Overly Self-interested Behavior Is Bad For Teams!

Overly Self-interested Behavior Is Bad For Teams!

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Teams are an important concept in most IT organizations, regardless of their development philosophy. Philosophies like Agile may put more emphasis on teams, but even in organizations that do not embrace Agile philosophies, teams are important. Dan Ariely in his Ted Talk, “What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work” suggested that overly self-interested, cynical behavior can negatively impact organizations by reducing their ability to communicate and innovate. The same problem can occur, albeit on a small scale, at the team level. In a recent presentation, a fellow Agile coach described a team engaged in overly self-interested behavior. He described a scenario in an organization that cuts the bottom 10% of all groups annually and stated vision that IT should maximize the value it deliverers to its customers. After losing a popular team member the previous year, the team had decided to make sure that his replacement was given the worst assignments in order to ensure he stayed on the low end of the performance scale in the coming year. Their goal was to ensure that the core team stayed intact during the next review cycle. In their mind, keeping the core team together ensured that they would deliver more value to their internal customers. The behavior of the team attempted to circumvent the idea that adding new and more highly qualified personnel would lead to improved performance. Viewed from the point of view of organizational policy, the whole team was acting in an overly self-interested behavior manner, but from the point of view of core team they are acting rationally and within their interpretation of the rules as seen through IT’s vision of value delivery. The team did not believe that their behavior was at odds with the behavior the organization wanted to incent.

What we perceive as overly self-interested at a team level is based on collective cognitive biases. Biases are powerful psychological filters that affect how both individuals and teams perceive the world around themselves and then guide how they behave. Biases reflect shortcuts in how we interpret and react to stimulus. In many cases, these reactions are valuable, however they can also cause problems (as many shortcuts occasionally can). Understanding how biases impact how individuals and teams perceive the world around them can help teams make better decisions and therefore deliver value more effectively. In the example, the core team had decided to protect itself by defining the new person as an outsider, which allowed them to hold them at arm’s length. In-group favoritism is a typical team level bias that causes teams to favor those inside the team’s boundaries over those perceived to be on the outside. This type of bias negatively affect how outsiders are perceived to perform. Negative perceptions of outsiders will effect whether we listen to their ideas and whether we trust them to deliver value.

Teams need to break overly self-interested patterns of behavior by striving ensure that they are pursuing a goal that is greater than team’s own self-interest. At a project level, product owners need to clearly identify and communicate the overall value proposition, so the team has something greater than themselves to pursue. When behavior goes off track coaching can help to identify issues that the team can’t see and diagnosis themselves. However, in many cases overly self-interested behavior at the team level can be a reflection of poor philosophies at the organization level. Organizational philosophies, like decimation or objectives that foster individual competition rarely support intergroup communication and innovation.