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Building a Dream Team

"We will put our best team on this one,” is a common refrain in many circles and is regularly heard in laboratories as directors seek to reassure customers and other stakeholders about delivering accurate and reliable results by deadlines. 

by Bernard B. Tulsi
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dream team

Success depends upon leadership, trust, & collaboration

In many settings, sometimes with good reason, the use of teams has emerged as an answer to both routine and critical questions.

But teams may not always be the optimal answer, according to Alice Sapienza, Professor Emerita at Simmons School of Management in Boston. “There are certain conditions in which teams are highly efficient and others in which they are not,” she says, referencing the seminal work of the internationally acclaimed organizational design and management expert, the late Jay Galbraith— who passed away on April 8, 2014.

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“If you are working in proximity and there are already good relationships, a team may be superfluous. Whether you are working in proximity or not, if relationships are difficult with basic interpersonal problems—people are abusive and disrespectful or managers shut down conversation and discourage candor—then forming teams will not provide the solution,” says Sapienza.

She says that considerable evidence supports the centrality of interpersonal and cultural issues in team interactions. “These issues are at the root of whether a number of processes are safe and effective and are certainly applicable to whether teams working in a laboratory could attain their objectives.

“Sometimes, there is hyperbole that teams are the most effective way to do just about anything —but the real question is how to get people to work well together, not what the formal structure is called,” says Sapienza.

She contends that the language around the team has been applied rather haphazardly. “The word has started to lose its original denotation—it is as though a word in microbiology is applied broadly to other situations,” she says, adding that team now essentially connotes “people who work well together.”

But she notes, citing Galbraith, that a team is a formal management structure. “When you have large and fairly well-defined tasks requiring the contributions of a multitude of disciplines, then you may want a formal structure called a team in which for certain periods of time individuals are chartered with the team’s ground rules—that may be an effective way to move forward.”

Sapienza says that teams are at their best “when the task is complex and uncertain—requiring a multitude of specialists to collaborate to complete it—and an enormous amount of information needs to be processed in dividing this work into groups and subtasks and assigning multidisciplinary teams to each subtask.”

To deal with complex tasks, there is a need for a formal structure where members are chartered to perform certain tasks in a project, such as in pharmaceutical labs where they have sub-job descriptions and an end date for the particular project. “Those are the conditions under which teams have been found to be more effective compared with a structure that is not formal or where people get together periodically and talk about the project and some of its issues,” says Sapienza.

“The primary goal of teams is to help people help each other get to the best work—if my best work does not contribute to what you are working on, it does not do the project or its goals any good,” she says.

Focusing on the composition of effective teams, Sapienza says that leaders are generally associated with good interpersonal skills. “The team leader is usually appointed as a linking person on the basis of having not only project knowledge but also interpersonal skills. What is more important, however, is that the technical/scientific leadership is not vested in the project leader, but changes with the expertise needed at any given time.

“The conundrum of effective teams is that one person is the link between the team and the larger part of the organization, but that person does not dictate or lead or control the scientific technical work. That actually depends on the problem and the technical expertise needed at the time,” says Sapienza.

She says that laboratory directors seeking to build effective teams should select leaders who have good interpersonal skills who are capable of coordinating multiple personalities and getting people to agree to work towards a common end. Leaders should have the ability to carefully negotiate differences of opinion and work with different individual needs and idiosyncrasies, says Sapienza.

Picking team members is a simpler issue because this entails matching intellectual skills with the requirements of the project, but these are still individuals who have to be helped to share information in their work and whose assumptions can challenge each other in the best possible way; otherwise, there will be suboptimal intellectual performance, she says.

She says that this is difficult because people have different perspectives and assumptions, which she calls equivocality. “A good team leader knows that when people nod in agreement about something, they may have different perspectives about what that really is. Thinking through that and moving the team toward the project’s goals is a key first step for the leader.”

Wei Zheng, associate professor of management, Department of Management and Marketing, University of Wisconsin-River Falls, says teams provide a range of benefits in laboratory and research settings by broadening the perspective and harnessing a larger knowledge base and experiences to chase the same goal. “Teams represent a clever approach to pursue key objectives.”

The leader is the most instrumental factor in whether a team functions well or is dysfunctional. Poorly functioning teams usually reflect the leader’s inability to engender trust among the members. These teams are often obstructed by fear of conflict among noncommittal members who avoid ownership and accountability, and who are indifferent to the project’s outcomes. In contrast, leaders of effective teams cultivate trust among members, focus on successful conflict resolution, challenge members to assume responsibility, and encourage ownership and commitment to the project’s goals and objectives.

In a speech in the audio conference “Best Practices for Motivating Scientists,” reported in the 2010 issue of Principal Investigator Advisor, Prof. Alice Sapienza noted that leaders can hone their own leadership skills via self-reflection—the leader’s own positive or negative attitudes about the project could be detected and emulated by members—and consulting with mentors and respected predecessors, learning about the enthusiasm and motivation of individual team members, and figuring out when non-functioning members, who could exert toxic influences on the team’s work, should best be directed elsewhere.

Leadership is tough, says Sapienza. “The literature is replete with how good team leaders get people to talk with each other, challenge each other respectfully and come to agreement around issues as honestly as possible. There’s a great deal of faceto- face slog—there is no glamor and no short cut.”

Prof. Zheng says that teams have different ways to select leaders. “In most teams that I am familiar with, the leader is the one with the most expertise applicable to the project and who can also get along with other people.” She adds that sometimes leaders emerge that way, but that is not the best preparation for them.

“In other cases, leaders are selected first and then they get to pick the other team members, which can be good because they often know the people they pick—building trust and collaborative spirit.”

She says that in some teams, leaders emerge because of their leadership skills and capability.

Zheng says that in general, effective leaders encourage creativity and help team members to progress in a unified direction. She says that in some teams, the leaders have to be more direct and tell members what to do. In teams where members are not very committed, leaders have to motivate them and provide a strong sense of direction and purpose. On the other hand, there are highly motivated teams where the leader’s job is “to get out of the way.”

“Leaders have to be very careful and watchful. They have to look for a complex of cues about how competent team members are, how committed they are, and what is missing, and try to figure out what must be done to help them reach their goals,” says Zheng.

With respect to the question of how the management of research and service labs should approach the creation of teams in their organizations, Zheng says the first requirement is expertise because “you are looking for knowledgeable workers to assemble a good mix of knowledge, background and expertise.”

Sapienza concurs, noting that since leaders are the ones to help members work through professional biases to move to their goals, their intellectual caliber is a given. She adds, though, that their people skills are vital for the achievement of bigger objectives.

Zheng says that team spirit is important for people who want to work in a team; otherwise, “there is no point to having them on the team—the motivation for being on the team is important.”

She says that management must determine how well leaders and team members are aligned with the goals of the project and with each other. “This is important to figure out early because misalignment could lead to team dysfunction.”

Zheng says that management will also need to work through a host of other issues, including personality types. She explains that in teams where there are introvert and extrovert personality types, during meetings the extroverts are active participants and contributors while the introverts are more likely to be listeners who absorb key messages. “This could lead to misconceptions—the extroverts could conclude that the introverts are detached and not interested or not contributing. On the other hand, the introverts may be thinking that the extroverts are taking over and don’t want to hear their opinions.”

She says that there needs to be accommodations for different personalities. “Introverts could be provided with different communication channels other than providing spontaneous feedback in meetings. Care must be taken to ensure that differing styles and personalities do not clash, as this could create dysfunction.” Zheng stresses the need for clarity of roles and goals. “There are teams where the primary goal is not clear. Team members would work on what they assume to be the most important goal, but this could lead people astray and cause friction in the team, and there could be a misalignment of roles leading to overlap or even duplication, which could also cause conflict.”

In building teams, care should be taken to ensure that team members are collaborative, like to learn about other perspectives, value working with other team members, and are prepared to give their best efforts and work well with others. It is important to pick team leaders who will give individualized consideration to team members instead of treating them as replaceable bodies, and will set up channels to address their aspirations, values and personal goals, while getting to know them on a personal level, according to Zheng.