Enhancing performance of Indian companies through better teamwork

Indian business leaders are recognising the importance of teamwork in business success.

Indian companies are slowly but surely realising the importance of teamwork since the economic reforms of 1991. This is because globalisation of the Indian economy in the liberalisation period has benefited from competition with many multinational companies. One aspect of this benefit is technology; the other aspect of this is the methods and practices of their management. Indian companies have now realised the importance of teams and teamwork, especially leadership teams at top levels. Many Indian organisations – especially large construction firms – have successfully carried out project work through project-based structures.

Project-based structures are structures where teams are created to undertake and complete a large time-based project and then are dissolved. This is clearly appropriate for organisations that attempt to deliver on time large projects to either government agencies or other private and public sector companies. Each project requires a configuration of skills in new patterns of human resources. In this article, we are not focusing on short term teams which get dissolved on completion of designated projects. Instead, our focus is on ongoing executive teams with continuous tasks.

The benefits of team-work in organisations are now well known. Team learning is the process of aligning the capacity of a team to create the results its members truly desire. It builds the discipline of developing a shared vision. Within organisations, team learning has three critical dimensions. First, there is the need to think insightfully about complex issues. Here, teams must learn how to tap the potential for many minds to be more intelligent than one mind. Second, there is the need for innovative and coordinated action. Third, there is the role of team members for other teams. For example, most of the actions of senior teams are actually carried out through other teams.

The discipline of team learning involves mastering the practices of dialogue and discussion. These are the two distinct ways that teams converse. In dialogue, there is a creative exploration of subtle issues, deep listening to one another and suspending of one’s own views. By contrast, different views are presented and defended in discussions. Team learning also involves learning how to deal creatively with powerful forces that interfere with productive dialogue and discussion. In Indian teams, the team leader requires skills to divert unhelpful dialogue and discussion.

A team may resist seeing important problems more systematically. To do so would imply that the problems arise from our own policies and strategies, which are under our control. In such situations, team members hold steadfastly to the view that problems are beyond our jurisdiction and therefore beyond our control. Chris Argyris, the most eminent scholar in Organisational Behaviour, names such excuses as “defensive routines” or habitual ways of interacting which protect the team leader and team members from taking responsibility for the problem.

Team-work in developed or advanced countries

Many developed countries, such as USA and U.K., have realised since World War Two that the top team is essential to the success of the enterprise. Indeed, Jack Welch is celebrated not only for increasing GE’s revenues nearly seven-fold in his twenty-year tenure but also for building some of the world’s strongest executive teams. Through his example, Welch provided inspiration to many Fortune 500 companies to build strong teams. Though he himself was a hero in the corporate world, known for his heroic leadership, Welch argued a case for building leadership teams of strong individuals who may not work at crosspurposes. Welch also emphasised that strong teams do not magically arise overnight. In fact, becoming a top-performing team requires welldirected efforts. A successful team requires a shared understanding of goals, values and skills of interactions to solve complex problems and constant self-renewal to expand their capabilities. Moreover, top teams interact poorly when they do not have a common direction and lack strategic focus.

Team-work deficit in India

In India, strong leadership teams are challenging to build because most executives in the team have climbed the ladder of functional departments and tend to defend their own organisational turf. A global survey on executive performance world-wide, made by YSC, a consultancy specialising in corporate psychology, has found that only 17 percent of Indian executives can count team-work as a strength compared to 30 percent Chinese and 28 percent for Americans.

The second important finding is that teamwork is a “weakness” for 24 percent of Indian executives, which is the highest figure globally. In the abovementioned survey conducted by YMC, 1,500 in-depth senior executives spread over seven big regions in the world, it was found that Indian executives moving into global roles did not possess enough skills in team-work and therefore needed training or coaching in team-work. One senior VP from India opined that while many Indian leaders have the knowledge and technical expertise and other attributes like strategising and ability to communicate, they are often socialised in the family and in the education system to compete and excel based on their individual
accomplishments and academic scores.

This implies that the Indian education system is at fault not in judging or even assigning team-work projects but emphasising individual academic excellence. Indian managers seem to have strong egos based on their individual achievements and competencies. However, team-work requires that the team leader and team members dissolve their egos for better teamwork.

Team-work requires subordination of individual goals and aspirations to the team goals. This requires a long training in actual team-work and help from a psychologist (for a temporary period) to explain to the team what went right and what went wrong in the working of the team. The main reasons usually found for weak team-work can be as follows: which teams suffer from one or more of the shortcomings may depend upon the context of the team and its agenda.

The possible shortcomings of teamwork in general

1. Incompetence or unwillingness of the team leader to lead the team;
2. No clarity in agenda;
3. No clarity in team goals;
4. Inappropriate membership in the team;
5. Inability to understand the methods of dialogue and discussion and to understand the differences between the two in the team;
6. Insufficient back-up from the top management to the team;
7. Frequent rejection of recommendations of team members;
8. Hidden agenda or ulterior motives of one or more team members to pursue own goals through the team;
9. Inability of top management to distinguish between committees and teams;
10. Maintaining a hierarchical culture within a company while eulogising team-work for its own sake in the company; and
11. Inability by the company CEO to distinguish between “groupthink” and genuine findings of the team.

The following examples will help poor team leaders in India to build a team which can develop over time and may be effective in its task accomplishments.

Relationship-building roles suggested for a team leader:

1. Supporting: “Your ideas are terrific.” “I really appreciate your openness and courage in expressing ideas.”
2. Harmonizing: “You two members are not saying different things but you are essentially saying the same thing in different ways.” “Your disagreements have given me a new insight into the problem because both your points are crucial.”
3. Tension-relieving: “Please do not get tense. Tension gets us nowhere. Relax.”
4. Confronting: “Please clarify the comment made by you as to how it is relevant to the topic.”
5. Energising: “Your insights are terrific.” “I’m enjoying working with this team.”
6. Developing: “How can I help you?” “I will get funds for your minor conveniences and refreshments.”
7. Consensus-building: “It seems to me that both of us are saying the same thing. Can we agree on the first two items on the agenda even though we don’t agree with the rest of the items on the agenda?” “Let me summarise on what we agree and what we disagree.”
8. Empathising: “I know how you feel.” “This is a very sensitive topic for discussion.” “You must be tired with this long meeting. Let us break up now and we will meet tomorrow when you are fresh.”

Concluding remarks

Building a team and running it successfully is one of the rare skills which some companies possess. However, many Indian companies lack this skill in the upper echelons of management. Indeed, Indian executives demonstrate high achievement motivation and drive. Even so, Indian executives typically lack the skills for team-building. Thus, Indian executives need to study some of the most successful team-builders from advanced nations. With this additional skill, the future of Indian companies is bright.

Dr Archan Mehta has a PhD in Management and is based in India. He has over 10 years of work experience in sectors like Media, Food Services, Hospitality, Education, and Security. He is currently a Consultant.

This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of HR Future magazine.

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