Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.11 Amy C. Edmonson

James Young
Heroes of Employee Engagement: No.11 Amy C. Edmonson

What does it really mean to be part of a team – and what are the top-priority requirements to make it a success? That’s what Amy C. Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, set out to investigate. And one of the conclusions she came to was that today’s team, in a modern organisation, needs quick-fire flexibility above traditional stability.

She took her research one step further, identifying the need to understand how a team should operate. This led her to outline a new approach, a term she coined “Teaming”. In her 2012 work Teaming: How Organizations Learn, Innovate, and Compete in the Knowledge Economy, Edmondson explains what Teaming is:

“Teaming is a verb. It is a dynamic activity, not a bounded, static entity. It is largely determined by the mindset and practices of teamwork, not by the design and structures of effective teams.”Amy C. Edmondson Management Theorist

Edmondson’s theory of Teaming

Edmondson’s concept of “fast-paced Teaming” offers a way of adapting to rapidly-changing and competitive environments, by breaking the mould of employees staying in the same team across projects. Instead, for Edmondson, the ideal team is an ever-changing group, developing in response to new challenges, completing them efficiently and then swapping members to take on the next problem.

The way forward, Edmondson claims, is to establish this form of Teaming as the norm. If employees expect to be working in constantly-changing groupings on different projects, they will keep pace and respond positively. She writes: “In the most innovative companies, Teaming is the culture.” (Edmondson, 2013).

To engage with this process, employees need to develop three characteristics, which are:

  1. Curiosity about the skills and knowledge of other team members
  2. Passion, in order to drive quality work to deadlines
  3. Empathy – to be able to collaborate under pressure

Part of the Teaming culture is to apply those three characteristics consciously to our behaviour in the form of asking engaged questions and actively listening to responses. Team leaders should model this behaviour. Coach your leaders, then the desired behaviours should cascade.

Applying Edmondson’s research to employee engagement

The use of short-lived, agile teams has become popular among large, innovative organisations and global businesses. For example, digital technology giant SAP has over 30,000 employees across 60 countries. Each SAP HQ has a different specialist area, and project managers build virtual teams from each of these groups to gather together wide-ranging skills. As Edmondson recommends, coaching is key: SAP has invested in its virtual team structure through a training programme led by a specialist consultancy.

Often, organisations practise multi-teaming, which is simply when one employee is engaged in more than one team project. This is an efficient way to manage resources and can help to develop skills and relationships across departments. According to the Academy of Management Review, 65% of knowledge workers in Europe and the US are multi-teamers.

Another variation is cross-boundary Teaming. Inter-disciplinary teams are established, including multi-organisational ones, bringing together wide-ranging talents and broader outlooks. Edmondson and Harvey (2016) cite a case where Coca-Cola, the Inter-American Development Bank, TechnoServe and agricultural, logistics and marketing specialists worked together to improve business practices among Haitian mango farmers.

Understanding Edmondson’s theories as employee engagement drivers

So, how does Teaming actually help to create an engaged workforce? Importantly, the inclusion in any team gives the members a sense of recognition that their skills are both noticed and appreciated. The fast-paced nature of Teaming means that projects don’t meander on unnecessarily – and the swift resolution of a project gives the team members a sense of Accomplishment.

As well as bringing their own skills to the table, the employee has the opportunity to learn from their colleagues. This collaborative approach to working provides employees with a sense of Growth and satisfies the needs to be creative and productive linked with Meaningful Work. The development of empathy and curiosity, two of the three characteristics of Teaming members, leads to skills that are essential for building and maintaining Peer Relationships.

With the concept of Teaming, Edmondson has given us a dynamic model that frees up organisations to move quickly, while still creating a productive and safe space for all members of the team to operate in. When we make a conscious effort to develop the three Teaming behaviours, we should benefit from a sharp increase in both motivation and productivity levels.

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