Management in the Not for Profit Organization

Dedicated to Exploring the Philosophies and Techniques of Management in the Non-Profit Sector

A Brief (admittedly  simplistic) History of Team Skills in the United States


 In the 1980’s Japanese businesses were beating U.S. businesses at their own game, and at every turn.  Corporate America wondered “What have they got that we haven’t got?”.  They came up with two key answers:  team skills; and, Systems thinking (primarily Deming).

 Suddenly, team was the thing.  Team training, teamwork slogans, everybody had to have teams.  Unfortunately, it was more a fad than a movement.  Upper level executives saw themselves as above and apart from the teams.  Personnel who did receive training often got it from “trainers” who had little or no training themselves in the area of team skills.  Many were re-treaded inspirational, motivational, or sensitivity trainers who went where the demand (i.e.- $) was.  (More on this in an article yet to be published.)

 Since upper level management often did not view itself as part of the team, and many people received substandard team training, it was no wonder that little real improvement was observed in many corporations.

 The reaction was a predictable “I told you so” from those who espoused Strong Leader models.  Not surprisingly, these were usually from the strong leaders themselves.  They then thought that they needed to swing the pendulum the other way.  The focus became individual accountability.  Of course, if these executives had a proper understanding of teamwork from the beginning, they would have realized that there IS individual accountability within teams.  However, since they never really bought into the idea or learned how to measure this, it appeared to be immeasurable to them.  It was much easier to determine whether or not an individual had successfully carried out the strong leader’s orders, and to then hold that individual accountable for the results.  Clarity is what the strong leader gained through the individual accountability models (most often found under the heading of Management by Objective).  Unfortunately, what was “accountability” in management discussions became “blame” in practice.  “Someone must be punished” became the unspoken philosophy.  Teams and Systems thinking only complicated matters, for if one accepts Systems thinking then upper level executives are as much a part of the system (and perhaps even more to “blame” since they have more influence in the design of the system) as anyone else in the organization.  Such a thought is preposterous to those who see their jobs as hiring people who will bring success and firing those who do not.  In the Strong Leader model, sewage flows downhill.

 Worse yet, some continued to give lip service to team concepts, but corrupted their meaning as they attempted to bring them into line with their focus on accountability and objectives.  This writer has observed situations in which Management by Objective was inappropriately translated in practice to “Just get it done, I don’t care how” or, “the end justifies the means”.  Such messages are invitations to employees to violate ethical or legal boundaries.  To those who say that this is not related to the focus on reaching objectives because such violations can bring expensive and perhaps, criminal sanctions- this writer points out that in many cases the message is slightly modified to “Just get it done, I don’t care how.  But I didn’t TELL you to do it the wrong way, and don’t get caught”.  In this context, “being a team player” means that you hide the activities of the organization so that they do not get caught.  This corrupted combination of Management by Objective and teamwork has been dubbed by this writer to be Management by Fear.  It is full of contradictions and mixed messages that keep the bulk of the staff confused, off balance, and disconnected from one another while insulating upper level managers by providing them with plausible deniability.

Despite efforts by some to muddy the waters, there are still ways to tell whether you are observing a true team, or a corrupted version thereof.  Here are a few things to watch for:


 Synergy vs. Fear

Activities that are Encouraged and/or Invited          


Teams in Systems Environment

Management by Fear


Open, forthright, timely, and frequent exchanges of information and ideas. (If Abilene isn’t where you want to go, say so!*)

Keep advantageous info secret in order to make one indispensable.  Secrets split teams.  Rarely, if ever, openly disagree with upper level management.

Quality Assessment and Improvement

Honesty in admitting errors and expressing differences of opinion

Deny making errors.  Blame others to deflect responsibility.  To do otherwise is to risk being scapegoated.

Staff Morale & Cohesiveness

Invest time, money, and energy into developing and maintaining functional interpersonal relationships with coworkers

It is necessary to talk about others behind their backs so that they cannot have an opportunity to confront the accusations.  Others are the rungs of the ladder.

Human Resources

Emphasis on the word “Human”.  Managers seek to invest in their people because they are integral members of the team

Emphasis on the work “Resources”.  People are expendable and replaceable.  The impact of the loss of a team member is considered to be of little significance.

Dialogue (as described by Freire and others)

Kicking ideas around, sometimes in a rather general, nebulous fashion, occurs and is valued as a means to discovery and learning.

Talk which is not oriented to a specific timely goal is considered to be a waste of time.  Such talk can be a source of fear to executive level management because business processes might be examined, and a consensus might develop that proposes changes at the executive level.

In summary, some executive level managers would have you believe that the team approach and accountability are mutually exclusive.  This is not true.  What is true is that they need to work harder if they want to hold members of teams accountable, and that effort begins with learning what it is to be a member of a team.


* Jerry B. Harvey, The Abilene Paradox and Other Meditations on Management (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988). The original publication of the Abilene Paradox appeared as: "The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement," in Organizational Dynamics (Summer 1974)