Historically, traditional managers put very little stock in forming teams in the workforce. Their school of thought was to hire a group of technically skilled employees, and the supervisor would direct them in their tasks — having more than one leader on the job was thought to cause conflict and confusion. In the real world, however, there are two major flaws to this theory.

First, telling your employees how to do each task in detail turns them into non-thinking robots, in a sense. Using this management style doesn't allow you to use your human resources to their full potential. For example, telling an employee to run a conduit from point “A” to point “B” going overhead and following a beam may seem like a great idea to you, but the electrician who has many years of experience in his profession may see a better way to accomplish the task cheaper, faster, or even more safely. Under this approach, employees that are directed without the ability for independent thought inevitably develop an “I don't get paid to think; I get paid to do” attitude.

The second flaw to traditional management is the act of putting blinders on your employees. Take this hypothetical scenario as an example. Telling an electrician to run the conduit the way he is told and then go back to the supervisor for another task essentially makes a specialist out of the employee. While installing conduit, one of his fellow workers may need assistance in pulling wire in another conduit that was installed earlier. Within traditional management-style organizations, the employee will probably tell his coworker, “Sorry, that's not my job.” In the competitive electrical contracting industry, you need to make sure your employees think the opposite way.

Because traditional work groups are organized around specific tasks instead of the goals of the team, any problems on the job are referred to the supervisor, making him the problem solver. High-performance organizations typically demonstrate a much different organizational chart. The key is to get the most out of your resources, using human resources to their maximum potential. This is easier said than done, however. Let's take a look at some practical tips to help achieve this goal.

Setting the stage

One of the best resources any supervisor has on any given project is the employees. High-performance teams use this resource to be more productive, work safer, and become more competitive. Decisions are made at the point of action by the group to ensure that the best decision is made for the particular circumstances. In high-performance teams, employees are viewed as partners in the organization rather than tools — all working together to accomplish common goals. So how do you develop high-performance work teams at your job site?

Basically, it all comes down to discipline on the part of the supervisor. If a manager is willing to put in the extra time and effort it takes to develop effective teams, then the group will reap significant rewards. However, creating a team is not as simple as it sounds — because the process of doing so is never truly finished. To get started on the right foot, the first thing a supervisor needs to understand is that team building comes in four stages: forming, storming, norming, and performing.

Building blocks

The first stage of team building is forming — when everyone on the team finds out why they are here. Remember when you're starting a new team, its members may feel uncomfortable — unsure of what to expect and how they should participate. At this stage of the game, team members may also explore the boundaries of acceptable behavior. This is the time to let everyone know what the minimum standards are for working on the project, otherwise known as the “nonnegotiables.”

During this phase, you'll also notice members getting acquainted, cliques forming, stereotyping taking place, suspicion and fear building about the job ahead, and discussion of problems or complaints coming to the forefront about the organization. While members are sizing each other up and navigating the roles they will play, some will demonstrate excitement and pride about the endeavor. Although members still lack unity at this point, all will move in a positive direction as they come out of this stage.

Danny Miller, executive vice president of Total Electric, an electrical contracting firm based in Farmington, Mo., which employs about 50 field electricians, forms his teams by the skill set of each employee. Training his supervisors to empower electricians to better manage the projects, Miller maintains that building high self-esteem is an important part of the every stage of team building. According to Miller, making sure electricians understand how important they are to the success of each project will engage them to work together. As far as nonnegotiables go, Miller explains the usual rules of working safely and showing up on time to all team members, not to mention that they must be “good ambassadors of the company.”

As its name implies, storming — the second stage of team building — is characterized as somewhat turbulent. During this phase, team members may become irritable with each other and look for someone to blame for problems. All holding different opinions on what direction the team should be going, members may become impatient because things are not going their way. As a result, the cliques that formed in stage one may vie for power while individuals try to work out their role on the team.

Some of the obstacles you may face during this stage include: internal competition for influence, conflict and compromise; win/lose interaction; hidden agendas; and perception of lack of progress. As a supervisor or manager, it's your job to get your team through this difficult transition. Although it may seem like it, this stage will not last forever. Eventually, you'll see things start to come together — a sign you're on your way to the next stage.

Many contractors have mentoring programs for new team members that help them through this stage. For example, Total Electric has developed formal mentoring programs for apprentices to help them understand team goals and those of the organization as a whole. Informal mentoring programs for the more experienced journeyman electrician will help them understand the roles of existing team members and how they can best contribute to a successful project.

Norming, the third stage of team building, is the time when turbulence fades away. Conflict is reduced, and team members learn to accept their differences in hopes of working collaboratively. By accepting their role on the team, employees finally understand their responsibility to the group.

During this stage, you'll notice more members becoming active listeners. With the group identity at a high, the team remains more open-minded, as participants start taking responsibility for their actions. More friendliness and sharing of personal problems become constructive rather than destructive. Because all team members know the ground rules and accept them, the group is able to establish stability over its processes and perceive it is making headway.

The final stage of team building, performing, is when all members take full responsibility for the group's process and outcomes. Members know the strengths and weaknesses of their counterparts and accept them. They share leadership and responsibility for their performance and are now able to use group problem-solving and decision-making methods more effectively.

In this stage, your team will perform at a very high level. Members will be creative and handle conflict in a constructive manner. With morale up, members will look forward to going to work. They will typically make decisions by consensus and put the team before themselves.

A solid foundation

Once your team has gone through each of these stages, productivity will increase, absenteeism and tardiness will decrease, morale will improve, and the ability to work with other trades will be easier to manage. However, no matter how successful the team, the process of team building is never really over for the supervisor. Before you know it, many factors can cause your team to go from a well-oiled machine back to the stage of storming.

Among many other influences, adding new members may cause the team to slip backward. Because members accept the way things are, they may resist the change that can accompany defining a new team member's role or restructuring of their own role. The same goes for losing team members.

On electrical construction sites, manpower requirements constantly change throughout the life of the project. As a result, it's difficult, if not impossible, to keep the same team together on a project from start to finish. That's why it's so important for supervisors to react proactively to prevent the team from falling apart when issues arise.

By building high-performance teams, an electrical contracting firm will reap many benefits, not the least of which is making the project more profitable. The job will also become safer and more productive, resulting in less employee turnover, absenteeism, and tardiness. Possibly the largest benefit of having an effective team, however, is your company's reputation.

Seeing the performance of your crew, other subcontractors will either go out of their way to work with you or will stay away from projects you are on altogether. After the project is finished, end-users will also be more inclined to use your services again if they've seen effective teamwork in action. Only as good as their subcontractors on a project, general contractors will not only keep you on their bid list, but they'll also actively use your services on as many projects as possible.

Because becoming an effective team builder is something that takes time and practice, getting the necessary training to enhance team building skills is an investment electrical contractors can't afford to ignore. Although the commitment is significant, the investment will pay for itself many times over through successful projects, repeat business, lower employee turnover, and higher profits.

Mitchell is president of Integrated Management Group in St. Louis. He can be reached at bob.mitchell@img-training.com.