May 22, 1995

Everybody who’s anybody in the A/E/P and environmental business will tell you that teamwork is critical to the success of their firms. But aside from the occasional hiring of a smooth-talking organizational psychologist to give their staff a “feel-good” talk, what can they do to reduce conflict and promote teamwork? Evidently, not enough. It seems like every day we hear from firms or observe first-hand examples of infighting, unresolved conflict, and poor teamwork. It’s quite common to hear how the electrical department is fighting with the mechanical, because the mechanicals are taking too long to select their equipment. The structurals are fighting with the architects because the architects keep changing their designs up until the last minute. Project managers are fighting with department heads (and each other) to get staff. Word processors are unhappy about how the professionals don’t give them enough early notice on a big specification or report that will have to go out the next day. Joe’s group is fighting with Steve’s group for no apparent reason. The Tuscaloosa office manager is on a rampage about the poor service she is getting from the corporate marketing people, and she wants heads to roll. Principal Bill is fighting with Principal Ed because they both think that they should become CEO when Founding Principal Jim retires. You get the idea— these situations and others like them are typical of the unresolved conflicts that are allowed to go on and that really contribute to the notion that there is a teamwork problem. So, if you are the head of a firm, an office, or a workgroup, what can you do to defuse some of these conflicts and promote cooperation? Put people who don’t get along together. I don’t know where I first learned about this tactic, but it works. If you have two people who don’t get along, or two groups that don’t get along, one of the best things you can do is physically locate them right next door to each other. Closeness breeds familiarity and understanding. When two people, or two groups of people, become more familiar with each other and understand what one another is going through, bingo! They get along better. Report, report, report. One of the biggest sources of conflict and misunderstanding in the typical A/E/P and environmental firm is a lack of hard information— information about who is actually selling what, who is billing what, and where the money is really going. And information alone is not enough— it has to be presented in a way that everyone who sees it can understand. The problem is that when the information is not flowing, assumptions are made. And we’ve all heard the tired adage of what happens when you assume: It makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” Find out who is really right. Leaders and managers in the A/E/P and environmental business could really improve on this count. Our tendency is to try to smooth things over instead of getting right to the heart of the matter to find out who is right. The fact is, someone probably is right and someone else may be wrong. Your job is to figure out which is which and deal with the people and the situation accordingly. And that may require a confrontation— something most of us seek to avoid. Confront the non-team players. In any group, there will be people who are trying to get ahead by stepping over somebody else. These people want the other guy to look bad, even if it hurts the organization as a whole in the process. This behavior is simply unacceptable. Any leader who knowingly allows these situations to continue risks destroying the morale and productivity of his firm or workgroup. Even if the “non-team-player” is a superstar solo performer, he will have to learn how to behave in an organization if he wants the opportunities and rewards that can only come from being part of a collaborative effort. Your job is to get the offender to understand this. Tear down barriers to cooperation. “Barriers” include things such as arbitrary organization structures that are designed for the firm’s own convenience, but have little to do with either the selection process or production of the work. Or incentive compensation plans that reward one group for hoarding backlog when another group that has the ability to do the work sits idle. Or office layouts that promote separation and poor communication by keeping some people isolated from the rest. Or policies that require corporate service folks from marketing, finance and accounting, information services, or human resources to bill the internal users of their services every time they ask for something. You have to take a hard look at every single aspect of the organization and ask yourself whether or not it promotes or discourages cooperation and teamwork. Promote team victories. Instead of having an “employee of the month” program like most firms, Dave Evans, CEO of David Evans and Associates (Portland, OR), created a “team of the month.” It was a conscious effort to promote team victories versus individual victories. An A/E/P or environmental firm, once it achieves any level of size and success, is more like a football team than a baseball team. Teamwork is required for every single play. And if you want to be the coach of a winning team, it’s your job to stop the conflict and get everyone running in the same direction on the field. Originally published 5/22/1995

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