organizations and teams still foster a lot of Theory X leaders, even though that term is long out of vogue; as noted in your first paragraph.

      There are always constraints however in our desire to do more, always, and it is important to be realistic with these I think.

      I also think it is normal for a leader or manager to not be clear about boundaries for a team, until something specific surfaces. Thus the need for more specific questions.

      I remember years ago working with Dr. Ed Freedberg, one of the luckiest things that happened to me in my organizational life. We were talking about empowerment and he said most leaders say they want empowerment but what they really do is just ‘lend’ it to you. And when they discover you have gone too far with the empowerment thing they take it back. It wasn’t that they were a jerk or anything, they just didn’t know the boundary until they actually experienced it.

      The real problem was that there was never any conversation about the fact that the leader may truly not know what boundaries were pushing their comfort zone too far. Your point above – Remember to constantly communicate when things change – is so important in this regard.

  2. Totally agree with the red flags! I haven’t had first hand experience here but have worked with many teams in that viscious circle of not knowing and having no authority to define for themselves even though the boss doesn’t have a clue… it is just pure frustration and demotivation and a huge reason to hate teams!!!

    • Hi Katie! It’s surprising how often this happens with the boss not really having thought through the boundaries a team in their area should have. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem since sometimes you can’t know until you start doing things. The big problem, as you mention is when the boss doesn’t know and doesn’t want to talk about it and the team has to struggle along in semi darkness.

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