Article Review

In his March 2018 HBR article, “To Reduce Burnout on Your Team, Give People a Sense of Control“, the author, Andrew Wittman, observes that team dynamics play a key role in workplace stress. He argues that “being part of a team can be a quick road to disappointment, frustration, and burnout, especially when some team members work harder than others, when some are on time and others are consistently late, when there’s drama and tension resulting from gossip, and when team leaders play favourites.” Based upon data from the American Institute of Stress, and his conversations with employees, Wittman concludes that unclear and unmet expectations set teams up for failure and that an agreement in the form of a ‘team charter’ will set a team up for success as it provides a means of providing a greater sense of control to team members.

Unfortunately, the desire for an easy solution results in an appealing but overly simplistic prescription – a list of desirable behaviors in the form of a ‘team charter’ that, “… if nothing else, creates a perception of some semblance of control”.

In his article, Wittman describes a serious impediment to team effectiveness and correctly identifies important team leadership concepts that can address the problem. Unfortunately, the desire for an easy solution results in an appealing but overly simplistic prescription – a list of desirable behaviors in the form of a ‘team charter’ that, “… if nothing else creates a perception of some semblance of control”.

Too Many Concepts to Fit into a Single Solution

Wittman directly, or indirectly, touches on three powerful team leadership concepts as he describes the reasons for employee stress and burnout on teams. The first concept he indirectly touches on is the role of team norms and their effect on team effectiveness and individual well-being – these are described in the elements of the team charter. The second idea, and central to the solution the author proposes, is the importance of providing team members with a sense of individual control, which Wittman says is enabled via a team charter. Third is the role of expectations in developing the team charter, and an implied dynamic between expectations and experience.

As is often the case when several powerful ideas are touched upon but not developed, much of their essence is lost. The result is a solution sound bite that is logical, and may be intuitively appealing, but is of little practical value to working teams and their leaders. A little deeper look at each team leadership concept touched upon in the article shows why:

  • Instilling healthy team norms (the team charter). Team norms are a critical foundational element of a highly-effective team. Making them explicit is essential to team effectiveness and individual well-being. However, doing so in the form of a list will not ensure the desired behaviors. Those behaviors are heavily influenced by individual motivations and the state of key relationships, both of which must be proactively developed and managed.
  • Supporting autonomy (a sense of control). The desire for autonomy (a sense of control and choice) is a fundamental psychological need, but it is just one of three. Autonomy only serves as a powerful motivator of behavior when it is coupled with a clear sense of purpose, and investment in the competencies needed to realize that purpose. Being given autonomy without clarity of both team and individual purpose, and a recognition of the need for competency development can increase individual stress and team discord.
  • Managing team relationships (people’s expectations). It is our expectations versus actual experiences across key relationships that sit at the heart of team effectiveness and individual well-being. Identifying and taking actions to close gaps across those key relationships is what supports and sustains both individual motivation and healthy team norms.

Wittman is spot on in terms of identifying the behaviors that can lead to team burnout. However, his solution of a ‘team charter’ as the prescription to provide a sense of control and eliminate burnout, is not supported by research or the practices of exceptional team leaders.

The rush to an easy solution often results in an appealing, but overly simplistic prescription – a common ailment in a business world looking for quick fixes. Click To Tweet

Keep It Simple – But Not Simplistic

For most team leaders, days are spent doing the equivalent of changing tires on a moving car. Actions to improve team performance must fit into already overloaded workdays. Research and lessons from exceptional teams and their leaders reveal three simple, powerful habits that lead to improved performance and well-being:

  • Maintain solid team fundamentals. Consistently reinforce the team’s overall purpose and the team norms that will support that purpose. A list of norms (or charter) is good but insufficient.
  • Foster individual motivation. Foster motivation by regularly discussing the purpose of everyone on the team (and how it aligns with the overall team’s purpose). Understand each individual’s desired level of autonomy (control and choice), then invest in the competencies they need to realize that purpose and earn their desired level of autonomy.
  • Focus on team relationships. Build trust by identifying, discussing, and tracking progress in closing experience-expectation gaps across the key team relationships (team leader, teammates, and co-workers with shared goals).

Simple but not simplistic. Those three habits have deep roots in both behavioral science research and team leadership practice. They lead to the development of the strong, trusting relationships that define effective teams, and insulate against the ravages of burnout and diminished well-being.

Returning to the HBR article, the author identifies a serious issue among many teams and correctly identifies some of the key team leadership concepts that can address the problem. It was the rush to an easy solution that resulted in an appealing, but overly simplistic prescription – a common ailment in articles addressed to a business world looking for quick fixes. Wittman’s article is a worthwhile read and a lesson in not taking every prescription at face value. Digging a little deeper can uncover ideas worth understanding and repeating.

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