Accountability and Teamwork: Is Everyone Pulling Their Weight?

July 10, 2009

When I was in my late twenties, I went with a group of friends on an overnight camping/white-water rafting trip down the Penobscot River located in here in Maine. When we reached the water we found that we had too many for one boat; a couple of us needed to ride in a boat with another, smaller group.

I was good with this, since I had been down the river a few times already. I also thought that it would be great to watch the others who hadn’t been down the river yet – particularly since the Penobscot River boasts class III-V rapids and a 12-foot waterfall. A mischievous part of me wanted to see how they handled things – from a safe distance.

As luck would have it, our boat crew included some first-timers as well: a couple of dads with their 15-year old daughters. Needless to say, I had some reservations about the 15-year olds and how much they would pitch in. But I figured the dads would make up for any shortcomings.

I was wrong! The 15-year olds were fine. Well, except for that time when one of them jumped back unexpectedly as we were navigating some difficult rapids and hit the guide square in the nose with her paddle, knocking him out of the raft. I was in the front and didn’t notice that he was gone until we were through the rapids, and I looked back and saw an empty spot where he should have been.

Never fear, the guide came swimming up to the raft and hopped back in. He bled for a minute, but was otherwise unhurt and in surprisingly good spirits.

Things that make you pause on a rafting trip:
When you hear another guide shout, “Good save!”
to your guide after making it through a difficult
section of the river.

Towards noon, our boat fell significantly behind the other boats being guided down the river during a calm, flat stretch of water as we headed towards our island lunch. I was still in the front left of the boat, opposite from my friend and content to dig in to make sure that I was pulling my weight.

At one point my friend gestured to me just as our guide was pointing out the large distance between us and the other boats, exhorting us to “get our butts in gear.” (I forget his exact words, but you get the idea.) I then noticed that my friend looked a little miffed. He gave me a subtle “ease up” sign with his right hand so that the others wouldn’t notice.

I then took stock of our situation. I realized that the 15-year old girls weren’t going to do a whole lot – but that was in line with my expectations. The dads, however, weren’t exactly compensating for their daughters, either. In fact, while they were sticking their paddles in the water, their “paddling” was more show than substance. They weren’t contributing towards moving the boat forward at all!

My friend was staging a short of silent strike, as he realized that we were working our butts off and giving these people a free ride. Needless to say, as we eased up, it became obvious that everyone needed to put in a little more individual effort if we were ever going to get to lunch.

As I mentioned, this story took place while I was in my twenties. I’m now in my forties (my how time flies!), so this was a good twenty years ago. What made me think of this now? Well, it’s been raining a lot in Maine so far this summer, and I’ve been getting some extra reading in. The book that brought this little memory back is called Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity, and Reap Big Results by Morten T. Hansen.

Towards the end of the book, Morten states, “People working in teams can shirk and get by because individual output is not being measured, only team output.” Morten notes that there is a vital problem in collective, collaborative work: when people can hide they often do. It’s called social loafing.

Morten advocates cultivating what he calls T-shaped management: people who simultaneously can deliver results on their own job and deliver results through collaboration. Not an easy task! This requires great prioritization and time-management skills.

As a manager of software developers spread across several empowered, self-directed teams, I am paying attention to the output of the teams as well as the level of participation and contributions being made by the individuals on the teams. I've already discovered some things the hard way on this front.

For a start, everyone isn’t cut out to understand how to collaborate and participate effectively on teams, not without some coaching and guidance. Some people take to it like a duck to water. Others prefer the comforts of having others assign tasks to them; they have a difficult time proactively taking hold of work without the nod from the “boss,” no matter how often they are told that they are part of a self-directed team.

Some people have low self-confidence and need coaching. There can be personality conflicts that cause people to disengage from teams, such as one over-powering personality or extreme mismatches in terms of personality traits (introverted versus extroverted) and approaches to work. And I’m sure that others fall into the social loafing category.

What is your experience? How do you handle accountability with teams and individuals?