Managing teams under pressure

When you manage a group of people, and the pressure is on to perform, it is easy to fall into the trap and focus on the familiar and less risky.

Managing teams under pressure

Right now, the pressure is on. I’m sparing you the details of my to-do list. At times that pressure helps to focus, but at other moments it feels overwhelming. My trick for focusing is to turn off all notifications: Email, Slack, Twitter, Instagram. I let my boss know that I’m offline and give him one way to reach me in case of urgency. But then there is my phone, which I can not turn off. As a sole caregiver, it needs to be on during school hours. In fact, it is on 24/7, but that is another story.

You might have experienced similar situations and have some ideas of how the pressure impacts your performance. But how does it impact your team, your department, or your company?

What is the impact of time pressure?

When individuals feel under increased time pressure, their awareness for (upcoming) evaluation of their performance and the potential consequences of their actions increases. This creates a type of arousal that leads to greater physical and mental effort and more persistence when facing difficulties. As an example, last week, I was working on a deadline. I had to finalize a paper and write a 1000 word abstract before the deadline at midnight. From the second I sat at my desk until noon, I worked, concentrating on my task. After I submitted everything, a load fell off my shoulder, and I felt exhausted and relaxed at the same time. I rewarded myself with a coffee in the employee lounge. The point being is that I exerted great physical and mental effort to meet this deadline. I was aware of the consequences of failing to perform, which was not submitting the paper. It helped me to focus.

Coordinating expertise in teams

With teams, managing team members when deadlines are tight is important. Teams, especially for those in which team members possess extensive but different expertise areas, coordinating each other’s input is crucial. Hence, for knowledge-intensive teams, the different sources of expertise must be integrated. Hence, managers need to take care of the coordination process, overseeing information exchanges, task progress, roadblocks, etc. Under normal circumstances, when time pressure is absent, this is already difficult: team members have a bunch of biases that managers need to be aware of and reduce their impact, familiarity among team members influences information exchanges, team members need to feel comfortable with each other to share their mistakes and concerns.

Time pressure and Team Performance

When time pressure is added to the mix of team management, one important thing happens to the team’s process: It will focus on process cues that are easy to defend. Team members will stay away from the uncertain and murky waters that come with innovation and deviation from the norm. Your team will become risk-averse. The benefit of this strategy is that the team will reach its goal, but it might underperform. It could have followed a more profitable path if it had dared. However, the team’s heighten collective awareness of accountability resulted in team members staying away from risky processes.

Research Evidence: Time pressure and team performance

Heidi Garner from Harvard Business School studied the impact of time pressure on team performance. They based their research on the idea that team members have two types of expertise: General human capital and specialized human capital. The first type, general human capital, is the knowledge and skills all team members have. It consists of widespread skills related to well-known business processes and skills that are not specific to a domain. This also includes knowledge about norms and values that are shared among team members. On the other hand, specialized human capital is the expertise that is specific to one profession. Think about specific knowledge about a program, a marketing channel, or an industry.

In most teams, team members have some shared generalized knowledge, but also some unique, specialized knowledge. While teams are often assembled because a project requires a combination of different expertise, this unique, specialized knowledge shares one common characteristic: It is risky. The risk is derived from its uniqueness. As specialized knowledge is unique, it is unfamiliar to most team members. The effectiveness and profitability of unfamiliar processes and ideas based on unfamiliar domains are hard to evaluate. Therefore they bear more uncertainty and hence are riskier.

Under time pressure, unfamiliar knowledge will not be used by teams because it is risky. Team members do not purposefully overlook the expertise that exists in the team, but the need to perform and the awareness to be accountable for their actions drive teams to only focus on the less risky and familiar avenues. This means to focus on what is familiar to all of them: The generalized knowledge they possess.

Managing teams under pressure

When you manage a group of people, and the pressure is on to perform, it is easy to fall into the trap and focus on the familiar and less risky. However, as a manager, be aware of the specialized expertise that is in your team. If you are aware of the expertise distribution in your team and follow your teams’ discussion and progress, you can better judge if your team uses all the expertise it has. The awareness of expertise distribution makes it possible to notice earlier if some specialized knowledge is overlooked.

Of course, it will not be sufficient to point out whenever your team isn’t properly integrating their combined knowledge. Actions need to be taken whenever integration fails: Is it a lack of time? Is it a lack of regard for specialized knowledge? What is your team’s and organization’s culture concerning risk-taking and unfamiliar expertise? A who-knows-what map can help your team track their specialized knowledge and visualize potential overlap and familiarity.

Academic bullets

  • Expertise map which highlight specialization of each member and how this increases the performance/quality of the team
  • As team leader, create boundaries for teams to feel they can take the risk. A final product needs to be delivered, but aim to create path-ways for your team to explore uncertain options. This can be a simple spreadsheet in which team members record ‘riskier approaches’. This spreadsheet can be evaluated at the end of the project. Better will be if your project includes resources, such as time, money, and/or staff, to explore riskier options. This could be as low key as a couple of meetings during which your team can discuss riskier avenues and consider their feasibility under ideal circumstances.
  • Budgeting for a couple of people to explore the riskier avenues could give your team an extra boost, as it signals your willingness to give them the lead and empowers your team to create change and develop higher quality products and services.
  • Please make it a team outcome criteria: team members need to discuss the implication specialized knowledge has on the team’s product quality. This acknowledges that there is just no time to experiment in some cases, but at least you are instilling the value that specialized knowledge should be discussed. If it is repeatedly rejected, you will have to sit down and explore the causes for this. Maybe your deadlines are too tight, and your team is too thinly staffed.

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