Managing Relationships

Chapter Learning Objectives

·                     Understand the strategic choices involved in managing interpersonal relationships.

·                     Understand the special expectations and difficulties involved in workplace relationships.

·                     Understanding the role of interpersonal relationships within the larger communication networks of organizational life.

Getting Along in Groups

Business organizations are, by definition, groups of people, but the formal use of teams as a way of organizing work has grown tremendously in the past half-century.   The Japanese use of teams was credited for that country’s economic success in the 1970’s.  Since then, businesses worldwide have been moving away from hierarchical management structures based on the Prussian army of the 1700’s.  Instead, a “systems” perspective tries to emulate the structure of a complex living organism to distribute knowledge and responsibility throughout a corporate entity.  

U.S. business is still in a period of transition but clearly moving toward a team-based management model (Orsburn & Moran, 2000; Scholtes, 1998).  In 1987, only 28% of the largest 1000 public companies used self-directed groups, but by 1996, a follow-up survey found that 78% were using them (Lawlor).  By 1999 80% of the Fortune 500 had at least half their workers organized in teams {Joinson, 1999 #2555}.

The implication for anyone who wants a career in business is clear: it is virtually impossible to be successful in business without being successful in groups(Luce, 1968).  Team communication is consistently named as a key skill for business success.  In fact, the number one factor in preventing career advancement, according to one survey of executives, is the “inability to work in groups” (Accountemps).

Relationship Management

Creating Relationships

Most people don’t naturally reach out to strangers.  Those few who do tend to become entertainers or sales people, and the rest of us tend to judge ourselves as “shy” because we don’t act the same way.  Most people, in fact, describe themselves as shy at least some of the time (Stocker, 1997); good communicators simply learn to overcome their reticence and make the connections they need to make with people.

Maintaining Relationships

Naturally, once you have an open line of communication, you must keep it maintained.  Have you ever received a birthday card from a salesperson years after the sale?  Or been invited to attend a “mixer” to refresh contacts with high school buddies?  Successful business people get in the habit of sending cards and notes for all sorts of occasions.  They “do lunch” once in a while.  They invite key associates to mixers, sporting events and ceremonial business events.  If some sort of conflict does arise, it is also important to resolve the issue quickly to keep the channel open for future work. Resolve and repair conflicts immediately.

70 % of workplace learning is informal, meaning that when people are talking to each other at work, they are actually learning to do their jobs better .  Friendlier workers are more effective communicators, more productive and trusted more by employers and co-workers.  They are more concerned with nonverbal cues of a conversation, more in tune with other people and thus avoid misunderstandings

Companies that foster a civil, respectful work environment have fewer labor problems and better customer relations[Humphries, 1998 #4459].

Relationships with Co-Workers

Many employers define “good communication” as an ability to get along with others and behave pleasantly in the workplace.  This attribute might seem more a personality trait than a communication skill, but for many employers it counts for more.  Fortunately, you can learn to project a positive attitude, regardless of how you actually feel, and that in itself is an important business communication skill.

Businesslike Relationships

Each business relationship involves expected behaviors and communication patterns, which are defined in terms of general organizational protocols, as well as by the specific culture of an organization.   Nevertheless, there is an almost universal agreement that individuals should exhibit positive social cues, should make an effort to maintain healthy communication practices, and should create numerous channels of communication with individuals both inside and outside the organization.

Business and social assumptions are not the same. 

While it’s fairly easy to understand the social-business distinction discussed in the last section, it’s harder to know when you should use your “business” personality and when you should treat a co-worker “like a friend.”  Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut, right answer.

On any given day, you might find yourself warmly greeting a coworker you’ve missed during an illness, then providing that same person with some negative feedback on some work she did for you, then positive recognition for her efforts, and finish the day with a formal, unsmiling “good bye” as you leave the office while she has a client present.  Both of you must move back and forth, quickly, easily and continuously, between “friend” and “co-worker” roles in order to “get along” in the business environment.

The relationship is long term. 

An easier rule to live by involves the fundamental realization that you must cultivate your business relationships for the long term.  When you had a college roommate you couldn’t stand, it was relatively easy to change roommates at the end of a semester.  Your previous jobs might have been temporary or part time, and it was easy enough to find another position if you didn’t get along well with the boss or your co-workers.

However, once you accept a career position, you have to assume you will be working with the same people for the rest of your life.  You’ll be spending eight to ten hours a day with your co-workers, depending on them to help you out in the years to come.  Even if you do change departments or companies, you will probably not change industries.  People who work with you or for you now, might be your bosses or valuable customers at some future date.  You simply can’t afford to make enemies or ignore the long-term effects of poor interpersonal communication.

Work Expectations
Exhibits a Positive Attitude

In a business environment, a positive attitude is defined by two elements.  The first is a proactive orientation toward business goals—that action orientation that sends the message that you are willing to do what it takes to “get the job done.”  The second element involves those social cues that show a positive regard for your comrades within the organization.  Most businesses become a close-knit community, where people spend 40 to 60 hours together each week.  People who are friendly, happy, and willing to go the extra mile to get along are highly valued for those interpersonal attributes.

Sending an Action Message

All of your business communication should include appropriate action statements.  An action step is expected in virtually any communication situation, as described in Chapter Two, and a clear focus on accomplishing business tasks will help you prioritize all of your communication, as discussed in Chapter Five.  For many people, however, the real test of your action orientation comes in the way you handle your interpersonal communication.   

Regardless of what you SAY you will do, people will look at what you actually DO. 

Regardless of what you SAY, people will listen to HOW you say it.

A reputation for honest, straightforward, trustworthy interpersonal relationships develops over a whole career of doing exactly what you say you will do—and possibly a little extra—to get the job done.  Sometimes a single big event will enhance your reputation with others; a single failure to do as you promised can just as easily ruin it.  More often, your credibility is built with a long string of small conversations and small actions.  The specifics of each situation will be different, but a few simple rules can build your reputation:  

·                     Don’t make promises you can’t (or won’t) keep.  Don’t say you “might” be at a meeting or that you will provide some information if you aren’t ready to put the commitment on your calendar and keep it.

·                     Call back immediately.  Don’t ignore voicemails, emails or phone messages, even if you don’t know the answer or have to admit you haven’t completed the work.

·                     Provide information as promised and in a format that makes it possible for others to use it.   Don’t post a webpage without its photos, send an email without its attachments, or pass out copies of presentation slides without the hotlinks.

·                     Embrace change. No matter how stupid or foolhardy the boss’s idea, save your doubts, concerns or suggestions for a later discussion of its implementation.

Displaying a Positive Attitude

People with charismatic personalities are willing to express emotions and are generous in their praise of others.  Whether or not a person is “naturally” charismatic, the way he or she communicates with others will give signals to others.  A person does not have to “feel positive” inside to communicate a positive attitude to others. 

Display a cheerful, positive attitude.

Proactively communicate with others.  Greet people when you come into a room.  Even if you don’t “feel” friendly, don’t let shyness or a bad mood keep you from interacting with strangers, new colleagues, customers or the boss.  For many business people, a “good” communicator is one who is willing to do a lot of communication. 

Willingness to communicate is a developed skill, not something most people are born with.  Only about 6% of American adults consider themselves “persistently personable and outgoing” (Stocker, 1997 96).  The rest of us must become comfortable enough with a situation and the other people involved before we are able to communicate with confidence.  A lack of confidence should never become a signal not to communicate in a business environment; it should be a signal that you need to spend more time becoming comfortable with that particular group or activity.

Don’t complain.  When you are having a bad day, suffer alone.  It’s tempting to share the pain with everyone around you, but you’ll just be perceived as a pain.  It’s much better to have a reputation as someone who is cheerful in spite of adversity.

Exhibit a patient willingness to cooperate.

Please and thank you go a long, long way in the business world.  Even when they are busy with important work, people respond to the basic niceties of social interaction, and you’ll find them more willing to work with you if they are comfortable with the personal relationships. 

In turn, you should consistently show that you are willing to help others get their work done.  Some people worry more about being taken advantage of by others than they do about the welfare of the group.  Most co-workers perceive this kind of an attitude as a “negative” one, and it will virtually always lose you the support of others—and often your job. 

Don’t ever, ever gossip about others.  Personal information aside, which is obviously inappropriate, you should not discuss negative aspects of another’s work unless you are part of the chain of command.

Constructively discuss problems and concerns.

Whatever issues you do have with others, communicate about them in a pleasant, constructive way.  Begin with the assumption that everyone is trying to get a job done, and approach each problem as an opportunity to solve it together.

Don’t hold grudges.  If you do have an issue with a co-worker, don’t dwell on it, sabotage the team or attempt to get retribution.  Deal with the issue professionally and continue to communicate positively.

Give positive recognition

An important way of maintaining communication relationships is the act of positive recognition, an explicit recognition of a person’s contribution to others.  Even though business communication is often task-focused, it is important to remember that the business organization is a fundamentally human organization, and human beings need to be acknowledged for their contributions to an organization or team.  Positive relationships are built by taking time to thank those who help you and to acknowledge the efforts of your team members and co-workers.

The business “thank you” can be found in myriad forms, from the routine mass Christmas letter to the handwritten note on embossed personal stationery that acknowledges important mentoring or networking assistance. You should send a letter after every job interview, every completed consulting assignment, every signed order; in short, thank those who help you meet your own business goals. 

A business thank you should be explicit about the work related behavior involved. State clearly, in concrete, behavioral terms, what the other person did for you.  Then explain the specific, concrete, positive benefit that the action had, usually as a second paragraph.  Finally, the action step should specify the continuing relationship you wish to have with the person.

Pleasant Business Manners

What you do and how you treat others is just as important as how you say things.  Working closely together for long stretches of time requires that everyone adhere to some basic rules of getting along.


Say hello to people in the morning and goodbye in the evening.  After you’ve said hello once, it’s appropriate to nod or smile in the hallways, but don’t stop to chat again on “social” matters throughout the day.  Do say hello to people as they get on elevators or anywhere else they might be stopped for a few minutes, such as a copy machine or break room.  At those moments, the tasks are necessarily suspended during the short wait, and “social” rules take over for those few seconds.


Because use of space marks one as powerful, respect for others involves limiting space and showing tension.  Stand to greet superiors; let the more powerful person walk ahead or enter the door first; use restrained gestures to project humility.  The expansive, enthusiastic gestures that mark you as a “dynamic” public speaker can be perceived as arrogant or disruptive in a meeting or conversation. Maintain “polite” conversational distance, which is about 18 inches in the United States.

Respect others’ privacy.  Especially in the cube farms[1], go out of your way to avoid listening in on other people’s conversations or phone calls.  Pretend you didn’t hear even what you did.  Don’t use speaker phones if others are present without the caller’s permission. Don’t impose your own conversations (especially cell phone conversations) on others.  Don’t read others’ faxes, copies or mail.  Don’t ever offer correction or negative feedback in a public place.

Traditional “social” manners deferred to women, of course, requiring that men stand to greet them and allowing women to offer their hands first.  While older women and men will often find these traditional gestures more comfortable, business manners generally recognize the organizational status of the individuals, without regard to gender.   Let the boss enter a room or elevator first, standing politely aside until those who outrank you have passed.


U.S. business culture is notorious for its compulsive timeliness.  Sometimes timeliness does get in the way of productivity, but you can assume that other businesspeople expect you to be precisely on time to all appointments and to complete all work by the stated deadlines.  You are expected to apologize, perhaps profusely, if you are even late in returning a phone call. 

Unless otherwise stated, you should arrive at an appointment about five minutes early.  Return all phone calls and emails within the day.  Don’t allow interruptions to extend the length of a phone call or meeting.  Let people know how much time you expect to use or have available, and don’t leave earlier than you’ve committed to.

Respect others’ time.  Don’t interrupt your own phone calls to answer call waiting.  If you are expecting an urgent call, let your new caller know that you might be called away; he or she might elect to have you call back when you can devote your attention to the call.  Avoid putting people on hold.  If you can’t find what a caller needs in less than a minute, offer to call the other party back.


Generally, everyone in the business environment is on a budget too, and attention to others’ expenses is part of good business manners.  Don’t order things on others’ expense accounts, use their office supplies or expect to use their telephones.


At business meals and parties, the basic table manners your mother tried to teach you are the same, they just matter more than they did at the family dinner table.  If you aren’t comfortable with the basics of formal dining, social entertainments and sporting events, then you need to learn them.  Childish or rude behavior in a family gathering is unpleasant, but not cause to through you out of the family.  On the other hand, business colleagues who judge you to be unpleasant and churlish will consider you unpromotable because you can’t be trusted to interact properly with clients or other colleagues.


Never, ever groom yourself in view of others.  It projects meekness, self-consciousness and lack of self-confidence, and it is considered disgusting as well.  It is best to style your hair, beards and mustaches so that public hygiene is not required.  Makeup should never, ever, ever, ever be applied in public.

Bathe frequently and use deodorant, but don’t use cologne or perfume at the office.  Most businesses are now smoke-free, but even if smoking is permitted, be careful that you don’t blow smoke at others, leave a mess in the ashtray or attend meetings smelling of cigarettes.

Fingernails should be clean and trimmed; women’s nails should be sport length, at most, and if polished the polish should always be perfect.  It’s better to remove the polish completely than to display even one chip. 

Getting Along Well with Others

Everyone seems to know a coworker, customer or supervisor who is just impossible to get along with.  Sometimes, the problem is simply a lack of “social” conversation, which is then interpreted on a social basis as “we don’t like each other.”   In this case, there is really nothing wrong at all; as long as the task-related communication is flowing efficiently, there is no need to become best friends with everyone at work.

Obviously, your own personal attitude and good manners will smooth your interpersonal communication, but you’ll still find a variety of people who simply don’t communicate quite the same way you do.  Misunderstandings can result if you aren’t aware of how others might perceive a situation. Good communicators will minimizing those misunderstanding by making a point to get acquainted and anticipate the sources of possible misunderstandings.

Get Acquainted

The first step is generally easy: take the time to get acquainted socially.  People don’t interact comfortably with strangers, and you can take advantage of your “social” communication skills to simply get to know each other as people, not just co-workers.  Find common interests and don’t dwell on your differences.  Without even realizing why, you will probably find yourselves getting along better.  You don’t need to be best friends to be friendly.  Nor do you have to like a person to maintain a friendly relationship.

·                     Say hello to all co-workers when appropriate, whether you like them or not, and whether they respond well or not.  You are not trying to create a friendship, and you don’t need to take “negative” reactions personally.  You are simply signaling that you are willing to work cooperatively, should the need arise.

·                     Pay attention to the personal information that you do hear.  You should never go out of your way to quiz a person on his or her personal life, but when others volunteer information, you should not ignore it.  Once you know that a person has a family, a dog or an illness, it is appropriate to ask now and then how things are going.

·                     Smile.  Smile a lot.  Smile when people say hello to you.  Smile when people pass you in the hall and don’t say anything at all.  Smile when you walk into a room.  This doesn’t mean to walk around with a goofy grin on your face all day, but do make it a point to look pleasant, even when you don’t feel pleasant.

·                     Find something you have in common.  Even though you are in a work environment, the social rules of conversation can be used to find a few topics that two people can chat about on a social basis.  After the first “Hi, how are you,” offer a cliché or interesting fact on one of the common topics of conversation: current events, sports and business news.   Get in the habit of reading the national, local, sports and business news so you have something to say when the conversation moves away from the business task at hand.

Become a person of depth and substance, reflecting knowledge of global, national and local events.

Anticipate Misunderstanding

A good communicator is always aware of the limitations of language.  No matter how well prepared a message might be or how carefully one listens to the response, language can never create a perfect match of meaning in the minds of the communicators.  Naturally, you will pay attention to format, message structure and language clarity whenever you communicate with other business people, but you must also learn where to expect misunderstandings to occur. 

Some misunderstandings occur because the format or structure of the communication is not what the listener or reader was expecting.  You leave a handwritten note for the supervisor on the next shift, who tosses it into a pile because she is used to seeing your instructions on the company’s orange “follow-up required” notices.  Others occur because the communicators have not chosen their words carefully, using jargon, equivocal terms or vague words. 

Your manager says to “straighten out the vendor returns,” meaning you should quickly sort them by vendor and distribution center.  Instead, you begin a thorough investigation of several charge-backs that have not cleared, trying to identify the underlying cause of what appears to be a recurring problem.

Your good information sharing skills will help you to correct and often prevent these errors, but sometimes the most carefully constructed messages are interpreted in ways you never anticipate.  Other people seem to be using words in ways that just don’t make any sense to you.  You listen as carefully as you can and still find yourself in the middle of a misunderstanding.  Communication in the business world will inevitably occur among people who don’t think exactly like each other, and you can expect to find yourself misunderstanding each other.  Good interpersonal communication involves the ability to anticipate areas in which you are likely to use language a little differently from others and to learn to communicate “across” those differences of gender, culture or values.

Interaction Styles

Even though some “public” traits are expected of everyone in the business organization, individual personalities are still unique  Getting along means a series of adjustments to the differences in the way human beings behave.

The most noticeable difference between people’s interaction styles is the general orientation toward introversion or extraversion.  Extraverts are those people who seem to gain energy from other people.  They typically like to talk to others to solve problems and will be happy to have a meeting to get something done.  Introverts, on the other hand, sometimes describe themselves as being unable to talk and think at the same time, or as feeling “drained” when they spend a lot of time talking to others. 

Introverts are not particularly shy, and extraverts are not necessarily friendly, although others sometimes perceive them that way.  Generally, extraversion is valued in the workplace because it creates a general willingness to communicate, but the more introverted ability to concentrate on a task, thinking it through without interrupting others, is equally appreciated.


The U.S. business community generally values direct, unambiguous language, but the rules change when communication is happening in a social context.  Even the most direct speakers recognize that sensitive “personal” situations and issues require a more tactful approach; the unvarnished truth can come across as brusque and uncaring when people’s feelings are at stake.  Further, not everyone in a business organization is comfortable with the traditions of the “straight talking” American cowboy.  Many women and people from other cultures find U.S. businesspeople to be abrupt and crassly focused on stating the obvious; they often believe that more care should be taken to develop relationships among people. Good business communication skill involves continuous monitoring of the situation to decide how best to balance clear information with social harmony. 

Strategic Ambiguity  Politeness sometimes requires “yes” or “maybe” instead of a clear-cut “no”.  Ambiguity is used differently to promote harmony, avoid assigning responsibility, or establish a relationship.  The old saying, “you can kill more flies with honey,” describes the social awareness that people don’t like to be threatened with negative information.  You can soften a blow, gain assent or gain time if you find a nice way to put information that might not be taken well.

Rapport Building, U.S. schools try to teach students to adopt direct, assertive, authoritarian ways of expressing themselves, focusing on information, facts and competence.   The lessons start with “show and tell” in elementary school; you might remember someone showing a pet frog to the class, while the teacher carefully coached the speaker to “say the full name of the frog and say where you got it” or to “talk loudly so we know you mean it.” 

Sometimes teachers focus these lessons on the “better” students or on those who seem most likely to use the skills. Students who seem to be “artistic” or “not-college material” are not always trained quite so carefully.  There are still teachers, in fact, who assume girls, ethnic minorities or “funny looking” kids are unlikely to enter business or politics and thus won’t need to develop this assertive “report” style of talking. 

Little girls, in particular, are often encouraged to adopt a supportive, tentative mode of language, focusing on emotions, relationships and the communication itself.  A little girl might be encouraged to “tell how much you love your frog” and a budding artist might be asked to “describe the shades of green on your frog.”

In reality, everyone in the business world needs to be able to switch back and forth between assertive, instrumental language and expressive, conversational talk in order to accomplish both task-related and social communication well.  If you have already learned the habits of direct, assertive, “businesslike” communication, you will become a better communicator by learning to listen and speak with the “social” communication patterns that focus on relationships.

Sexual Messages  Possibly the most difficult area of misunderstanding arises when the workplace becomes a context for the most intimate topic of social relationships, sex.    In a social environment, males and females have both learned to hide their true feelings, looking for clues and hints from a potential partner before responding with an equally veiled, ambiguous signal of interest.  If the signals are misinterpreted, a moment of embarrassment might result. She slaps his face and walks off.  He never calls for a date. The moment is awkward or painful, but there is no lasting harm.

In the workplace, though, a missed cue can remain awkward for a long time.  You ask a colleague to join you for dinner, and when the answer is “no” you find yourself avoiding meetings because you might run into each other.  Sometimes the cues are misinterpreted, with painful consequences.  You might notice that a certain sales rep calls very frequently, mistake that as a sign of personal interest, and find yourself personally and professionally embarrassed when you respond in kind.   Sometimes, human beings even give cues unconsciously.  You might find someone attractive and not even realize that you are staring a little too long across the lunch table until people start to giggle at you.

Many U.S. businesses solve the problem with a rule that prohibits any personal relationships between co-workers.  Then you can always assume that ambiguous sexual messages should not have occurred in the first place and should be ignored. Not all organizations have such a rule, and sometimes people fall in love anyway, but any potential relationships should be quickly and directly addressed.[2]  Leave the ambiguous sexual cues and innuendos at social events, neither giving them nor acting on them when you communicate in a business environment.

Assumed Meanings

Words are used differently in different communities.  A term used in one industry might mean something different in another.  “Right away” means something different to Mexican and U.S. managers.  Whenever communicating with someone of a different age, gender or culture, or even someone who works in a very different career field, look out for areas in which the meaning of words might not be the same.

Relationships in a Small Team

Whatever the various purposes of a business team, its primary function will reflect the task-oriented culture of business.   No matter what other decision-making or support functions a team might carry out, people in business tend to define “good” group communication as those processes and practices that help a group get its job done.  If you are also a great analytical problem solver or have a nurturing supportive personality, you will be appreciated for those as well, but they will probably be listed on your job appraisal as “smarts” or “great personality” rather than in the “good communication skills” box.    

In order to do a good job of team communication, you need to know how a typical team communicates, and then you’ll have to develop skill in performing each of the steps involved.

How Teams Work

“While some researchers focus on individuals’ motives for working together when they define cooperation (Mead, 1976), others focus on relational behaviors….and define cooperation as interactive and relational behavior that occurs between members of a work group and that is directed at task achievement in the group” [Milton, 2005]. Effective group work is not the result of a lucky combination of motivated and skilled individuals; it is a function of the interactions—the communication—among the members.  Motivation and skill, by and large, are the consequence of good team communication, not its cause.

“When people cooperate they act in ways that advance or potentially advance each others’ interest.  Sometimes they benefit personally, and sometimes they do not.  Cooperation may fall within or extend beyond job roles” [Milton, 2005  192]

Many people involved with teams, students and workers alike, think that being assigned to a “good team” is just a matter of luck.  In fact, we understand most of what it takes for a group to make an effective transition into a productive team, and we’ve learned that teams can be trained to work effectively (Tullar & Kaiser, 2000).  Good communication practices can virtually guarantee that a team will form effectively and even enjoy the process.  The team members will have a satisfying experience and the team will be able to accomplish its work productively if communication processes are used to create four key characteristics:

§  a strong group identity

§  interdependent goals

§  a clear task understanding

§  common communication rules

These characteristics don’t come about by accident, although sometimes groups don’t realize what they are doing, even when they get it right. 

Why Groups?

Businesses have many reasons to organize employees into groups.  Some are related to productivity; for many tasks, teams can do more work and better quality work than lone individuals.  Teams are also a popular step in building an organization’s cohesiveness and worker satisfaction, which in turn encourage innovation, quality and responsiveness to the customer.   Finally, teams are increasingly understood as the only adequate way to manage the knowledge work that characterizes the emerging “knowledge” economy.

Productivity and Quality  

The advantages of shared work were probably what got the very first organization started.  One lone farmer simply could not accomplish the amount of work a group of farmers could, and pretty soon a group of neighbors invented threshing bees and barn raisings.  More importantly, a group of people could accomplish a more complex task.  That group of farmers could not just out-produce the same number of lone workers, but by working collaboratively—sharing equipment, coordinating scarce resources and comparing notes on the effectiveness of their farming methods—they could increase total community productivity far beyond the sum total of their individual efforts.  Finally, the quality of the farmers’ output would almost certainly be more consistent and quite probably better overall.  As they learn from each other, they all begin to use the best pesticides and fertilizers; as long as the community is not faced with serious outside problems such as a flood or a drought, the farmers will take delight in pushing each other to grow the biggest pumpkin or to raise the sleekest calves.

The world’s economy has come a long way, and cooperation is even more necessary to insure the quantity, complexity and quality of work in the 21st Century global environment.  The massive scale of global business creates an obvious need for large groups of people to perform the massive quantities of work required, but perhaps even more important, no single mind can hold all the expertise needed to perform the marketing, finance, production and management functions of a contemporary business.  Even the most successful entrepreneurial genius quickly reaches a point where his or her one-person company simply cannot be run without the collaborative efforts of others.

Quality of work in the contemporary business organization is also a function of effective cooperation.  In the classical management model, quality was controlled with careful task specialization and individual accountability, a set of tools that created the phenomenal success of the Industrial Revolution.  The complexity of global, high technology business requires a different set of management tools, however, which are geared toward maximizing the success of individuals working within a complex system (Scholtes, 1998).    Teams are the contemporary management tool that guarantees high quality work in today’s highly interrelated environment.  Quality is no longer guaranteed by seeing that an individual worker produces high quality widget parts.  Instead, the use of a team insures quality work by guaranteeing that a) all workers involved are sharing the information they need to do the job, b) the various parts of the organization affected have input into the work and c) multiple alternatives are generated and discussed in the course of doing the work (Kettlehut, 1991).

Worker Cohesiveness and Satisfaction

No one has ever denied the economic success of the no-nonsense production line, but we’ve remained nostalgic for working conditions that seemed more like that community of cooperative farmers.  Sure, the work was harder and the hours longer, but the co-workers were friends and family. 

During the middle of the twentieth century, management theory began to recognize that employee attitude and motivation had a significant effect on work, and businesses began to pay more attention to the effects of social interaction in the workplace.  From this human relations perspective, teams came to be seen as a way to help the organization function in a more humane way, building morale, trust and cohesiveness among employees.

Simply renaming a group of workers a “team” does not guarantee friendship, and as management fad, creating teams for the purpose of creating camaraderie has lost much of its luster.  Poorly managed teams are not only less productive than a traditional hierarchical organization, but they can create more frustration, competition and interpersonal conflict than any production line.   Well-designed, well-managed teams can create an atmosphere of trust, camaraderie and shared success that human beings find fulfilling, but success requires attention to that complex overlap of social and task behaviors discussed in Chapter Five.  In order to develop productive camaraderie, teams must include a) members with interpersonal decision-making and problem-solving skills, as well as the necessary job skills, b) a shared motivation to use their skills and knowledge to achieve a common goal and c) effective communication strategies to coordinate the skills, efforts and actions of the team members (Thompson, 2000).

The Knowledge Economy

Teams are certainly useful to increase productivity and quality and many people do appreciate the social aspects of teamwork, but the 21st Century shift toward a “knowledge economy” virtually requires collaborative work. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, calculates that virtually any economic growth (and virtually any job with career potential) will come in "symbolic-analytical services," those jobs that "simplify reality into abstract images that can be rearranged, juggled, experimented with, communicated to other specialists, and then, eventually, transformed back into reality" (1993 178). 

Knowledge teams are quite different from production teams of the industrial age.  These are not simply groups of people who are told by management to work on the same project.  The work itself is non-linear and usually organized in terms of “projects” that involve multiple and overlapping inputs and outputs.  For example, a cross-functional team works on a client’s product, coordinating everything from purchasing supplies and developing features to marketing and accounting.  Or, a development team applies a range of expertise to locate, anticipate and resolve problems before the product is ever even proposed to management.

Team members are expected not only to work together on information-coordinating tasks, but they are expected to coordinate the information and expertise for themselves.  A separate management team does not plan, organize and direct the work.  Instead, information resources are shared and used “on the fly” to get the job done.  These workers typically have partners or associates rather than bosses or supervisors and teamwork is critical (K. Fisher & Fisher, 1998; Reich, 1993 179).

Successful teams in the knowledge sector depend on members with solid individual skills, but those skills can’t guarantee team effectiveness.  At this level of integrated knowledge work, the focus of work is not the individual using his or her own “content” knowledge to perform a task, but on a group of people “creating” knowledge together in an intricate dance of activities (K. Fisher & Fisher, 1998).  The team as a whole must be able to a) acquire and transfer knowledge, b) synchronize that knowledge with rapid and continuous communication and c) apply its knowledge in a coordinated way such that everyone involved seems to share “one mind”—an implicit understanding of what, when and how things need to be done (K. Fisher & Fisher, 1998).

What is Your Group’s Purpose?

The first step in understanding how to communicate in a work group involves finding out exactly what kind of group it is.  The shift from production lines to work groups is an on-going one, and there are many different kinds of group situations in most businesses.   In general, groups can be categorized into three basic types: decision-making groups, support groups and task groups. 

Some groups are formed with a mixed purpose, of course, or you might be unclear about a group’s purpose.  A group might be asked to make a decision, for example, and then implement the solution it has chosen.  Or a supervisor might want input on a decision, asking the team to discuss various options, without intending to let the team make the decision (Kettlehut, 1991 14).  Sometimes, teams are poorly managed.  A team is told to work collaboratively, only to discover later that individuals are actually being rewarded for meeting independent, unrelated and even conflicting goals, or the team is called together as a decision-making team but given no access to the information it needs to perform its function.

As a new member of any work team, it’s a good idea to figure out just what kind of team you are on.  There are some principles that are true for all groups, but other expectations and behaviors will depend on the group’s purpose.  Communication tasks, procedures and skills can be very different, and you won’t be successful in a team if you are reading from the wrong playbook. You will also need to understand exactly how your own individual skills fit into the team picture.  Each type of group has somewhat different requirements, and a different mix of individual traits and skills can be needed.  You might find that you are very good at helping behaviors and a wonderful person to have in a support group, but still need to learn some key communication procedures and habits to be successful in a task group.  Different skills and behaviors are needed at different times, and your career success depends on your success in communication within all the groups you become a part of.

Decision-Making Groups

A decision-making group is one in which people are brought together to decide between one or more courses of action.  Decision-making groups are very important in civic affairs, but a pure decision-making group is seldom found in the business world.  You might be invited to participate in an employee task force to decide on a company dress code or create a budget for a summer picnic, but a more typical entry-level responsibility would be to provide information that would allow a management group to make a decision.  As you advance in your career, you will become more involved in decision-making processes, although even at the highest levels of management, decisions are not typically made by a single small group.  See the chapters in Part V for a more thorough discussion of the decision-making process in a typical business. 

You will find, however, that many projects require members of a work team to make decisions.  Often a decision must be made individually.  Sometimes, two or three members of a team will get together to discuss options, determine the solution they would like to propose to management or make a decision about something within their own area of responsibility.  A decision can also be an agenda item when the whole team gets together for a meeting.  Whatever the decision-making circumstances, your understanding of the decision-making process being used and your personal effectiveness in making decisions will affect the quality of the decision and the success of the team.

Support Groups

A support group is formed to provide emotional or material resources to facilitate successful individual behaviors.  Breast cancer survivor groups, Alcoholics Anonymous, AOL chat rooms and undergraduate study groups are all support groups.  Members are typically “all in the same boat” and get together to offer advice, encouragement and sympathy to each other.   Few businesses create formal support groups, but informal support groups abound.  Workers gather after work to complain about the boss and learn a few tricks for making it through the next day; lunchroom groups mentor and guide new employees; specialists join e-discussion groups to make contacts and gain expertise by talking to others who have the same kind of job. 

There is an aspect of support in any effective work team.  You will sympathize with your team members’ struggles with the same unreasonable client or clueless vendor, provide advice on a component of the project that you handled in the past or just offer a friendly smile in the middle of a tense meeting.  A variety of interpersonal skills are required to be successful in the supportive aspects of group work, a topic that is covered in Chapter Five.

Support groups have less need for interaction with the environment  and even function because they create a separate internal “reality” that creates a safe space in which members can be sheltered from the external environment.

Task Groups

The most common type of group in the business world is the task group, a collection of people gathered together to perform a shared task or meet a common goal.  Within this category there is a range of possible work arrangements, from simply combining individual work through a wide range of resource-sharing arrangements, all the way to collaborative work.

Combined Work Most business departments are created to combine the work of many individuals.  A public relations department might include a writer, a graphic artist, a media liaison and a clerical support person, for instance.  An account supervisor puts everything together to create brochures, ads and a publicity campaign.  The group might work together consistently and think of itself as the client’s creative “team,” but each worker’s success is independent.  If the artist is supremely talented and the writer is a dolt, the supervisor might have to do extra editing to get a good brochure, but the artist is not seen as any less talented, and the writer takes all the blame for his own errors. 

Cooperative Work Sometimes workers are asked to “work together” by sharing resources, effort or information, but each member of the team remains responsible for his or her own productivity.  For example, several accounting clerks might share a single computer, hold a weekly meeting to update each other on “problem” vendors and hold a weekly “filing bee” to cheer each other up with a little competition around that boring task.    Their group is called a “team,” and they are encouraged to help each other out when workloads are uneven.  They might even receive a group bonus based on the company’s level of receivables, but each clerk is given an individual review based on the number of invoices processed and the amount of discounts taken. 

Collaborative Work When work requires the cooperation of several individuals to meet a common goal, no one member of the team is considered successful unless the whole team meets its objective.  In one sense, virtually any business activity is collaborative; everyone’s job is needed for the organization to meet its overall profit objective.  People usually think of collaborative teams as smaller groups of people, however, who work together to complete a task or meet a short-term goal.  A systems team, for example, might be responsible for the specification, design and creation of an interactive website.  No matter how many system elements are completed by individual members of the team, the project is not complete until the site is up and running.   Individual team members might acknowledge and reward each other on a personal basis for contributions to the team effort, but the client won’t pay anyone for the work until the group’s overall goals are met. 

Team Dynamics

At the early stages of a team’s project, personal conflict can arise surrounding uncertainty and tension as new associates lack information.  A second stage is often confrontational and can see conflict as associates test each other.  A third stage moves toward substantive conflict where tensions are productive in achieving the best team solution.

The size of the team can make a big difference to its internal dynamics.  Groups that consist of two sets of members, as when a team is created from two merging companies or as a bilateral task force, are likely to experience task, process and emotion conflicts.  Rather than taking on individual roles within the team, people come to the group as members of two “factions,” leading to conflict and ultimately to poor performance.  The problems are made worse if the factions also exhibit different demographic characteristics, increasing the likelihood that individuals on each side will stereotype team members of the other faction (Li & Hambrick, 2005).  When two companies merge, for instance, and a cross-company team consists of several young people from one company and several older workers from the other, the two groups are particularly likely to experience difficulties(Li & Hambrick, 2005). 

Developing Teams

Perhaps you’ve heard that one of the “inevitable” stages of group formation is “storming” and you’ve just resigned yourself to the hassle of groups as a downside of having a job in business.   It was more than thirty years ago that  researchers demonstrated that groups of people coalesce into teams by working through a series of relationship stages, often referred to as forming, storming, norming and performing (Tuckman, 1965). 

Since then we’ve learned a great deal about how people communicate in groups; the dynamics are quite complex.  The character of a group’s development will be unique, influenced by such factors as task complexity, team supervision, organizational, group and individual goals and team members’ expertise in productive group communication.  Nevertheless, there are usually some discernable phases in group’s development.

Stage One: Forming

The first “getting acquainted” phase of a group’s existence is characterized by each individual testing and defining the rules and limits that will form the group’s unique culture.  The more homogeneous the group, the less conflict will arise during this phase.  Similarly, groups that include a number of people who have worked together previously will experience less stress during this phase. 

As the individual members discover that they share common goals, common norms of behavior and a clear definition of membership in the group, they will begin to think of themselves as “group members” and gain a sense of shared identity.

In a self-managed group, especially one that has not received a clear charge or mission, this phase can be characterized by suspicion, fear and anxiety.  Individuals might try to resist their inclusion in the group, defy others’ attempts to define common goals or simply explore how little time or effort will be required to still maintain membership in the group.

Good leadership or a skilled team supervisor can facilitate the forming of the team by guiding the group toward productive communication practices.  The team must get acquainted, define its task and agree on group procedures before it can be said to have successfully formed itself as a team.

Stage Two: Storming

Many groups enter a second phase of overt conflict, generally when individuals begin to realize the high demands of group membership.  Many employees in large business organizations find themselves assigned to multiple teams, each with its own tasks, meetings and deadlines.  It is not unreasonable for a busy person to “test” the situation and determine which teams really warrant an expenditure of time and energy.

During this phase of group development its members will often find themselves in competition with each other, defensive about each others’ conflicting goals or jealous of each others’ resources.  Members might need to establish a “pecking order” in their relationships and might find themselves changing their minds about each other as they settle into an agreement about how much work each of them will be doing on the team’s projects.

If the team members are involved in only one team, without competing work assignments, a supervisor or strong team leader should be able to minimize the conflict in this “storming” stage by facilitating clear communication about the team’s task, resources and project plan.  On the other hand, teams that must share member time and attention with other job duties will sometimes find themselves in conflict over issues that are external to the group.   Strong leadership might be required to redefine the team’s task and resources within the organization so that its members can work together productively.

Stage Three: Norming

Once team members are comfortable with their individual and collective contributions toward the team, the team will begin to form a distinct team “identity” as it develops unique team norms.  Habitual communication patterns, idiosyncratic work habits, a developing group memory of “how we do things” within the team, and a deepening understanding of each other as fully-rounded personalities all contribute to a sense of the team as a unit.

During this phase, any remaining conflicts should be resolved as team members develop a higher sense of intimacy.  Individuals begin to set aside stereotyped roles and expectations of each other, replacing them with authentic conversations in which they confide in each other, share personal problems and discuss the team’s task, goals and relationships in a productive way.

While this stage cannot be forced to occur prematurely, a good team leader will encourage situations that foster the creation of comfortable routines and productive conversation.  Only a moderate amount of work will be accomplished as members are still working out the specifics of the team’s procedures, and a leader can push the team back into conflict if he or she expects too much.  Nevertheless, a team that begins to see itself as having the resources to accomplish a task will fairly quickly start to generate the sense of team cohesiveness that marks a productive team.  

Stage Four: Performing

Finally, the team will have reached the stage of maximum productivity.  Familiar and comfortable with each other as individuals, team members are able to depend on each others’ resources, perspectives and contributions.  The team can begin to work “as one” to diagnose and solve problems, make decisions and take action.

Naturally, this does not mean that the team members will never experience any further conflict!  A team leader will find a cohesive team to be self-sustaining in many respects, but will need to remain involved in the important tasks of resource procurement, feedback and communication management.  Supervisors or team leaders often play the role of liaison with a client or the organization, as well, which are often the source of task or resource changes that can sometimes require a group to return briefly to the negotiations and conflicts of earlier stages.

Managing Team Communication

Even if teams were comprised of very similar human beings, with perfectly coordinated goals and common expectations of team behavior, the management of productive communication would require time, energy and attention (see Chapter Eight).  In reality, team communication is additionally complicated by the variety in personality, culture, expectations and motivation among the team members.  Effective communication in a team environment thus requires attention to the “human” elements of team communication, without losing track of the “task” elements of productive communication practices.

Managing Information

Placing people in a group can dramatically change the ways in which they process information.  Communicators will intuitively tailor their messages to the specific recipient, giving more or less information on their judgment of what a listener needs.  The group members’ perceptions of each others’ experience or interest will thus affect the completeness of their communication.(Habermas, 1989) 

Obviously, it is easy for anyone to guess wrong about how much information another person needs, and research demonstrates that group members consistently tend to underestimate the amount of information another team member needs.  Group members will often assume that their shared goals and on-going interaction “automatically” create a level of shared information (Thompson, 2000).  The reality, of course, can be much different.  Even attending a meeting together does not guarantee that two people “heard” the same information.  Certainly it is easily possible for two people to interpret the same information in completely different ways.

Since the problem is not, strictly speaking, with the information itself, simply increasing the amount of discussion, the number of discussants or the amount of information discussed will not solve it.  The problem is with the way in which human beings use information as part of their socialization process.  A good team leader must thus act as information manager, insuring that information is effectively shared within the group. 

A closely related problem involves the interpretation of the information that is received.  People tend to distort information they hear, interpreting it to be more favorable that it really is .  Interestingly, the more a member cares about the group the more important it becomes to find favorable information and the more distortion is likely to occur.  Furthermore, politeness within any community requires that negative information be cushioned with indirection, incompleteness or ambiguity [Brown and Levinson 1987 Politeness].  All of these social influences mean that managing information transfer within a team situation is not merely a matter of finding the most productive channels or structure; good communication also requires attention to the objectivity of information.  Steps must be taken to insure that communication within the team focuses on complete and accurate information transfer, especially when the cohesiveness of a team makes the process more difficult.

A key factor is maintaining the objectivity of information, separating message content from such stressful issues as having another time-consuming meeting, being held accountable for a task or resolving a conflict within the team .  Conversely, team members must be careful not to equate pleasant interactions with useful information or to judge the quality of information on the basis of how positively other people in the team react to it.

Ideally, the team should look for quality information as a decision-making tool, rather than assuming useful information to be a natural by-product of all communication.

  • Approach any decision as a problem or puzzle to be solved, rather than as a problem in conflict resolution or consensus building exercise .  If people start to think of decisions as contests between personalities, they are less likely to seek out and carefully consider all the information.
  • Emphasize differences in the expertise of individuals, rather than differences of “opinion” or “personality” .  When information is separated from personality, team members will be able to concentrate on locating and accurately judging information regardless of who provided it. 
  • Focus conversations on the unknowns, rather than the knowns.  Groups tend to use conversation to reinforce what they already know .  This is satisfying social behavior because it creates a sense of community, but the result is that information which is already known to everyone on the team is most likely to get discussed and remembered.  Shared information thus has more influence than “new” information, regardless of  its objective value

Managing Conflict

Conflict is the aspect of group communication that people fear most, but it is more often productive than dysfunctional in a team situation.  A lack of spirited, open discussion can lead to variety of decision-making problems, from a failure to adequately evaluate information to short cuts in analysis or planning.  When individuals are unwilling to explore their differences of perception or interpretation, there is no way to insure that all the available data have being effectively used.

Conflict resolution from a broader organizational perspective is explored in more detail in Chapter Fifteen, but team communication calls for some particular sensitivity to the way in which cohesive communities handle conflict.   Since the fundamental purpose of a community’s purposeful communication is to arrive at an agreement regarding common action, conflict is always something to be resolved.  Rather obviously, it is impossible for a team to act as a team until every individual in the group is somehow persuaded, coerced or tricked into cooperating with the decision.

Team dynamics will thus seem to seek an end to conflict, whether that involves individuals simply avoiding conflict and “pretending” to agree, creating group norms that justify agreement or engaging in communication that seeks resolution.  Research demonstrates, for instance, that group members will direct most (70-90%) of their comments toward someone who has expressed a deviant position (Gulley, 1963).  Even without intending to resolve or even identify the conflict, the group will be most interested in discussing a topic on which there seems to be a difference of opinion.  Perhaps more frightening, however, is that once the group determines that it won’t be able to change the person’s mind, its members stop directing comments toward him or her.  In effect, once the team realizes that it can’t act as a team on the point, it cuts off communication to the individual, figuratively throwing the person out of the group (Gulley, 1963).

In spite of the natural avoidance of conflict, a group can learn to use conflict to discover that misunderstandings have occurred.  Even when communication patterns appear to be avoiding an issue or driving the group toward a false agreement, locating the source of that conflict can be a method to identify an issue that needs to be discussed more openly.

Accidental and uncontrolled conflict can be difficult to manage, however, and might even create interpersonal conflicts that damage the group.  Better methods include formal brainstorming sessions, in which every idea is accepted and recorded before each one is systematically evaluated according to set criteria, assigning one or more team members to play devil’s advocate and systematically look for flaws in an idea, or a formal debate in which team members take opposing sides on an issue to insure that all arguments are raised for and against each option.

Managing Agreement

Given the degree to which groups avoid conflict and seek agreement, it can seem odd to consider agreement a problem in teams.  As you have probably gathered from the previous discussions, however, the team that comes to premature or false agreement is likely to make poor decisions, despite its sense of cohesiveness or comfort with the team processes.

The standard advice to any team leader is to take steps to avoid “groupthink” (Janis, 1983). 

  • From the very beginning, encourage the group to set norms of openness, frank discussion and objectivity that reward those who speak up when they find something to be missing, ambiguous or incorrect.
  • Aggressively seek “outside” input into the team’s decision-making process.  Since it is the desire for team solidarity that forces agreement too soon, it can be especially useful to have a non-member available to play the role of impartial investigator or “devil’s advocate.”  Often a new team member can play this role very well, serving as an “honesty check” as he or she asks all the “dumb questions” that only a new person can seem to get away with.
  • Divide the group into subgroups, asking each smaller unit to assess the same information or rank the possible solutions.  Even though each of the subgroups might come to agreement too soon, it is less likely that they would both come to the same erroneous conclusion.
  • Verify individual perceptions of any agreement independently, away from the pressures of a group meeting (Hackman, Brousseau, & Weiss, 1976; Kettlehut, 1991).  Team leaders will often schedule formal or informal “pre-meetings” or “post-meetings” to discuss issues privately (Kettlehut, 1991 16).  This allows individuals to voice concerns or disagreements that they felt uncomfortable expressing as “public” comments during a meeting.
Team Communication Skills 

Team communication is an interdependent process of sharing and using information, and team communication literally does not exist except in the context of the whole team.   On the other hand, group success is influenced by the competencies, traits and attitudes of the individual members (Brilhart & Galanes, 1995).  An individual’s work appraisals might include comments about how willing he or she seems to be to work as part of a team, or how well he or she seems to be able to function in a wide variety of team roles.  Even though most of the success or failure of a given team depends on things that happen within that team’s unique context, an individual can prepare to cope with a wider variety of situations by learning a range of procedures and skills and the criteria for choosing the most appropriate in a given circumstance.  


Getting Ready for Group Work

Responsibility to the Group

In practical terms, it might well be that the “most important” attitude for a team member to have is “a sense of responsibility for the success of the group” (Brilhart & Galanes, 1995).  The work involved in the task itself and the work involved in creating and maintaining good team communication processes will take some—sometimes a great deal of—attention and effort.  The individual who starts out with no desire to put forth any effort will certainly fail to contribute to the success of the team!  In a work situation, motivation is probably not a major issue.  If your job requires team efforts, then you must simply learn how to do them well in order to succeed. 

There is some skill involved, however, in being able to visualize and articulate your generalized desire to “get ahead” or “do a good job” in terms of the team’s specific, operationalized goals.  Further, there will always be real and apparent conflicts between various goals you might have.  You want to get ahead at work, but you also want to knock off early to be with your family or work on your golf game.  To some extent, learning to defer some pleasures, like golf, in order to get some work done is a matter of maturity.  On the other hand, you will spend your whole life balancing family and work, or team responsibilities and individual work responsibilities. 

Whether you call this sense of responsibility to the team a “skill”, a “level of maturity” or simply the “motivation” of future career success, a sense of responsibility to the team is an individual element that you must supply in order to be a good member.  

Thinking Skills

Not all groups are decision-making groups, but abstract reasoning ability is useful for the problem solving or analysis that is often done in the course of many business team projects.  In some groups, particularly production or response teams that must quickly initiate coordinated action, well developed implicit cognitive skills are most important.  In either case, having the thinking skills appropriate for the task at hand will make you a better team member (Kline, Hennen-Floyd, & Farrel, 1990).

For the analytical tasks, you will need to develop your abilities in differentiated, abstract, organized thinking (Brilhart & Galanes, 1995).  Not everyone is good at this kind of thinking—it’s the kind of thinking that makes someone good at math or law—and research indicates that most group members are not particularly good critical thinkers (Gouran, 1986).  Equally important is a more manageable aspect of analytical thinking: an open mind toward new information and the reasoning of others.  Highly dogmatic individuals who ignore the information available and refuse to budge from their “own” positions do not make very good group members when critical thinking and analysis need to be done (Brilhart & Galanes, 1995).

If integrated, implicit coordination is your group’s goal, you’ll need to have a holistic sense of what the team is trying to accomplish, attentiveness to the elements of the task or environment that impinge on project success and confidence in the values that guide the team’s decision making (Weick & Roberts, 1993).  This kind of thinking almost always requires a long history of interacting within a very similar team or project.  (Spitzberg, 1992; Sternberg, 1996)

Personality Preferences

Although a career in most fields of business really doesn’t leave you too much choice, there are some people who really do not function as well in teams as they do alone.  Good team members are those who are interested in doing larger projects than a single individual can accomplish.  They are interested in interactive job situations, learning from others, judging themselves against external standards and sharing knowledge with others (Van Meer & Stigwart).

Some personality traits are particularly useful in team situations. A preference for order involves a desire to follow a clear, linear structure in problem solving (Putnam, 1979).  This trait is particularly useful when a group is using a highly structured problem solving procedure, but a highly ordered personality functions less well in loosely structured decision-making teams (Hirokawa, Ice, & Cook, 1988). When it comes to implementing the plans a team has set up, though, this is a trait that will make you a standout.

Obviously, group work is highly dependent on interpersonal relationships; the personal competencies that allow you to work well with other human beings are important factors in team success (Larson & LaFasto, 1989).  In general, the qualities of emotional intelligence discussed in Chapter Five are helpful, although anyone can learn at least the basics of maintaining good interpersonal relationships. 

A dynamic, active personality can lead to more interpersonal interaction within the group and might even cause others to think of you as a dynamic leader.  Be careful, though; dynamic individuals can also dominate a group’s problem solving processes (Haythorn, Couch, Haefner, Langham, & Carter, 1956; Strube, Keller, Oxenberg, & Lapidot, 1989) and become involved in competitive conflict tactics (Oetzel, 1998b).

Administrative Skills

Because so much of team success depends on good planning, the person with well-developed planning skills will be a valuable team member.  Sometimes this is related to background knowledge about the task.  If you already know what the steps are that go into holding a conference or creating a website, you will be able to plan that same kind of task more easily. Planning also requires an ability to visualize a concrete goal and the ability to create a method for achieving it.  Neither pie-in-the-sky daydreams nor arbitrary operational steps qualify as good planning.

A huge factor in team project success is the organization of vast amounts of information, communication, resources, competing interests, procedures, decisions and documentation.  Being able to remember what needs to be done, and systematically delegate, monitor and adjust to keep the systems humming is a major skill to bring to a group.  As with planning, experience can be a major factor.  If you’ve already learned how to make schedule revisions, to scan the environment for risks, to implement and monitor financial elements, quality and the supply chain, you’ll find that it is easier to do these jobs again.

Communication Skills

In the work setting, practical skill in communication techniques might be even more important than personality preferences or relationship skills.  Those who are willing to communicate are given credit for making more contributions to the group and having more effect on the group’s outcome (Barry & Stewart, 1997; McCroskey & Richmond, 1988).  Even in highly technical and independent work, such as software development, it is communication that  accounts for most of an individual’s influence within the team (Hefley, 1999; Sivitanides, Cook, Martin, & Chiodo, 1995). 

  • Listening Be attentive.  Take notes and stay up with the conversation.  Learn the vocabulary.  Find out the background of issues so you understand how things relate to each other.  Listening is not just staying awake and taking notes for “the test.”  This IS the test.
  •  Process Monitoring  Learn to watch the conversation while you’re taking part in it (Brilhart & Galanes, 1995), trying to see whether progress is being made toward where the group wants to be, rather than focusing on an arbitrary criterion (Van Meer & Stigwart, 1989).  Keep a focus on the immediate needs, stopping the group from jumping to unwarranted conclusions or missing important process steps. (B. A. Fisher, 1985)
  • Documentation Skills goal, process, decisions, implementation; format/production expertise: web, intranet, report, memo, meeting facilitation, presentations; content/strategic communication expertise: argumentation, evidence, research, political sensitivity.

You need not be an expert at every communication skill, but try to develop at least the basic skills of listening, self-monitoring, process monitoring and document preparation.

Technical Proficiency

Finally, team success depends on member competencies in the actual technical steps that are essential to task performance (Larson & LaFasto, 1989).  To some extent, teams will even forgive your lack of social skills and communication skills if your technical skills are strong enough (Hefley).  On the other hand, who wants to be known as the useful nerd?

Putting the Skills to Work

Although all of these individual skills are important, they aren’t useful in a vacuum.  They must be developed within the context of a particular group, a process that takes its own set of rather sophisticated communication skills.  Since every group will be unique, there is no one set of rules to follow.  Instead, you’ll need to learn a set of questions.  If you can see how each of these factors is affecting your team, you will be more likely to find the right set of skills and processes to help your team accomplish its purpose.

What is the group’s purpose?

Different kinds of groups are subject to different kinds of threats (Larson & LaFasto, 1989).  When a group is supposed to be implementing some sort of project and getting a job done, the biggest threats to its success are role ambiguity and communication barriers.  Every member of the group needs to know what to do and have the information to do it in order for the project to keep rolling.  Good tactical groups are characterized by clarity: everyone must be totally clear about what to do, when to do it and how to do it.

On the other hand, clear individual responsibilities are not a real problem in problem-solving groups, which are more threatened by a failure to use facts, an unwillingness to explore possible solutions and “political” pressure that cause the group to make decisions that are not based on good thinking.  A good problem-solving group is characterized by trust; members must be willing to offer their opinions and criticize others’ to make sure the best solution is found. 

Of course, your team might be neither of the above and charged instead with being creative in some way.  The teams that must brainstorm new ways of doing things or ways of expressing ideas are most threatened by blocked processes and uneven participation.  This kind of a group might be able to stand lots of ambiguity about who is supposed to do what and plenty of screaming, yelling and outright dislike—as long as everyone is putting out lots of ideas.  A good creative team is characterized by autonomy;  people must feel free to let it all hang out and let all the weird, wonderful ideas happen.

What has happened in the past to this group?

Much of what we know about groups has been learned by putting strangers together in a room and asking them to work together on a task. Only recently have researchers begun to look at  real-life groups to see why they do what they do (Putnam & Stohl, 1990).  Much of what they do is influenced by who they are “outside” and what they’ve done before.  The relationships within a group might be influenced by a member’s title, prestige or status in the organization (Putnam, 1989), informal friendships outside the group (Farris, 1981; Van Zelst, 1952), departmental allegiances and group stereotypes (Bertoeotti & Seibold, 1994).

Measurable productivity is not very closely related to good group processes until the team has been working together for a while (Royal), and the problems found in a newly formed group will be quite different from those in a group that has been through many cycles of work together.  Similarly, turnover in a team will have a dramatic impact on its processes, sometimes throwing a well-functioning team into total disarray.

How diverse is the group?

In general, people are most comfortable in groups that are homogeneous, but more productive if there is diversity (Baugh & Graen, 1997; Dumas-Brown, 1999; Fields & Blum, 1997; Schoenecker, Martell, & Michlitsch, 1997; Van Meer & Stigwart, 1989).  Homogeneous groups tend to share communication norms, a team asset in terms of getting along more easily (Brilhart & Galanes, 1995). Heterogeneous groups are more likely to have unequal distribution of conversation and resort to majority decision (Oetzel, 1998a), which can seem uncomfortable and unfriendly for people who are new to teams.

Once a team has learned to balance its diversity, however, it can take advantage of a wider range of skills, traits and resources, and generally will do better work.   (1997, ; Diversity in Work Teams)

How is our organizational environment affecting us?

It goes without saying that team success can be dramatically affected by their external environment.  External crises and severe time pressures will reduce the time a group spends on problem solving, communication, information processing (D. L. Gladstein & Reilly, 1985).  Overlapping memberships, organizational status, external connections and power resources will all affect decision making (Donnellon, 1994)[Thompson, p 68 skills list]   In fact, in some studies, team productivity has been found to be unrelated to measures of satisfaction or self-reported effectiveness, but dependent on the ways in which teams manage interactions across their boundary and the impact of the organizational context (D. Gladstein, 1984 62?).

Relationships across Boundaries

Perhaps most fundamental to positive communication is the ability to have communication at all.  An important part of good information processing is the ability to quickly locate or clarify the information needed to perform a task.  Often, the best communicators are simply those who know who to call, already have the person’s phone number and are comfortable enough with that person to call with a question.

Social Relationships at Work

Most work situations involve a person in a wide variety of “dyadic” relationships—ongoing patterns of interaction between two individuals.  To some extent, these relationships are governed by the organizational roles that each person plays.  In fact, we define most work relationships in terms of the work roles each person plays: superior-subordinate, co-worker, colleagues or associates, vendor-customer and mentoring relationships.  Typically, we make a contrast with “non-work” relationships, which are defined in terms of the relationship itself—friendship or family connections.

Mixed Relationships

Most individuals who work together for long periods of time will develop some kind of social relationship that exists along side the business-role relationship they also share.  This results in a dual or mixed relationship in which communication is used for social purposes to form and maintain the relationship, as well as to maintain the task communication in accordance with the organizational roles each person plays. 

Thus there will be some interpersonal communication with co-workers that is valuable and important for its own sake.  Small talk and “chit chat” are important because they create opportunities to cement relationships, and all the little social cues—smiling, saying good morning—are vital to “good” communication.  Meanwhile, there is also task-focused communication, often stripped of any emotional nuances or personal context that might get in the way of clear, concise information transfer, which is carefully proscribed by the productive and hierarchical rules that define the “work” relationship.

There can be some frustration as bosses try to get socializing employees to focus on their work, even as colleagues grumble about the unfriendliness of those who have no time for anything but the job.  A healthy organization is one that reflects a human community’s ability to balance its needs for both social and task communication.  Communities are possible because human beings can balance these mixed relationships.  Villagers figure out how to be helpful friendly neighbors, while at the same time doing hard-nosed business deals down at the market.  Close knit, loving families successfully switch to task roles as they run a family business.  Larger groups sometimes divide up the roles so that certain people take on the relationship-oriented “social” functions, leaving the others to concentrate on the tasks that need to be done.  The success of these traditional groups points to several ways in which a business organization can productively balance its social and task communication:

Individuals who play both roles will “change hats,” making a clear distinction between their “neighbor” or “dad” conversations and their “business competitor” or “boss” conversations.  Some people will realize they have even developed a “work personality” that is quite different from the “social personality” that shows up at lunch or on breaks.  Married couples or roommates who work closely together sometimes report that they have completely separate relationships at home and at work.

Clear communication includes explicit signals as to which type of communication is being used.  A supervisor who has developed a close personal relationship with a subordinate might say, for instance, “Fran, I need to talk to you like a mom, right now…..”  Often, an early morning “chit chat” conversation will turn to work matters with a verbal signal, “All right guys, let’s hit the deck,” or even with physical cues such as putting on a tie or tapping a clipboard with a pen.

Just as important as the cue is the ability of others to pick up on the cue and their willingness to cooperate with the switch.  Balancing social and task roles is always a negotiation between both parties, and Fran might object, “no…I want this to be strictly business,” or the guys around the water cooler might ignore the pen tapping to continue a discussion of last night’s ballgame.  Maintaining the balance might require some discussion now and then, but in a healthy organization, people pick up on the cues easily and go along with others’ requests to switch roles.

Converging findings in video conferencing: videoconferences are better suited to support such activities as informing team members than to negotiating sensitive issues.  They are more difficult than face-to-face meetings to lead and direct with the organizational phases of the meeting taking longer, and there is a tendency in video conferences to develop subgroups of “us here” and “them there” (371).  Participants in the remote sites “tend to be perceived as less sympathetic and less competent compared to participants in the same room” although some problem-solving groups have been shown to achieve the same or better results with a video interaction (372) (Meier, 2003).  “videoconferencing imposes a particular interactional context and accompanying dynamics that group members have to work with and around in their efforts to establish groupness” (373) (Meier, 2003)  The joint focus of attention is “much more fragile” than in a face-to-face situation (373) (Meier, 2003).  The time lag can “throw off” the “action coordination across sites” and “once the interactional system becomes unbalanced…it becomes very difficult for participants at the remote location(s) to get a word in again” (373) (Meier, 2003).  “communicative actions performed ‘here’…come across less than fully transparent ‘there’…consequently, participants at the remote location(s), at times, appear to be uncooperative or even slow witted” (373) (Meier, 2003)









Chapter Notes

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[1] The term is popularized in Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoon.

[2] It is especially important to respond directly when the perceived sexual attention is unwanted and repeated.  See Chapter Eighteen for more information on sexual harassment, which includes communication of a sexual nature that has the effect of creating a hostile work environment.