Not Really Part of the Team:
by Rick Brenner
Some team members hang back. They show little initiative and have little social contact with other team members. How does this come about?
Two redwoods in the Stout Memorial Grove of the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in California. Although we're accustomed to thinking of trees as individuals, competing with each other for sun and nutrients, recently uncovered evidence suggests that they cooperate, with more mature individuals transferring carbon and nutrients to less mature individuals through their root systems, mediated by the action of fungi. If forests actually are more cooperative enterprises than we have heretofore imagined, singleton, isolated trees might be regarded as being in an unnatural state, like the isolated team member of a virtual team.
In this view of the life cycle of a tree, we wouldn't be surprised to find an isolated tree doing less well than its better-connected relatives. Nor should we be surprised that an isolated member of a virtual team contributes less than that same member would if co-located with the rest of the team.
Photo courtesy U.S. National Park Service.
Some people are on the team, but aren't really part of it. They seem to hang back. They do their jobs, but there's no sparkle and little pride. Their social connections are limited to a few people, if any. Most interactions are directly related to their responsibilities. They show little initiative, even though they're capable of more than they're actually doing.
Because this pattern can keep the team from reaching its potential, it pays to ask, "What's going on?"
To solve puzzles like this, many look only (or almost only) at the person who's hanging back. And in some cases, the explanation does lie there, within. But in my experience, that's rarely the full story. It might not be even a small part of the story. More often, hanging back results from the dynamics of the team, in which the person who's hanging back might play only a small role. And some of the contributing causes might even lie outside the team.
Here's Part I of a short catalog of factors that can cause some people to hang back.
- Virtual isolation
- When some members of virtual teams are geographically isolated from all other members, they can find it difficult to form relationships with people they've never met, or never will meet. If they believe that they'll have little interaction with teammates in the future, they might invest little in building relationships now, especially if they've encountered even slight difficulties in past attempts. They just do their jobs and prepare to move on. Thus arises one of the hidden costs of virtual teams: depressed initiative for isolated team members.
- Pariah roles
- Some roles When some members of virtual teams
are geographically isolated from all
other members, they can find it
difficult to form relationships
with people they've never metare considered "less than." These people are on the team, but their opinions aren't valued. They do a particular piece of work, and that's all they are expected or permitted to contribute. Not only are their opinions and observations undervalued, they aren't even sought. Their unsolicited contributions often land with a "plop," and are promptly ignored, until, in some cases, those same contributions are offered by someone less of a pariah.
- Drive-by team members
- These people are assigned to the team part-time and temporarily, along with several other assignments that they have in parallel. Their expertise is rare within the organization, and the team regards itself as lucky to have a slice of the drive-by team member's time, on any conditions. They schedule team meetings at the convenience of their drive-bys, and they permit the drive-bys to attend just part of the meeting. When the drive-by shows up for a meeting, the team immediately drops what they're doing to address the drive-by's agenda item. Drive-bys regard the team as inferior, and themselves as superior. They offer little to the team beyond the rare expertise that the team needs so desperately.
We'll expand this catalog next time, examining causes with a bit more emotional juice. Next in this series Top Next Issue
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See also Workplace Politics and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
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