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Under Pressure: Keeping Your Team Together

Last Updated Sep 30, 2010 2:22 PM EDT

Team dynamics often change significantly -- and not for the better -- when a team is under deadline or other pressure. It's critical for team leaders to understand what is happening and why and how to pull the group back together.

Harvard Business School professor Heidi Gardner, who is in the Organizational Behavior unit, researched how teams perform at large consulting and accounting firms. What she found is that as pressure increased, the team began to give more credence to the opinions of its "generalists" and dismissed the perhaps more important views of its members who were close to customers -- the knowledge specialists.

As a result, the teams could overlook critical information that would have allowed it to customize and adapt work for the customer. And ignoring customer needs, as you may have heard, is a sure way to lose business.

So what goes wrong when the pot is on boil? Gardner believes teams defer to generalists because these people are often senior or high-status with a wide-ranging knowledge of the business based on long experience. The customer-specific folks, while knowing their client organization inside and out, are usually more junior and without the cache of the veterans.

Teams under heightened pressure, Gardner says, just want to get the job done and tend to shut out dissenting views and new information. They "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)."

According to Gardner, team leaders can combat this tendency by:
  1. Designing meetings so that junior members are heard early and often, and by building in time for reflection and open discussion periods.
  2. Including clients on teams or involving them in other ways.
  3. Emphasizing learning instead of mere task completion.
For more details, read Customer Experts Lose Influence When Teams are Pressured, on HBS Working Knowledge.

(Image courtesy Flickr user ThenAndAgain, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.