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Team working and senior management


Mike WestwoodThe following feature is contributed by Mike Westwood of training organisation Ambit. This is the first of four features and examines how some senior managers react to teamwork requests.

Talk tough

People in business talk tough. They use words like: compete, penetrate, beat, fight and plan. These verbs could come from a briefing for a military campaign. The language is robust and those that use this language are certain.

Look at the TV adverts that are set in the business environment. It’s difficult to know whether the advert is for a razor, a mobile phone or an airline ticket because each one is people by the same characters – decisive, in control and certain.


A second aspect of corporate life is that management is surrounded by support: secretaries, PCs, mobile phones, comfortable cars, staff – indeed, the whole company. So all they need to do is talk tough (and talk long hours) and somebody somewhere down there does the task.

Managers expect everything to work. This means they can concentrate wholly on what they are good at – being certain, in control, decisive – and not have to worry about anything else.

But, a high level of support can cut you off from reality. This support is self perpetuating and unquestioning. It reflects back what the tough cookies want to hear.

Remember the TV series showing senior managers going down to the shop floor? The supermarket director was horrified when he found the trolleys didn’t work; the MD of the travel company found that his reps got no sleep because they had so many forms to fill in after entertaining their guests.

How did they get there?

A third aspect of corporate life, particularly top management, is that we need to understand how they get there. Some get there because they are company workers – unselfish, practical, get the job done, pick up what others fail to do, a safe pair of hands. But many more get to the top because they fought their way there. They are single-minded, focused and energetic.


But here’s the curious thing. All senior managers talk about teamwork and the importance of collaboration, yet they never do it themselves. Teamwork, for top management, means middle managers and technical experts – these are the people that they believe need it.

The tasks of a middle manager, and certainly those of a technical expert, are often performed as individuals. Yet, it is those individuals who are forced to go up mountains, down caves and then paddle a raft with a number of others with whom they have nothing in common.

It’s a curious anomaly that all those who really do need to explore how they cooperate or share ideas on how they could all be more effective, don’t do so. For example, the sales force, an IT development team or call centre staff. These are the people who actually do the work or interact with the customer. These are the people whose experience should be prized, whose performance is vital to the organisation.

But, ask top management to allow one of these units to explore how they might do better or address issues or generate ideas, and what is the answer? “What! A whole day off work? Those people don’t need this. Waste of money.”

In the middle of the organisation, let’s have less interference with the poor middle manager. Middle managers are intimidated from above by hyperactive bullies. Middle managers spend their working hours trying to enthuse their staff who have never been consulted or listened to.

It’s at the top where teamwork should be explored. Let’s hear less about penetration and competition; let’s hear more about working together, sharing and building. Let’s have less certainty and more questions

Ambit is a training organisation whose aim is to work with clients to develop individuals and teams, to solve performance problems, focus staff, drive through major change.

Mike Westwood’s second article Organisational Solutions that don’t work is now also available.

4 Responses

  1. Three Kinds of Boss
    Excellent article, thank you. When I ran a year-long event called Top Team 2000 I found three different reactions among top leaders approached to take part. I characterised them as: 1) Miss Hannigan, the boss of the orphanage in ‘Annie’ who would rush furiously in at the sound of the kids enjoying themselves to yell, “Do I hear happiness?” This kind of boss would have no truck with trivial team games. 2) Miss Bountiful, who patronised the competition as some kind of jolly for the serfs; something the boss orders the middle to do for the bottom. Finally, and much more rare 3) Geoff Tracy, the father figure of the Thunderbirds team, who rarely got involved himself, but was there as a wise presence taking an interest in what was going on.

  2. Team Work needs systems
    I run many Team Building courses. Where I find they break down is where companies have not set up systems to encourage and assist team work. Team work involves people communicating, planning and prioritising, which means spending a little time together (preferably face to face but if not then over the phone). Many companies say “we can’t afford the time” when in actual fact a small amount of time spent planning and prioritising creates more time for working. Companies must be prepared to change their systems and encourage good team work.

  3. Teamwork: the Opium of the Masses
    This was one of the neatest summaries of how corporate teamwork really works I’ve ever read.

    No genius (or successful thug) has ever been a team-player. That’s for the huddled masses.

  4. Poor management involvement is nothing new!
    TQM was the great paradigm that would solve all ills, but it was implemented at middle management level down, which was a fundamental contradiction in philosophy. BPR was the same story and so it is with team work. When senior management refuse to get involved with team work one knows leadership is poor. Undertake a cultural audit and confirmation is certain.

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