By Ruby Bayan

IT pros are known for their somewhat eccentric personalities and unconventional work habits. These inclinations often make it difficult for a team leader to keep all members at synchronized and optimum productivity levels. For example, hyperactive team members will work faster than others; multitaskers will easily get distracted; and hardliners will insist on doing things their own way.

When managing a workgroup whose members have disparate traits and tendencies, you need more than basic team building skills and proficiencies—you need an aptitude for regrouping, realigning, and refocusing potentially unruly energies.

Let’s look at some strategies our experts found effective in keeping a motley crew of techs on the same page.

Establish ground rules that members will respect
Workgroups generally kick off with a set of ground rules. Technically, they’re called the team’s “norms,” or the work guidelines that all members must follow. However, these ground rules are sometimes the root cause of lousy teamwork. Here’s how to set your group’s guidelines so they don’t trigger trouble:

  • Facilitate rather than impose. “The team leader should facilitate the development of the ground rules, not impose them,” said Michael Beyerlein, director of the Center for the Study of Work Teams and professor of industrial/organizational psychology at the University of North Texas. He said that people do not feel buy-in to things they did not help create. “If the leader wants the team committed to the ground rules, they must come from the team.”
  • Involve the members. “As we often say to team leaders: ‘The road to commitment is paved with involvement’,” said Glenn Parker, author of the book Cross-Functional Teams: Working with Allies, Enemies and other Strangers and a team building consultant for more than 30 years. In the end, you want team members to “own” the rules because they are more likely to live by them, he said.
  • Define norms that make sense. “The group must define its rules based on the consensus of the members,” advised Nelson Java Celis, president of the Information Systems Security Society of the Philippines. More importantly, he said, the rules must emanate from existing corporate policies and run parallel to the group’s mission or objective of existence.
  • Address potential problem areas. “There are always individuals in IT who are off the norm, so to speak, and have relationship and communications problems,” said Dale Jackaman, director of information technology systems of BC Research Inc. So the ground rules he tends to set are in the areas of technology usage, documentation, and the minimum standards of communications required to work with the other team members.

Create conditions that promote harmonious interaction
Leaders of multifaceted workgroups anticipate discord within the ranks, so they strive to preempt counterproductive behavior and implement measures to make their team members interact harmoniously. Unfortunately, according to our experts, achieving harmony is easier said than done.

“A leader cannot ‘make’ team members interact harmoniously, but he or she can create conditions that make it more likely,” Beyerlein said. His suggestions include modeling behaviors that are desired, recognizing and rewarding positive examples of the behavior, and coaching members on how to become better members.

Jackaman suggested a reality check. “You can’t make people change their personalities for the sake of workgroup harmony. People are who they are and that’s it.”

Even though you can force some degree of an outward attitudinal change, Jackaman said it will be a lie and will rarely last. In extreme cases when individuals just don’t get along, such as in a power struggle of personalities or technological differences, he suggested isolation or segregation, with e-mail and other virtual communication to keep them connected.

Celis’s solution, on the other hand, is bonding. “Despite the best intentions, negative personal behaviors, if not controlled, will eventually affect others in the team and derail the whole project.”

The team leader should always be around to ensure that the group is moving in the right direction. And the best way to do this is to socialize with the team. “In my experience, simple socializing bonds even the most unconventional techies,” Celis said.

Hang out with the team members at break time. Join them in company sports programs, ball games, and other hobbies. Every now and then, share a drink or two. “Grudges are often aired and solved over bottles of beer,” he said.

Steer a team member who has veered off course
Our experts agreed that when the inevitable happens—a team member gets off track—a face-to-face, one-on-one discussion adequately addresses the situation. They also suggested a few “refocusing” maneuvers:

  • Take a supportive and positive approach.“Coercive or punitive approaches are likely to exacerbate the situation,” Beyerlein said. Talk about how the contributions of the member are valued and recognized and how they can be enhanced with some simple change in behavior, he said. Tie the change to the individual’s goals, as well as the team’s goals.
  • Show the team member the effects of the deviation. Team members may fail to see the whole picture, Celis said. “Show them where they are in the business process and help them understand the causes and effects of their deviations from the team’s goals.” Then agree on how to get back on track.
  • Be open to suggestions.“Sometimes, the conversation will point out that I was wrong and the new direction is the correct one,” Jackaman said. “My particular management style is to point the team in a direction I want, do steerage as they go, and adjust those component parts to best take advantage of the positives they bring.”

Monitor hot spots
Every team has its own unique characteristics, but in the techie world, teams have common “hot spots,” or sources of collective grief. Our experts listed the areas you should keep an eye on to ensure optimal teamwork:

  • Meetings. Because tech pros work at varying speeds and methods, Celis stressed the importance of regular weekly meetings to discuss status, updates, thrusts, and performance levels.
  • Titles. “I would advise any good manager to be careful when handing them out,” Jackaman said. Titles can isolate and alienate others in the team, especially those of a competitive nature, he said.
  • Communications technologies. “You can throw technologies at teams and it will fail every time unless everyone in that team is on board and can use them effectively,” Jackaman said. For teams working over distances, video conferencing, application sharing, and shareable document databases can certainly be of help, but everyone has to agree to use it.
  • Knowledge sharing. “Techies are knowledge workers,” Beyerlein said. “Optimal team performance depends on that expertise being appropriately shared.” Lots of bad habits get in the way of that, he said, such as assuming that senior members have more to share than junior members or that junior members have more up-to-date knowledge. When those habits interfere, people don’t speak up or they don’t listen and think about what is being said. As a result, opportunities for innovation in product or process are missed. The leader should be working toward improving the conditions for sharing knowledge with each decision about the team.

Get off on the right foot
As a final reminder, Parker said that effective teams kick off with appropriate expectations. At the onset, the leader should explain the purpose of the team and how the members are expected to function individually and together. Participation concerns should be addressed promptly so that the team, no matter how avant-garde, can stay on the same page.