The modern business world encourages individual achievement and success more than ever before. However, most work is still accomplished through team efforts. This creates challenges for managers in effectively leading teams when society and business culture emphasize the individual over the group.
Today we will explore how managers can navigate this tension by first summarizing the key challenges and then providing specific examples and recommendations for overcoming them to build high-performing teams.
Challenge 1: Accountability Is Blurred in Teams
One of the main issues teams face is that accountability becomes blurred when working in teams. It can be difficult to assign credit or blame when tasks are shared among multiple individuals. This challenge grows as teams become larger and more distributed.
Specific examples of blurred accountability include group projects in schools where it is hard to determine who truly contributed or free-riding behavior. In the business world, accountability problems often arise in cross-functional teams spanning departments. Sales and engineering may each think the other is responsible for an issue at the interface of their work.
Managers can bring clarity to accountability through several strategies. One approach is assigning clear ownership over specific deliverables or aspects of projects. While collaboration is key, there needs to be an individual sign-off at certain checkpoints. Performance reviews should also assess individual contributions to team success, not just the outcomes. Recognition programs can highlight standout efforts from specific team members. Documenting team processes and member responsibilities upfront helps ensure accountability is understood by all.
Challenge 2: Individual Career Goals Compete with Team Success
Individuals in today's workforce are laser-focused on advancing their own careers above all else. This can threaten team cohesion and success if personal ambitions are not aligned with collective goals. Team members may hog credit, withhold helpful information from peers, or focus only on tasks that boost their resumes.
In academia, the "publish or perish" mindset drives overly competitive behavior between colleagues in the same department. In many large companies, internal job changes happen so frequently that employees feel they must look out for number one at the expense of their current team. Startups battling for survival also see "every person for themselves" attitudes emerge during crunch times.
Managers counter this by cultivating a strong team culture and shared identity. Team-based recognition and rewards demonstrate that achievement is measured as a unit, not just as individuals. Rotating leadership and responsibilities gives everyone chances to contribute and learn in high-profile ways. Psychological safety must also be established so no one feels their career will suffer from collaborating wholeheartedly. Structured feedback helps surface issues before they escalate due to underlying insecurity or office politics.
Challenge 3: Remote and Asynchronous Work Hurts Coordination
As the workforce grows more distributed, asynchronous and remote work will further diffuse team cohesion and ease of cooperation. It is harder to align efforts, make timely decisions, and develop familiarity and trust among distant colleagues. Synchronous collaboration becomes a challenge over time zones and different schedules.
For example, developers in an Agile software team may struggle coordinating effectively if split between two offices or when expected to contribute after core working hours. Brainstorming new product ideas loses efficiency if marketing team members cannot meet in-person. Research collaborations across universities face delay if relying on emails and documents instead of real-time problem-solving.
To overcome these difficulties, managers should optimize available communication tools to maximum effect. Video calls and messaging apps try to simulate in-person interactions as closely as possible. Project documentation and project management boards provide visibility into all work at a glance. Strong facilitation is needed for any remote meeting to stay focused and drive actions. Setting synchronous hours helps ensure timely progress. Surveying team morale periodically keeps managers apprised of relationship issues before they obstruct work.
Challenge 4: Lack of Team Spirit Erodes Morale and Outcomes
Finally, modern individualism has weakened traditional team spirit and camaraderie in many organizations. Without a feeling of shared fate and cooperative social bonds, team members may put in minimal viable effort and lose motivation over time. Morale, cohesion and psychological safety all decline when working in a team feels like an obligation rather than something rewarding intrinsically.
For instance, a sales team pushing new yearly quotas lacks unity if members feel pitted against each other rather than pooling resources. Software coders silently coding away solo all day fail to collectively problem-solve thorny bugs together. Call center teams processing high volumes of individual tickets burn out without team-building to find purpose in their interdependence.
Managers can reignite team spirit by facilitating social engagement, traditions and bond-deepening activities. Recognition should highlight team achievements, not just top performers. Flexibility allows members setting their own collaborative workflows. Leaders also model cooperative spirit through their own actions each day. Survey feedback systematically improves esprit de corps over the long-term through small victories.
The modern emphasis on individualism poses real threats to effective team functioning and performance if left unaddressed. However, thoughtful managers can overcome these challenges by bringing clarity to shared goals and accountabilities, cultivating a cooperative culture over a competitive one, optimizing communication practices for distributed work, and prioritizing team morale and social cohesion. With patience and strategy, organizations do not need to decide between individual achievement or team collaboration - they can skillfully balance both.
Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.