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letting off steam

examining the workplace team concept

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Teams - do they belong in the workplace?

It's about time, world, that we talked about the team analogy/model as applied in the workplace, don't you think? I do and I am writing about it on this inconsequential silo in the back of the virtual beyond because no one can stop me. I'll start by making it clear that this is not an academic piece. There will be no references to published work or any citations or new research to back it up. It will take the unapologetic form of a rambling polemic, aimed at any manager, anywhere, who happens to stumble across it. I expect to regularly revisit this article, adding further ramblings ad-infinitum, for which I don't ever intend to apologise.

My position is simple; I believe the team model to be completely irrelevant in the workplace, unless you happen to be a professional sports person 'working' in a team sports environment. If you are an Amish farmer eschewing modern machinery, you will have a far more appropriate understanding of a much older meaning of the term 'team' in your workplace. The same is true of ranchers and other livestock workers across agriculture. I am not talking about anybody in those categories directly. I am talking about office workers, factory workers and groups of any workers/managers who don't work with livestock and believe themselves to be part of a 'team' or, much more likely, have been told that they are part of a team. This includes mega-farm workers who endure team-talks and other manifestations of the team model in their nominally rural workplace.

Groups of individuals cooperating with varying degrees of effectiveness do not constitute a team. I will, throughout this article, however long it happens to be, always be comparing the workplace analogy to the sports reference always made in this context. In sport, teams are managed at various levels and every individual has their own area of expertise, which determines their 'position' in the team. Just look at what happens in penalty-shoot-outs in football (soccer) when the strikers and mid-fielders are all used up. Of course these experts/specialists do cooperate with their team mates but they don't dumb-down their skills by playing out of position for too long and managers/coaches don't select them out of position for good reason. There is no place for 'flexibility' in a sports team and, critically, there is no place for it in the workplace either.

I sense, dear reader, that here we begin to drift apart. Flexibility is essential in a modern efficient office/factory, you yell. By which you mean, of course, massively dumbed-down, lowest common denominator, the over-flexible jack-of-all-trades (experts of none) who are increasingly bringing more and more businesses and institutions to their knees, kind of flexibility. The divisive, demoralising, dehumanising, disrespectful idiot's guide meaning of the word flexible, whereby anyone who stands out as exceptionally good at any aspect of their job is quickly moved on to something appropriately demeaning to put them in their place before they expose the inadequacies of the team.

I apologise for my earlier use of the word 'silos' but I did it to emphasise the mindset of the modern senior manager, who works in a very black and white, risk-averse, ISO standards dominated world with no room for the very flexibility that they really need to engender real efficiency and productivity in the workplace. To them, if you are not a team-player, you are occupying a silo and are beyond their control and therefore, a risk. Risk is what got the human race where it is today, as is competition - the essence of real team-playing. Individual brilliance is behind all human innovation, progress and development and all success (and sometimes failure) that derives from it. Groups of collaborating individuals with a common goal are a powerful force in a sports team, as they are in the workplace but here they are not 'teams' in the former sense unless you are a management guru screwing a bloated fee out of gullible seminar audience. The modern senior manager sees the 'team' as something they can control, devoid of all individualism and surprise. Nothing in the fat-controller's world is to be unexpected, unplanned or unchecked. As much as possible is unpaid, so that the highest quality expertise fits into the rigidly specified pay scale in the same band as 'moron'. In the team sports context, individual flair and brilliance is vital and often paid for at a huge premium.

I refer above to the moronic end of the modern trend towards over specifying pay-scale bands, which apparently keeps costs low. This is a massive collective self-deception on the part of the accountants, senior-managers, lawyers and consultants who run most organisations for their own benefit these days. The clever people, the skilled people, the experts and conscientious, hidden in the smorgasbord of broad skills definitions have to carry and cover for the morons, an endlessly demoralising and degrading task. This increases sickness, resentment and 'staff turnover', always at a cost. The obvious continual risk to product or service quality or customer experience goes without saying but this does not matter if the Quality Manual has a process for dealing with the failures, which the senior managers can refer to in moments of personal terror. Their job is to maintain these systems and report on them and manage the fallout from them, and always ascribe failure to non-team players. Everything churned out of modern over-subscribed management schools is designed to maintain this status-quo in what amounts to a viciously re-cycling, jobs-for-the-boys (sometimes girls) scam.

In team sports managers/coaches listen to and are even guided by the expert knowledge and skills of the individuals in the team. Healthy argument and '360 degree' debate is vital to team development and poor performance is not accommodated or mentored or re-trained, it is removed, including managers who don't listen to the team. It is removed to improve the team, to advance it in competition to ensure success with no risk of unfair dismissal claims or no fear of the legal process involved and confidence in the wording of their contracts. In all other workplaces, the 'team' has to accommodate the poor performers and nobody is acting on failure other than to cover it up because the 'team' is to be driven, tamed and mastered and constantly cattle-prodded into slavering submission. Feedback will be sought, though, fairly and democratically and relentlessly analysed. In the workplace we retire, pension-off and occupationally-health the creative, inventive, expert, experienced and 'less productive' out of existence whilst re-training and otherwise tolerating the morons, which prevents the former from rocking the boat and the latter are allowed to inflict misery on colleagues for an eternity. Senior managers walk this eternal self-interest tightrope proudly displaying the MBAs that justify the careful business planning underpinning their economy-busting policies. At least their mortgages get paid.

Dear reader, the above is one of the principal reasons everything costs too much and nothing works properly any more. The other principal reason for our failing economy is massively over-priced land and property brought about by generations of greed and an absurd obsession with property ownership (the real reason for the banking collapse) but that I'll discuss at another time. No colour of political inclination, incidentally, will ever fix any of the above. Only a massive cultural, socio-economic and seismic shift in a self-understanding of the power of the individual can fix all of this. A collective cooperation that respects and encourages individual brilliance will always win against a hamstrung team putting in a collective minimum effort by default. Take baby steps and start a local anti-workplace-teams campaign.

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