Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

Team Sense-Making: A Mental Model for Navigating Uncharted Territories

Academic journal article Journal of Managerial Issues

Team Sense-Making: A Mental Model for Navigating Uncharted Territories

Article excerpt

If the use of teams in the workplace makes such good intuitive sense, then why do managers and workers often find team experiences frustrating and their results disappointing? Fortune, Business Week, and Industry Week all report the struggles that managers have with team implementation (Dumaine, 1994; Tully, 1995; Verespeg, 1990, and Zellner, 1994). The Economist reports a study indicating that as many as seven out of ten U.S. teams fail to produce desired results (1995). Researchers, too, experience difficulty showing that people working together perform better than people working alone (Erez and Somech, 1996; Nahavandi and Aranda, 1994).

America's team troubles have been blamed on a variety of factors. Nahavandi and Aranda (1994), for example, suggest that in collectivist cultures such as in Japan, teams have been successful because individual performance is less important than group performance, conflict is avoided and conformity is expected, and workers are more accepting of management's authority than in individualistic, western cultures. Other explanations for team woes focus on inadequate team leadership and team structure. While these explanations have merit, there may be an even more fundamental explanation for the difficulties of teams in western cultures. In our view teams often run into trouble because their members subscribe to a prevailing view of organizations that sharply limits their ability to maximize team contributions.

This prevailing view, command and control, presents organizations as machine-like systems that are designed with an emphasis on order, predictability and control. The assumptions inherent in these organizations about how to think about work, how to get work done, and about the roles of managers and employees often run counter to the requirements for successful teamwork today. In particular, the unspoken image of good managers as ones that create order and exercise control may in fact thwart team performance.

While managers often talk about empowerment and the use of teams as enabling individuals to influence the organization, teams are instead used as just another way to help restore order, improve predictability, and achieve specific outcomes. In one semi-conductor supplier firm, for example, managers using quality teams experienced pressure from upper management to continually identify quality barriers; this sometimes led team members to make up new barriers just to have something to report (Beyer et al., 1997). Evidence also shows that another type of workplace team, the self-managed team, can exercise concertive control, a form of group control even more powerful than the hierarchical, bureaucratic control systems that may be found elsewhere in the organization. The powerful combination of peer pressure and rational rules in the team can create a new iron cage with bars that are almost invisible to the workers (Barker, 1993).

When teams don't increase organizational productivity, we often assume that it is because of poor leadership or inappropriate team composition. In this article we argue that there may be a deeper underlying cause of the problems with teams to be found in a mental model, one of command-and-control, that has prevailed in managerial thought for years. This model, appropriate to previous times, continues to persist despite the fact that today's social and business environment becomes only more staggeringly complex, rapid changing, and unpredictable (Bogner and Barr, 2000; Wheatley, 1992). What is badly needed is a means to open up our thinking about teams to incorporate a model that is capable of embracing turbulence, complexity, equivocality, rapid change, and increasingly unknowable futures (Ashmos, 1997).

Current literature suggests that turbulence, a perpetual state of change and ferment, has become a relatively permanent situation for organizations (Stacey, 1992; Wheatley, 1992; Bogner and Barr, 2000). …

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