Balancing Act / Tricky business of collaboration

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Julie Black, a manager at a South Florida publishing company, was about to have another bad day. Her team member had blown a deadline and she would have to stay late, once again, to finish the project her boss was expecting in the morning.

"It's so frustrating that one person on a team can create havoc in everyone else's lives," she complained.

Shaping a championship team where individuals play cohesively to pull off a win can be one of the trickiest jobs a corporate leader faces. Workplaces are riddled with dysfunctional teams where a single player -- a slacker, a workaholic or a narcissist -- can affect the professional and personal lives of everyone on the team.

Getting individuals to play together can be especially challenging in a workplace culture that places a high emphasis on individual performance and competition. "Even when you have a bunch of egos, at some fundamental level, they need to believe they are working for the greater good of the team," said South Florida executive coach Alexa Sherr Hartley. "Great players who do not get along with teammates end up limiting their careers."

On any team, there may be a person who has a tendency to procrastinate or one who shoots down ideas that would actually move a project forward. Rebecca Nicholson, director of special projects for The Wasie Foundation South Florida, isn't exactly someone who shies away from confrontation with a difficult team member. Yet she knows obvious solutions, such as simply kicking the member off the team or firing the individual, are not always possible. Moreover, she now realizes that a better solution may be reorganizing team structure or responsibilities.

"It's easy to dismiss conflict as a personality issue. However, that detracts from being able to understand what the actual issues are," said Ms. Nicholson, who has a doctorate in conflict analysis and resolution. "Sometimes the real issue creating problems is the processes, the way resources are allocated or the way people understand -- or misunderstand -- their role on the team."

Rather than single out "problem" individuals, companies often come at solutions with broad-stroke fixes.

The most common are team-building exercises. For most of us, team-building conjures up images of spirited tugs of war, relay races and physical challenges. Now, companies are getting more creative -- using charity work, gardening and even glass-blowing as bonding exercises.

Some employers bringing in conflict-resolution specialists or coaches to improve team dynamics. Ms. Hartley, an executive coach with Premier Leadership Coaching, said she urges team leaders to have direct conversations about expectations and how the team should perform.

Still, there are times when a team manager or leader does need to address problems related to a single individual. Rather than dismiss someone, Ms. Hartley suggests confronting the problem without making it a personal attack.

"Name the problem in a factual way and how it impacts you. Explain the pattern you observed and make a request for a correction. [Otherwise, you can] forget team-building exercises."

Some conflict among team members is good, experts say. It promotes debate and creative thinking. In a healthy team environment, the leader knows the difference.


Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC;


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