It's a common problem: A work team tackles a high-pressure project for a client, but along the way something goes wrong with team dynamics and the client ends up feeling shortchanged. Even though team members initially recognize and value each other's potential contributions, within a short time some people's inputs count more than their actual knowledge warrants, to the detriment of the project.
The problem is common—and avoidable, says HBS professor Heidi K. Gardner, who has developed and tested a theory of pressure on teams that she describes in the working paper "Feeling the Heat: The Effects of Performance Pressure on Teams' Knowledge Use and Performance" [PDF]. Her research on more than seventy audit and consulting teams—combining survey data, hundreds of interviews, and direct observation at meetings—reveals insights into the hows and whys of dysfunctional team dynamics as well as ways to improve them.
“As performance pressure mounts, teams are considerably more likely to follow general experts.”
"Performance pressure emerges when people are working on a high-visibility project and when others are really counting on them to deliver their best result," explains Gardner. "Although we all experience some degree of this pressure in our own daily work lives, in this series of studies I examined what happens to team dynamics and performance when the pressure is significantly intensified.
Ironically, Gardner found that just when teams need to marshal their resources the most, they engage in collective behaviors that diminish their ability to do so.
Sarah Jane Gilbert:What led you to study the effects of performance pressure on work teams?
Heidi Gardner: I experienced similar team dynamics when I worked in a consulting firm before beginning an academic career. I found it both puzzling and frustrating when I had the sense that our team failed to make the most of everyone's input. As a project manager I had made sure we held a kickoff meeting in the beginning of each new assignment to acknowledge all members' relevant knowledge; but I realized that through the course of the project we often slipped into routines that didn't leverage each person's expertise as well as we might have. At the time, though, I was too caught up in the work itself to reflect on why that happened.
When I began researching this topic in depth, it surprised me that—under a particular kind of pressure—people switch what knowledge they listen to and what they are willing to think about. The subtle process of general expertise crowding out customer-specific expertise was part of what had escaped me when I'd been in the situation, as well as an understanding that these effects stem from everyone on the team, not just the leader.
Q: What kind of pressure creates these effects on team members?
A: The elements of scrutiny, evaluation, and high stakes make performance pressure distinct from just running out of time on a project. Performance pressure stems from the sense of needing to deliver exceptional results, or else face some serious negative consequences.
The pressure can come from any of three sources, or a combination:
- external evaluator/ultimate receiver of work (client, internal customer)
- internal stakeholder on whom the work reflects (boss, etc.)
- insider of the project team (project manager)
As performance pressure mounts, teams are considerably more likely to follow general experts and disregard customer-specific experts even to the point of totally ignoring important knowledge that would help them tailor their message to clients.
General experts are usually high-status people who have gained a wide-ranging knowledge of the business based on long, varied experience across clients and even industries, as well as their formal training and education. Customer-specific experts know their client organization inside and out, including the politics, culture, proprietary processes, and methodologies.
Both types of expertise are clearly valuable. While general experts add greatly to team outcomes—often because so much of knowledge-based work is "learned by doing"—contributions from customer-specific experts enhance team performance in important ways by allowing for relevant customization and adaptation to specific client needs. This is a significant aspect of maintaining ongoing client relationships.
I observed that teams under heightened pressure tend to shut out dissenting points of view and new information, focus exclusively on completing the job rather than learning from the experience, and revert to the "comfort zones" of behavior consistent with their roles on the team (that is, junior experts reduce contributions and more senior members become increasingly directive).
“The very best teams actually include clients as members of the core team.”
Although it is tempting to blame particular individuals, my evidence shows that these processes result from collective actions from all directions within the team: top-down from the team leaders, bottom-up from the experts themselves, and laterally from the rest of the team members. For example, in early low-pressure meetings for one consulting team, all members asked the customer-expert—a relatively junior member of the team—for input; in turn, he behaved confidently and often successfully challenged the team leader's ideas.
As the pressure increased, however, the customer-expert's peers began to physically turn their backs to him and verbally shut him down during discussions; the team leader became more directive; and the customer-expert himself eventually minimized his contributions to the dialogue. In this way, everyone and no one was responsible for the team's changing dynamics.
Q: How should managers and executives recognize and change the dynamics?
A: The first step is for project managers to know that this will almost certainly happen during at least some of their assignments.
Performance pressure is ubiquitous in today's knowledge-intensive competitive environments, and that can be good. Even in my data, I found a strong link between performance pressure and team performance, which is likely explained by the fact that the firms I studied loaded high-stakes projects with a disproportionate amount of client expertise. Ironically, though, these teams ended up not using their available resources. When your team is under heavy pressure you don't want to be responsible for getting it wrong. So it feels safe to rely on the general experts and the established way of doing things. Unfortunately, this tendency is likely to undermine performance because high-stakes projects are typically the ones where customization is most critical. But there are ways for teams to handle this situation.
The team leader can manage, and even leverage, pressure by designing meetings with controls in place—built-in time for reflection, open discussion periods, and so on—to ensure that early comfort with challenging one another's ideas doesn't deteriorate to self-censoring and dismissing dissent. In fact, more frequent probes and discussion are necessary during episodes of heightened performance pressure, since more junior members will tend to contribute less, and their peers and other team members will reinforce this shift by inquiring less as well. Thus it takes a stronger reinforcement of a team culture of contribution, challenge, learning, and egalitarianism to both reverse and fortify positive processes.
A second antidote to detrimental pressure involves opening up the team boundaries to include clients. In my ongoing research across industries, I have found that the very best teams actually include clients as members of the core team, giving them joint accountability for helping to develop the team's customized solution. After all, who has better knowledge of the client's inner workings than someone who's already been working there full-time?
“It takes a stronger reinforcement of a team culture of contribution, challenge, learning, and egalitarianism to both reverse and fortify positive processes.”
It's somewhat counter-intuitive, but integrating customers onto your team can actually minimize the pressure associated with the team's output being evaluated. I mentioned that one of the reasons performance pressure is so stressful is the team's awareness that their end product will be judged; evaluation itself provokes anxiety, and especially when there are meaningful consequences associated with it. The head of strategy for one consulting firm suggested: "Rather than thinking about it as a 'deliverable' we think about joint problem solving." In other words, sharing accountability for the task reduces the ongoing pressure of working on a project in a "black box", knowing that the outcome will ultimately be evaluated but with little ongoing feedback to know how it's coming along.
Team-level process change isn't just a leadership challenge. It is the responsibility of all members to encourage contributions of recognized customer-specific experts. But team process design can't stop there (as it often does). Getting the knowledge on the table does little unless it is incorporated into the final team deliverable. The value of customer-specific knowledge is not contested, but the process of drawing it out and utilizing it is complex and fraught with opportunities for breakdowns. With this in mind, teams must develop a shared awareness of how they solicit knowledge to address a particular problem, what expertise they decide to integrate into the final product, and why they decided to use (or discard) a particular piece of information.
Time invested in analyzing and repairing the way the team draws on and uses everyone's contributions is well worth it. The team will produce more relevant, high-quality outcomes for the client, and all team members will feel more satisfied by their efforts.
Q: How did you conduct this research?
A: When observing teams for the case studies I used a fly-on-the-wall method: I tried to blend into the background so the teams would behave as naturally as possible. Based on their discussions and actions, they seemed to forget almost immediately that I was in the room.
When conducting interviews with the firms' partners or leaders, team members, and clients, I was continually impressed with how open people were in revealing difficult issues they faced both personally and organizationally.
The problem for me was that the research participants wanted me to offer immediate solutions, but I wasn't prepared to make a snap judgment; collecting and analyzing the data across two firms took nearly a year. But by offering them my initial observations about team behaviors and combining it with some basic insights from the team surveys, I was able to help them reflect on behaviors and processes that were suboptimal, and they used these insights to start developing their own solutions.
It was a real privilege when a Big 4 audit firm that participated in my research gave me direct access to its clients. Across an array of clients I interviewed and surveyed nearly 100 individuals: financial directors, CFOs, and heads of audit committees. Their insights were instrumental in helping me unearth the performance implications of the processes I had discovered through surveys and case studies.
Q: You conducted this research in accounting and consulting firms. Do other organizations face the same challenge?
A: Absolutely. Since I completed the initial research, I have discussed my findings and conducted formal interviews with dozens of people across a huge range of public and private companies, hospitals, public service organizations, academic institutions, and other places who all immediately relate to these issues. Since the working paper [PDF] was released and written up in the Boston Globe, I've also heard from people at all types of companies (and from quite a few different countries) describing how they deal repeatedly with this problem.
Examples of groups that have experienced similar dynamics include the founding team in an entrepreneurial venture, a research group comprising physicians and scientists, a financial services team evaluating a possible deal, a governing board for a nonprofit organization, and a corporate audit committee.
Q: What else can teams do to appreciate and use the expertise of all their members?
A: No matter what level of pressure, teams need to work diligently to make the most of their members' knowledge.
To draw out individual expertise, team members can solicit feedback from recognized customer-specific experts and engage in "devil's advocate" or "what-if" scenarios. Encouraging and incorporating dissent will signal to team members across the hierarchy that it is acceptable—even expected—to disagree. Similarly, teams can begin sessions by going around the table and soliciting input from each person.
Throughout these processes, an explicit team orientation around learning—instead of mere task completion—can create a space for debate, dissent, and deliberation. Such team processes are only achievable when there is a collective agreement on their value, coupled with support in execution. If people lock in too tightly to more rigid orientations, such as conforming to the status hierarchy when it comes time to make a decision (for example, "She's been here the longest, so let's just go with her idea"), the opportunity for utilizing relevant expertise to improve team results narrows, and the team forces itself into generic outcomes.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I'm continuing my broader research efforts to understand how the design of knowledge-intensive work affects teamwork, collaboration innovation, and ultimately performance. For example, I'm writing an empirical paper examining what resources help teams of knowledge workers cope with uncertainty about their task, and I'm working on a theory piece delving into the conceptual foundations linking teams' context to their use of expertise from members and outsiders.
In addition, I've just launched a research program investigating governance and leadership in professional service firms. I intend to explore how the structural and procedural aspects of governance facilitate or constrain effective, collective leadership in professional firms.