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The Corporate Death of the Synergistic Team?

Posted by Louise Barnfield on June 27, 2008

Row Henson, in her session at our Fusion Strategy Council, and in her keynote presentation at OHUG this week, presented various research and statistics that have been common knowledge in the talent management arena for some time. However, one in particular made me ponder the reasons why…“only 20% of employees do what they do best at work” (Buckingham).

Hmm, so companies are consumed by the hot topics of employee engagement and retention; they strive to tie employee goals and performance to corporate goals; they pre-screen to ensure they get the best-fit new hires with less likelihood of quick turnover; and yet, the vast majority of employees are not enabled to do what they are best at doing! What’s that all about?

I have my theories – Subjective? Admittedly! Biased? Maybe! Argumentative? Most definitely! Valid? You tell me!

Firstly, I admit I pondered this only from the perspective of individual contributors, and with a particular bias on large corporations as opposed to, say, start-ups. So, yes, it’s a subjective, biased opinion but, hey, this is a blog not a thesis.

As an enterprise grows and automates its processes, employees seem to be increasingly pigeon-holed into strictly defined roles and responsibilities, with little or no allowance for personal preferences or abilities.

Is that because it’s easier to hire to a formula? …because it’s easier to interpret measurements and analysis if you have a large pool of comparisons? …or simply that resources have been so severely stripped that this simplistic approach takes less thought and effort?

When employees are straight-jacketed into formulaic roles that don’t take sufficient advantage of individual strengths and weaknesses, or likes and dislikes, is it any surprise that their abilities are not used effectively? Some of their strengths may be under-utilized, while they struggle to perform other tasks for which a peer may be better suited.

What if managers have the freedom to build a team in which each member takes on a heavier percentage of tasks that are most suited to their individual characteristics? What if the combination of the individual roles and personalities together can fulfill the needs of the team? A synergistic team – a mutually advantageous conjunction where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts!

On the flip-side, if job roles are too rigidly defined and applied to multiple individuals, each team member is forced to perform the same tasks in parallel with their peers. In this model, employees are silo’d vertically. Each may have their own subject area of responsibility but, to do their job, they all learn the same tools, attend the same meetings, follow the same processes, and even experience the same errors or problems (instead of benefiting from others’ experiences).

The cynic in me believes this is all about making life easier for senior execs, in a corporate environment where size precludes them having any personal knowledge of the individuals (or caring that they don’t!) – but at what hidden cost? Sure, it simplifies metrics, objective setting, and measuring performance at the highest level of the corporation – it’s so much easier to compare apples to apples – but how much untapped ability is being wasted, and how much effort is being duplicated?

In How to Build a High Engagement Workplace, Marcus Buckingham recommends that managers find ways for people to do what they do best. Of course, we have to be realistic about this, but at least this warrants serious consideration. As Buckingham acknowledges: “it may not be possible for everyone to be in a role which uses their strengths all the time“, although he continues “but managers can get better at identifying these talents, and providing opportunities for people to exercise these talents and to grow in them.” However, IMHO, I believe that in large corporations this responsibility goes beyond the managers, who are often hampered by corporate job descriptions and policies that effectively hand-cuff them from adopting a more flexible approach to their individual teams.

Am I an old cynic?…or are we witnessing the corporate death of the synergistic team?

…and what about the detrimental effect on employee engagement and employee retention? I throw those in because it’s always easier to get attention when you relate the issue back to a hot topic or two!

5 Responses to “The Corporate Death of the Synergistic Team?”

  1. Mark Bennett said

    Excellent post and your concerns are well founded given the grim statistics. I have hope though that companies will see the competitive advantage that comes with investing the time and effort into improving their systems, but not by making them formulaic. Rather, they will see the measurements as a way to uncover better ways to define roles and organizations that more effectively execute their strategy by being better at linking it to their talent capability.


  2. Meg Bear said

    Welcome to TalentedApps Louise!

    I personally believe that you are correct that companies can make this difficult for managers but to me this just points out that manager is the critical role for an engagement strategy.

    It really is the job of the manager to find the right path for an individual’s skills to be applied to the business needs of the organization. Good managers find a way to do this, because they know that this will ultimately make them successful. Would it be great for higher levels of the organization to better recognize this? Sure. But I do not think it something that managers should blame on the company. Not if they want to be successful. Managers need to own this problem and they need to succeed. Without that, these numbers are never going to improve.

  3. Ken Klaus said

    Great post Louise! Another scenario that comes to mind is the evolution of job responsibilities over time. I’ve been doing the “same” job for the past 11 years here at Oracle and the job I do today is very different than the one I was hired to do in 1997. Some of the changes were to be expected as we adapted to market conditions and incorporated new business strategies. But I also think it’s important to evaluate job roles and responsibilities every few years to ensure we still have the right employees in the right jobs; and if our HR and Talent Management specialists won’t take ownership of this process then maybe the employees should. What do you say Louise, shall you and I redefine the Product Manager role? =)

  4. Some of the things I do best are

    – Sit on a beach in Hawaii drinking cocktails
    – Watch Soccer and other sports
    – Listen to live Music
    – Snowboard

    Unfortunately nobody seems prepared to pay me to do these things 😉

    I am lucky in the fact I seem to be fairly capable as a software designer/project manager and that pays ok too.

  5. […] if employees are so motivated by the CSR agenda, then Louise Barnfield, in her posting: The Corporate Death of the Synergistic Team? alarmingly states that managers need to consider that according to research, only 20% of […]

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