For High-Performing Teams Treat Members Equally

For High-Performing Teams Treat Members Equally

In my related post on high-performing teams, I described the importance of psychological safety in teams. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson coined the term psychological safety and is the leading authority on the topic of psychological safety and how it impacts team performance.

Agile leaders want high-performing teams. They focus on getting the most out of each person and applying external motivation, but they miss the importance of creating the context where teams can do their best work. They don’t recognize that by treating team members differently, they undermine team safety, morale and productivity.

Don’t Undermine High-Performing Teams

There is a subtlety on this that I recently noticed at a client. The client promotes Agile and Scrum, and espouses participatory decision-making and self-organizing teams. Unfortunately, they are also undermining self-organization in ways that are nuanced and not readily apparent.

In this organization, the Scrum teams are made up of a mix of employees and contractors. The ratio tilts heavily to the contractor end, with only about 1 in 4 team members being employees.

It is probably not surprising to learn that this client treats employees and contractors differently. Most organizations do. This is ostensibly to avoid legal issues around co-employment, though I tend to believe that the reasons go beyond that. Here are some of the key differences:

  • Employees have one color of badge, and contractors have another
  • Employees may work from home anytime, without advance notice; contractors may only work from home as an exception and with plenty of notice
  • Employees are included in all department and division meetings; contractors are excluded from most
  • Employees receive performance reviews and manager feedback; contractors may receive feedback but only secondhand through their company manager who may or may know what they are working on
  • Employees are referred to in a complimentary way with the title of “partner”, while contractors are not and must be considered something else than a partner
  • There is an explicit or implicit reporting structure of contractors to the employees
  • Frequently it is the employee who interviews the contractor and prepares their statement of work
  • Some physical doors are locked (literally) to contractors but are opened with an employee badge
  • Employees are provided with better tools and equipment than contractors

It should be apparent by now that these differences could easily undermine team morale and threaten psychological safety. They aren’t going to lead toward high-performing teams.

Agile Leaders can Create High-Performing Teams Anyway

You can argue that having teams made up of a mix of contractors and employees is the standard and it is not possible to change. Maybe. What are some specific steps that Agile Leaders can take to increase safety on teams and foster high-performing teams?

  1. Increase the Number of Employees – If having contractors causes the problems, how about hiring more employees and reducing the number of contractors?
  2. Build Long-Standing Stable Teams – One of the main drivers for using contractors is to have the flexibility to staff up or down. Why not build long-standing stable teams? Does the business demand and budgets vary widely from year to year? If your staffing is driven by annual budgets or by project funding, stop!
  3. Coach Teams to become High-Performing Teams – A good Agile Coach will help participants including the Agile Leader to be more aware of the “system” or the bigger picture that the teams operate within. By calling out the hierarchy and inequity, the coach can help reduce the threat level and increase safety.
  4. Treat Contractors Better than You Do Now – Where possible, eliminate the differences between how contractors and employees are treated. Anyone that has worked at different clients can tell you that no two organizations do it the same anyway. In the case above, there is no need for the locked doors or the “partner” designation. They only serve to accentuate the differences.
  5. Remove Hierarchies from Within a Team – Even if a contractor needs to report to an employee, set teams up that the contractor doesn’t report to an employee on the same team. That helps foster self-organization.

What are your thoughts about this topic? What is the ratio of contractors to employees on your teams, and would you consider them High-Performing Teams?

Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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