Overused Teamwork

by Ron Potter

Team Leadership Culture: Teams first.  I’m a big fan of teamwork.  However, when it creates an overcommitted organization and conflicting priorities it is counterproductive.

The foundation of this post was inspired by a Harvard Business Review article, The OverCommitted Organization, written by Heidi K. Gardner and Mark Mortensen.

The Overcommitted Organization

In the article, they talk about the dysfunction that can happen when people are assigned to too many teams at the same time.  They break it down to the following pros and cons:

PROS: By assigning people to multiple teams at once, organizations make efficient use of time and brainpower. They also do a better job of solving complex problems and sharing knowledge across groups.

CONS: Competing priorities and other conflicts can make it hard for teams with overlapping membership to stay on track. Group cohesion often suffers. And people who belong to many teams at once may experience burnout, which hurts engagement and performance.

Increased Pros or decreased Cons

So now we face the question: Is it worth increasing the PROS at the expense of decreasing the CONS?

My answer is a clear NO!  Look in more detail at the expense of the CONS.

  • Difficult to stay on track.
    We have looked at the cost of distraction many times in this blog.  Our social media and instant communication can and will negatively affect productivity.
    In fact, we can become so distracted on a regular basis that it reduces the brain’s ability to concentrate and think deeply.  These are two features that we need more today than ever!
  • Group cohesion often suffers.
    Without group cohesion, there is no team!  Teams that tell each other the truth with respect and fully commit to team goals (regardless of personal or department goals) is at the core of great organizations.  Group cohesion is essential!
  • Burnout.
    People who experience burnout experience reduced energy, brainpower, commitment, drive, and many other aspects that make them top performers and good team members.  Avoid burnout!


In my mind and experience, the list of pros is actually cons.

  • Efficient use of time
    It’s been proven that the only people capable of multi-tasking are highly trained fighter pilots.  And even these highly trained individuals are not capable of transferring the multi-tasking beyond the cockpit when their life depends upon it.
  • Brainpower
    It’s also been proven that teams function better when multiple brains are open about a problem or situation.  However, using “one” brain across multiple teams does not increase multiple team’s “brainpower.”
  • Solving Complex Problems
    Complex problems are solved with deep thinking and moving in and out of team subgroups.  Complex problems are not solved by having one brain on many teams.  In fact that leads to burnout and reduces the ability to solve complex problems.

The Overcommitted Organization

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not opposing what Gardner and Mortensen are stating in their article.  In fact, they use experience and solid research to prove their points.  And, they reach the same conclusion that I did.

One paragraph right near the middle of their article says

Launch the team well to establish trust and familiarity. When fully dedicated to one team, people learn about their teammates’ outside lives—family, hobbies, life events, and the like.  More important, it forges strong bonds and interpersonal trust, which team members need in order to seek and offer constructive feedback, introduces one another to valuable network connections, and rely on one another’s technical expertise. (Italics are mine)

This is a powerful conclusion that reinforces everything I have learned and experienced.  Teams that establish trust and have an environment of constructive feedback are the most beneficial.

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