Have you ever been in a team meeting and wondered something like, "Why did the boss gave Jamie that assignment? I think Susan is a better match for the job." Or observed a colleague asking another for help and thought, "It never occurred to me to ask for his input on that topic." Or got stuck in a situation where it seemed like some team members really valued your opinion but another seemed to disregard you entirely?
Chances are, if you've seen these types of things happening to others on your team, you were confused. If they happened to you, your reactions may have been stronger: frustration or bewilderment, loss of confidence, perhaps anger at teammates whom you saw as being disrespectful.
Team members tend to assume that they all agree about how much knowledge everyone else on the team has, but my research shows that they often actually hold quite differing perceptions and that these differences can seriously hamper team effectiveness. I call this phenomenon "expertise dissensus."
The opposite of consensus, dissensus measures the degree of differences of opinion — the higher the level of expertise dissensus, the greater the variety of opinions within the group about how much each team member knows. So, for instance while one person might think teammate Mary is a star project manager, another teammate might think she's just okay, and a third that she's quite weak.
Why is this a problem? My research on hundreds of members of dozens of teams in a global professional services firm points to three main difficulties: People who rate their colleagues' level of expertise differently are likely to disagree on what roles each person should play on the team. This leads to interpersonal friction when roles are assigned in ways that some people inevitably think is unfair or suboptimal. What's more, different estimations of colleagues' expertise leads to coordination problems, as different members value and then take direction from different people within the group. As a result, expertise dissensus lowers teams' effectiveness, client satisfaction, and team members' ability to learn from their experience and function well together again in the future.
I found the phenomenon was alarmingly widespread: On nearly two-thirds of teams, dissensus levels were high enough to interfere with their ability to coordinate their basic work. Worse, perhaps, when I interviewed team leaders and members after their projects had ended, few people had even realized that dissensus existed, let alone how high it was on their teams.They recognize the symptoms but not the root cause.
After hearing his team's actual expertise dissensus score, for instance, one team manager was deeply surprised. Two weeks later, however, he telephoned to say that he'd been doing a "mental post-mortem" on the team's processes and how they were affected by the latent disagreement about everyone's levels of knowledge. "I can't stop thinking about this disagreement; it was like an insidious obstacle to performance. It was the unknown unknown that pulled us down."
Because teams tend to avoid discussing assumptions, even high levels of expertise dissensus are likely to go undetected and fester. But there are some steps that team leaders and members can take to uncover how much expertise dissensus exists on the team and then prevent it from undermining team effectiveness:
- Don't think people necessarily equate hierarchy with expertise: It's natural for people to defer to senior members on a team, but that doesn't mean they necessarily believe that the senior team members know everything they need to know to carry out a particular piece of work. The capabilities required for a task are usually multifaceted — delivering a client pitch, for example, includes not only technical expertise about the offering but also presentation, negotiation, and interpersonal skills. In some organizations, people get promoted on the basis of a narrow subset of capabilities, so that those at the top don't necessarily have the full range of desirable skills. People who recognize this gap may bow to power when necessary but still resist a superior's advice if they think he is not truly knowledgeable.
- It can't hurt to assume that expertise dissensus always exists: Even the rare team that holds an excellent kick-off meeting to discuss everyone's project-relevant knowledge is unlikely to uncover their expertise dissensus, for three reasons. First, such discussions usually focus on who knows what rather than how much each person knows. So, for instance, from such a meeting you could find out that both John and Susan are expert negotiators, but you won't know who thinks Susan is better than John, or the other way around, nor how big those perception gaps are. Second, even when such discussions do identify who knows the most, they generally don't reveal disagreement about how much all the other people know about the subject. This becomes a problem when the top expert can't do everything that requires her type of expertise or when part of the team's goal is the development of other team members — both of which are common on teams engaged in knowledge work. Third, such discussions usually focus on concrete knowledge rather than on softer skills like communications or interpersonal abilities, which may be just as critical for a team's success. If you assume that expertise dissensus does exist — that people will always hold varying perceptions about each other's levels of expertise to some degree — then you can take steps to take that into account.
- Communicate your rationale: When assigning a task — like, say, divvying up parts of a presentation to deliver to a client — or when asking someone's advice be explicit about why: "I'm asking for your input here because of your knowledge of X." Making your thinking clear lowers the potential for conflict that could otherwise arise if someone feels slighted. Being explicit also forces you to specify your own rationale, making it easier to see if you're making any unwarranted assumptions.
- Speak up: When someone else gets an assignment you think you're better suited for, you need to muster the courage to ask why. Perhaps your expertise is not apparent? Perhaps the task is a stretch goal for your colleague? Either way the entire team benefits from understanding the thinking here. Clearly, asking is easier if your group operates within a culture that encourages you to speak you mind in safety. But regardless, speaking up is crucial for helping to uncover any mismatch between your boss's perceptions of your capabilities and your own. You may also find out which capabilities your boss weights more strongly than others, at least for that sort of assignment; maybe he sees communication skills (which you lack) as more important than sector knowledge (which you excel in).
I expect the problem of expertise dissensus only to become worse. As teamwork takes on increasingly complex forms — as people split their time across multiple teams; as team membership spans functional, cultural, and organizational divides; as organizations become less hierarchical and peer-to-peer collaboration increases — teams will only find it harder to reach a collective understanding about how to value and use their members' expertise.
But I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to agree. Rather, since differences will inevitably exist, it's important for people to explain the rationale for their decisions explicitly. When people don't understand an action, they tend to take it personally. That's a distraction your team doesn't need — but with some extra effort — can fruitfully avoid.
This post is part of the HBR Insight Center on The Secrets of Great Teams.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 03/26/2012.
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