Why Building Teams Doesn’t Always Result in Teamwork

Associations are notable for encouraging multitasking. But without close attention, all those tasks can drain workers.

People talk about “wearing many hats” so often in the association world that you’d be forgiven if you sometimes think you’re in the haberdashery business.

The many-hats conceit is often discussed with a smirk, or as a point of pride, especially in small-staff organizations—Monday I’m an events coordinator, Tuesday I’m a publisher, Wednesday I’m in credentialing, and so on. None of that is necessarily a bad thing; there’s plenty of research out there celebrating the virtues of giving workers stretch goals, mixing up teams, busting silos, sharing knowledge across the organization, and otherwise shaking up how work gets done.

But if your job is to manage these many-headed ad-hocracies, it’s worth know about the downsides of that structure. Call it Bad Hat Management.

Too Many Commitments

In “The Overcommitted Organization,” an article in the Harvard Business Review, leadership scholars Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner, point out that what they call “multiteaming”—having multiple employees on a variety of projects—is rife with potential weaknesses. Such teams often come together for the sake of efficiency, which means overextended workers can be prone to burnout. An ever-changing team structures can make it hard for them to function well. “Teams discover that the constant entrance and exit of members weakens group cohesion and identity, making it harder to build trust and resolve issues,” they write. “Individual employees pay a big price as well. They often experience stress, fatigue, and burnout as they struggle to manage their time and engagement across projects.”

Employees are at risk for stress, fatigue, and burnout.

But beyond that, they argue, multiteaming struggles often occur because managers aren’t mindful on who’s working on how many teams. “Imagine, for example, a sales manager who wants to provide better solutions for customers by incorporating insights from her team members’ experiences on other projects,” they write. “That’s not going to happen if splitting each individual’s time across five projects means her team doesn’t have the bandwidth to sit down and share those great ideas in the first place.”

One person Mortensen and Gardner interviewed likened the multiteaming experience to being “‘slapped about’ by different project leaders”—which isn’t the kind of situation any leader wants. If the hat metaphor applies here, we’re making people wear too many hats that look bad, don’t fit, and that they have to change out often.

A Better Fit for Those Many Hats

Many association leaders are well aware of the Bad Hat Management problem. Indeed, Associations Now put the question to CEOs directly in 2014, asking them how best to manage a culture of seemingly perpetual multitasking. All the advice is valuable, but I’m particularly taken with how Nancy Aebersold, executive director of the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium, approaches the issue. “Identifying your hats and priorities will help you see more clearly whether there are areas that can be delegated or reassigned to others in your organization or whether there’s a staffing need,” she says.

In other words, know how many different teams you have people on, and how high-priority their tasks are. Doing that work won’t just help you identify the workers who are precariously close to burnout, Mortensen and Gardner write, but also help you see which teams seem to operate at a distance from the rest of the organization. Such teams may be less relevant, poorly structured, or may need more attention to stay in the loop with the rest of the organization. “These ‘islands’ will require help staying informed about what’s working elsewhere in the organization, sharing their knowledge and ideas, and deciding who would be the best resource to apply to a given task,” they write.

Beyond that, they note that one straightforward way to improve a multiteam culture is to give those teams the opportunity to better know one another. “If you don’t engineer personal interactions for them, chances are they’ll be left with an anemic picture of their teammates, which can breed suspicion about why others fail to respond promptly, how committed they are to team outcomes, and so on,” they write. That open discussion, they point out, are also opportunities for members to talk about what their other priorities are.

Again, shared and diversified responsibilities in an organization isn’t a problem. Creating rigidly structured and separated teams is the very definition of a silo, and you didn’t get into this business to be a grain farmer any more than you did a hat model. But before you casually say, as we in the association world all have, that everybody wears many hats, think twice. It’s a cultural norm that has consequences.

What do you do to monitor your teams and how many people are working on them? How do you make sure employees aren’t burned out from the multiasking? Share your experiences in the comments.

(oneinchpunch/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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