This semester proved to challenge my abilities as a support person. In team settings, fulfilling supportive functions such as providing empathy and encouragement is where I felt my strengths lay and where I could give the most of myself to my team-mates. By providing empathy and encouragement, I seek to enhance the effort of my team-mates and promote their individual development. However, when one of our team-mates was falling short of our team’s expectation, I felt guilty that I had failed to sufficiently support this team-member to avoid this conflict. To assess my strategies for support, I will look at how I dealt with his schedule alongside the self-driven team dynamics. Following this, I will examine my construction of the support role and my innate inclination toward responsibility. Finally, I will demonstrate how I have learned that the learning culture and enduring support are, although famed, not panaceas for social-loafing.
When confronted with an uncertain team-task, I felt it was best to play to my strengths: adopting the role of a support person. The first two weeks of Solo Mike left my confidence in tatters as I failed to reach the minimum threshold for shareholder value; being allocated the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) role was nothing short of nightmarish since my background contains neither accounting nor finance but, instead, psychology and philosophy. I had entered the course confident in my individual ability – my thinking and writing had typically scored high grades in management classes. However, I soon realised that this was a class which favoured practical skills, not purely the conceptual (Thompson, 2013a). Hence, from my initial failures at Solo Mike, I needed to shift my approach to the course from theoretical application to practical application. I was determined for a grade in the A-range, and the confidence I held in my team’s industrious efforts and driven abilities spurred me to apply more personal strengths to our firm than I envisaged I could from my failures. Hence, I fell back on my psychology and philosophy to act as an empathetic supporter of the team at both holistic and individual levels.
However, though I maintained a supportive portfolio throughout, one team-member fell markedly behind expectations and was issued two warnings by the team. I moulded the CFO role such that it would accommodate my strength as a supportive team-member on both professional and personal levels. For the professional, I took an interest in the roles of others and aimed to supply how their decisions would come into fruition, not why their decision was made (Thompson, 2013d). For the personal, I took an interest in what each individual was like and what I could do to enhance their experience from the team environment. Yet, despite my investments into the professional and personal development of individual team-members, one team-member gradually stopped attending meetings, ceased communication, contributed nil decisions in each roll-over, and, worse still, claimed the success of another team-member’s efforts via their learning journal (Thompson, 2013f). When the second warning was written up, signed and issued by the team to the team-member, the underperforming member completed his disappearing act and was not seen again. However, I could not escape an innate, two- pronged feeling of guilt: What more could I have done for this team-member? Why was I feeling guilt over their inaction?
One of the underlying factors beneath this guilt was that, despite my personal investment in trying to support and empathise with this underperforming team-member, he still failed to commit to the team or contribute to its success. There were many instances throughout semester where I would step out of social gatherings or put my own work on hold to answer his phone calls regarding course work, how to operate Mike’s Bikes, or simply hearing out his complaints about his overall workload. These questions often concerned the bare essentials of the course – material covered in week one – yet I was too stubborn to let my patience falter. In hindsight, however, my determination to listen to him and facilitate his understanding often resulted in me being used as a sounding board for his complaints, not his progress. My personal sacrifices were being unrecognised by him, but my stubborn patience inhibited me from admitting his ungrateful attitude. Despite the initial guilt over my personal investment not being enough to support his progress, I shifted my attitude toward one of disappointment in him. Although I aspire to be a support person, I resolved that this did not mean that I would be a babysitter.
In addition, some of my guilt may have resulted from the underperforming member’s reintegration process. The team-member made some effort to attend meetings after their first warning yet I struggled to view their attendance positively. He made no decisions regarding his department, pointed out needless data from reports and was disengaged with others by being on his phone throughout the meeting. The team took great pains to establish the famed, learning culture of open discussion, frequent communication, flexible strategy, and collaborative effort (Buchanan & O’Connell, 2006). However, though I believed that this culture would actualise high motivation and ensure full participation, the underperforming member continued to disengage from the team and was ignorant of our firm’s overall strategy. Though I was frustrated with his continued disengagement with the team, I did not pull him aside and disclose my feedback on his performance that week. I believed that our first letter of warning was enough. However, upon reflection, I was growing quieter and more internally conflicted at instances during our meetings when his disengagement and ignorance of our operations was most palpable. Despite his lack of initiative following the first complaint, I was similarly quiet and unsupportive of his attempted reintegration.
However, another factor that may have contributed to the underperforming team-member’s disengagement was the disparity of his knowledge compared to the rest of the team.
As stated earlier, our firm tried to establish a learning culture as we hoped that this matched objectives of each team-member (Buchanan & O’Connell, 2006). I was supportive of taking this approach as I initially saw each member of the team as motivated, self-driven and resourceful students. As a result, our individual knowledge increased and may have been intimidating to the underperforming member that, in turn, may have made him feel less welcome in the group and less likely to contribute. A strategy needs to understand the values and motivations of the organisation and its members (Margretta, 2002), and perhaps our strategy failed to recognise his concealed feelings of isolation. Further, in an attempt to resolve my quiet lack of confrontation, I opted to question him about his department’s lack of decisions. Though I was frustrated by his inadequate responses and lack of initiative to improve, I still felt guilty as his relative ignorance may have facilitated his feelings of isolation. As a self-proclaimed support person, I failed to recognise his isolation amidst my frustration.
More fundamentally, some of my guilt may have arisen from my stance as a supportive team player: my comfort-zone. Teams often function at their highest level when there is a flexible, supportive structure in place (Buchanan & O’Connell, 2006) and when individuals feel personally empowered with a high self-efficacy (Christensen, 2010; Davies & Easterby-Smith, 1984). Hence, I used encouragement to help establish a supportive learning culture (Thompson, 2013b) and empathetic empowerment to get the most out of each individual (Thompson, 2013c). In other words, I sought to lead from within the group rather than at the front of it. However, by focusing on empathy and encouragement, I became stuck between a rock and a hard place when two of our team-members came into conflict: the underperforming team-member claimed the success of another department as their own despite his lack of contribution whatsoever. On the one hand, I understood the underperforming team-member’s confusion and busy schedule; on the other hand, I knew that a hard-working member of our team had been treated disrespectfully. Although I wanted to support our team as collaborating individuals, I could not make everyone happy. Thus, I could not stay fixed in my comfortable, all-positive supporting role.
Finally, perhaps the most fundamental reason as to why I felt guilt as well as a sense of failure for our underperforming team-member is my innate tendency to bear responsibility. A core function of a leader is to empower others and to develop their self-efficacy in an individual and group environment (Christensen, 2010). Hence, as a leader by title or by action, I have endeavoured to establish encouraging and supportive environments for others to develop within. I had previously favoured this approach with unwavering faith yet this semester has demonstrated that unconditional positive regard is not applicable to all team situations, particularly not in competitive business. Despite my attempts to encourage and understand the underperforming member, there was seldom an increase in his performance. Hence, I found that the more time I invested into supporting the underperforming member, the more responsibility I took on board for his inaction. Furthermore during this time, I neglected to remember the wrong done to our hard-working team-member who had been disrespected by the underperforming member’s actions (Thompson, 2013f). Hereafter, I stopped victimising the underperforming member by: bearing in mind the justice owed to our hard-working team- member, and relinquishing my own self-imposed burden of responsibility.
From here, two core facets of my thinking have been changed from this semester. The first is that while a learning culture may typically yield a progressive and self-actualising environment, it can be susceptible to abuse and free-loading. The benefits of learning cultures are numerous: encouraging open discussion, facilitating communication, fostering original idea, and bolstering self-efficacy (Buchanan & O’Connell, 2006; Davies & Easterby-Smith, 1984). By extension, the team will endeavour to be self-motivated and understanding of individual needs.
Such flexibility proved beneficial to most team members as they were proactive in navigating often uncertain territory. However, although flexibility and freedom are to be desired in dynamic contexts, those who are less self-motivated may take advantage of those who are more self-motivated. This may come down to applying different leadership strategies to different individuals – a tiring task for any team leader – as well as being aware of who is demonstrating less involvement than others; however, the firm’s culture may need to be overhauled and become more strict when free-loading starts to occur. Despite the glorified outcomes of learning cultures, such environments are no panacea for the workplace and should not be rigidly adhered to if learning is not occurring in teams.
Secondly, by extension, the support that I typically offered may have also been susceptible to abuse. In other words, while I seek to understand and empathise with others in order to get the most out of them, my offers of support could be taken advantage of by others. My leadership-from-within approach can act as a sounding board for ideas as well as a point of mediation between workers and management; empathy and empowerment are core essences to my actions to enable my team-mates to function at their highest potential (Thompson, 2013c). However, when I began to reflect undefensively on him, my team, and myself (Argyris, 1991), I noticed that my learning was stagnant as I was reflecting on my observations – like a scientist – and not on my actions – like a manager (Thompson, 2013e). My previous strategies had rendered me not as a sounding board for ideas but a sounding board for complaints. Although the underperforming team-member lacked commitment, my support was ineffective for getting him committed as he may have benefitted from more assertive direction, not empathetic guidance (Thompson, 2013f). Hence, my supporting style is no longer blanketed in unconditional positive regard but also assertive and challenging stances where necessary.
In conclusion, my strength as a supportive person within a team has been broadened through this semester. Overall, my supportive approach and the learning culture are not panaceas for underperformance. The empathetic-empowering approach I adopt works for most team-members in a learning culture but an assertive and challenging approach is also needed in my repertoire as a support person. There is a range of factors which can influence a team- member’s performance, including: external commitments, reintegration processes and disparities in ability. However, in my role as a support person, I no longer take on as much responsibility for a team-member’s underperformance as I did before. Their commitment depends as much on their effort as it does the team dynamic and a personal investment in their success. That said, support does not need to be the bearer of self-imposed but can act as a facilitator toward self-actualisation, sympathetic understanding and developmental success.
Argyris, C. (1991). Teaching smart people how to learn. Reflections, 4(2), 4-15.
Buchanan, L. & O'Connell, A. (2006). A brief history of decision making. Harvard Business Review, 84(1), 32-41.
Christensen, C. M. (2010). How will you measure your life? Harvard Business Review, 88(7/8), 46-51.
Davies, J., & Easterby-Smith, M. (1984). Learning and developing from managerial work experiences. Journal of Management Studies, 21(2), 169-182.
Magretta, J. (2002). Why business models matter. Harvard Business Review, 80(5), 86-92.
Thompson, M. (2013a, July 27). XXXX [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/Masked
Thompson, M. (2013b, August 2). XXXX [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/Masked
Thompson, M. (2013c, August 9). XXXX [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/Masked
Thompson, M. (2013d, August 15). XXXX [Web log post]. https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/Masked
Thompson, M. (2013e, September 20). XXXX [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/Masked
Thompson, M. (2013f, October 10). 10. XXXX [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://wiki.auckland.ac.nz/display/MGMT300/Masked