sealPurdue News

September 1996

Team-building efforts may have opposite effect

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- "Teamwork" is today's corporate buzzword, but the very efforts that are supposed to foster teamwork and openness may only inhibit and alienate employees, says a Purdue University expert.

"Participation is more and more considered a right of people in the workplace and a way to make organizations more effective and productive," says Cynthia Stohl, professor of communication. "But participation sometimes disconnects rather than connects workers to their organization. That happens because participation programs can become rigid, stifling rather than creating opportunities for innovation."

She says worker participation is often carried out in ways that are paradoxical. "These ironies create conflict and tension in a process intended to promote teamwork and harmony," Stohl says.

For the past 10 years Stohl has studied worker participation, from a communication standpoint, in the United States, New Zealand and Western Europe. She has identified seven paradoxes embedded in many worker participation practices. Stohl describes these paradoxes in a chapter she wrote for the 1995 book, "Organization Means Communication," published by Sipi Editore of Rome.

  1. The Paradox of Design. Although participation is usually implemented to empower workers to make decisions, Stohl says, its very design may deny workers a say in how they might become more involved. "When upper management imposes participation programs, middle managers often feel threatened with losing control, and workers feel coerced. What's communicated to employees is that they do not count, their ideas are not important," says Stohl. She says employee input should be valued at every point of the participation process, even during the design stage.

  2. The Paradox of Commitment. "Commitment to participation should mean committing to the free expression of conflicting and diverse views. However, for management, commitment is often expected to equal agreement," Stohl says. She says dissenters are often perceived as being deviant people who "need fixing." "Disagreement will continue to be corrected rather than creatively addressed until companies and management recognize that when employees voice alternative positions they are often demonstrating their commitment -- not opposition -- to organization goals," Stohl says.

  3. The Paradox of Punctuation. In this situation, Stohl notes, the events of participation are emphasized over the actual communication that's supposed to take place. "I had a worker tell me once that he thought the company was right in thinking that the employees had a lot to tell them about how the job could be done better. The problem was, the worker didn't want to communicate through activities that he thought were a waste of time," Stohl says. She says in this instance, workers were resistant to team-building training that often precedes implementation of a participation program. "Organizations need to provide training that's perceived to be useful and timely, not merely faddish," Stohl says.

  4. The Paradox of Identification. "Although participation is intended to give workers a voice, the process itself sometimes has the effect of making the workers no longer think like workers," Stohl says. She says that happens because people begin to identify with management's problems and become distanced from the workers they are supposed to represent. "By organizing and relying on a small, select group of workers, you decrease the likelihood that the representatives who are talking to management represent the workers' viewpoint."

  5. The Paradox of Cooperation. She says some companies implement participatory programs without changing old ways of appraising worker performance. "When workers are compensated based on individual performance, there is no incentive for them to cooperate as a team," Stohl says. "Clearly, if cooperation is wanted, then reward and compensation schemes must reinforce the type of communication activities needed for effective participation."

  6. The Paradox of Compatibility. "In some cultures, subordinate workers more readily accept inequality in power and are very uncomfortable when called upon to provide input or feedback to those higher up in the organization," Stohl says. She says when participation goes against the norms of an organization, its entire culture must change before participation programs can be successful.

  7. The Paradox of Control. "Ironically, the team approach in the workplace may result in tighter controls on workers' actions, not less," Stohl says. She says in traditional office structures, a worker has one boss and the flexibility to work out a situation comfortable for both. "But when one must participate in a team, then you are not only accountable to your supervisor, but to your co-workers as well. Your actions are more closely monitored by more people, and controls can become more inflexible," Stohl says. She suggests that teams in the workplace must address individual concerns and the possibility that sometimes personal needs may outweigh group commitment.

    Stohl says both management and workers need to see the communication pitfalls in various participation efforts. "Decentralization does not mean abdication of responsibility," she says. "Organizational leaders must see the links in seemingly opposite positions and work with employees to produce open systems of communication that are both flexible and innovative."

Source: Cynthia Stohl, (765) 494-9108; e-mail:
Writer: Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail:
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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