- Research found that 65% to 85% of knowledge workers are on two or more teams. On average, knowledge workers are on six different teams.
- Given the prevalence of this organizational style, many people would benefit from adopting a multiple team membership mindset.
- Employees should focus on leveraging, understanding, and improving relations with team members outside of their focal team.
A whopping 65 percent to 95 percent of knowledge workers are on two or more teams. And for these workers, being on as many as six or more teams is relatively common. Many of us have been living what’s called "multiple team membership" for quite some time, yet we haven’t given much thought to the implications of this reality.
We’re typically assigned to a department, which becomes the stand-in for our team. By definition, a “focal” team is who we spend the majority of our time and effort interacting with to accomplish interdependent tasks.
However, things have changed. Organizations now realize that they can minimize slack time by also plugging employees into multiple project teams. The result is that we have a focal team, but we also have one or more “concurrent” teams. These secondary teams sometimes last as little as a few weeks and sometimes as long as a year or more.
From an organizational standpoint, structuring such that employees have multiple team membership can be beneficial. Not only does it ensure that employees always have initiatives where they can add value (i.e., reduced slack), but it also facilitates organizational learning. As employees contribute their knowledge, skills, and expertise in secondary teams, it facilitates new pathways for cross-organizational knowledge flow.
The challenges of multiple team membership
However, there are some hidden downsides to multiple team membership. Although information sharing is more probable, the volume of information can also make it challenging for employees to keep up. This increases the likelihood of things falling through the cracks. Worse yet, it can also lead to burnout.
Another challenge is that employees spend less time building trust with others on concurrent teams when they know the team is temporary. Relatedly, team members stretched thin due to multiple team membership might feel less committed to a team where they play a relatively tangential role in comparison to their primary team.
Perhaps the biggest challenge in multiple team membership is that we simply don’t acknowledge that it’s happening. It sneaks up on us. Along those lines, employees should be embracing what I call a multiple team membership mindset.
This mindset has three dimensions—leveraging, understanding, and improving—which are described below. Consider assessing how well you’re doing on each of the three dimensions and then work towards making adjustments where necessary.
What is a multiple team membership mindset?
Before discussing the three dimensions, it’s important to clarify what is meant by a “mindset.” A mindset refers to a set of beliefs that shapes our thoughts and actions. It’s the lens through which we view the world.
As an example, one of the most popular and well-researched work-related mindsets is a growth mindset—the belief that challenges are opportunities to learn. Similarly, a multiple team membership mindset is specific to the belief that there is an appropriate (and productive) way to view and interact with team members outside of our focal team.
The first dimension, leveraging, is specific to how we can use the experience of working with concurrent team members to improve our work performance. Employees higher in the leveraging multiple team membership mindset think of these newfound colleagues as untapped resources for learning something new, enhancing their network, or finding complementary partnerships.
These employees recognize that every person they work with has unique knowledge or expertise. Further, they believe that building a relationship with them so that they can tap into that knowledge or expertise could be beneficial at some point in the future.
Employees with a leveraging mindset also view new colleagues as potentially helpful additions to their professional network. They recognize that each new colleague they encounter might eventually be the broker of future relationships or opportunities.
Finally, employees with a leveraging mindset are consistently evaluating the skills and strengths of their teammates. Further, they are savvy at thinking through how to create partnerships with other team members that allow them to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
Understanding is the second dimension of the multiple team membership mindset. The understanding dimension entails the degree to which employees recognize and respect the fact that concurrent team members are stretched across multiple teams.
Employees with an understanding mindset are empathetic; they acknowledge the realities of working with others that are in multiple teams. Instead of judging them for not being available, prepared, or the like, they seek to understand the big picture of their team members’ obligations.
This ability to engage in perspective taking allows them to have transparent conversations about how they and their colleagues are prioritizing their time across teams. As well, it ensures that everyone is being realistic and clear with respect to leader role (e.g., navigator, liaison) and team role (e.g., implementer, completer) expectations across teams.
One of the primary goals of multiple team membership is that it facilitates information exchange and learning across the organization. The information being exchanged, however, is typically specific to the work itself. Employees high in an improving multiple team membership mindset focus on knowledge transfer for a different type of information: team processes and team development.
Employees higher in an improving multiple team membership mindset start by proactively and accurately describing their preferences and tendencies while working in teams. Most teams can get away with skipping these conversations because they figure it out (for the most part) over time. But with dynamic, fast-paced project teams, articulating this information right from the start is crucial.
Employees with an improving mindset are also willing to voice their suggestions for how to improve team processes. They recognize that one of the biggest advantages of working on multiple teams is that everyone has more and more team experiences to draw from. To the extent that employees can float these experiences as points of consideration for the team to consider, the higher the likelihood that the team will improve their cohesion and viability.
Change your mind(set)
Many employees don’t even realize that they’re being asked to contribute to two or more teams. In many cases, this causes employees to focus only on team development within their focal team. This instinct is reinforced as organizations report department- and unit-level outcomes and managers only evaluate and give feedback to their direct reports.
But don’t be fooled. Like it or not, you’re part of a big, complex system where you’ll be contributing as a team member to an assortment of teams. It’s time to update your mindset—a mindset focused on leveraging, understanding, and improving the relations with others outside your focal work team.