The Discipline of Teamwork: Participation and Concertive Control


James R. Barker

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    For Linda, Sara, and Felicity


    This book is about the social consequences of working in the participative, team-based organization that has marked the 1990s. During this time, organizations worldwide have been converting and restructuring into new forms in which their employees take on more of the responsibilities traditionally given to a supervisor. Workers in these “participative” organizations are highly involved in such matters as making day-to-day decisions, scheduling their work, solving their own problems, and supervising their own activity. The self-managing team-based organization is the most popular form that participative restructuring takes these days. The large-scale change to team-based organizations has brought with it significant repercussions for the way that we think about work in organizations and for the actual way that we do work in organizations, which is what I explore in this book.

    The present book is not about teamwork, per se. We have been bombarded for some time now with books that extol the virtues of teamwork in general and of self-managing teams in particular. These books, mostly written by management consultants, commonly focus on helping business leaders engineer a successful change to a team environment and develop, cultivate, and manage teams. This book is not about how teams “work” in this sense. Rather, it is about how teams, as a part of the larger trend toward more participative but disciplinary organizational structures, “work” as a social phenomenon.

    What the above statement means is that I have set out here to answer a lot of “how” questions:

    • How do we create the social environment of “teams”?
    • How do social consequences (e.g., the repercussions mentioned above) arise from our participation in team-based environments?
    • How do these consequences shape and affect us as human beings?
    • How should we live and work together in team-based environments in light of these consequences?

    The rationale for such a focus is simple. Like it or not, we are living in an age of worker participation. Each day we find ourselves working in more team-based, or similar, environments. Certainly, we need to know how to make teams productive and efficient. But we also need to know the implications that such work holds for us as human beings, as people who spend much of our lives working together in organizations. We need to know how participation in teams affects us on a social level, both positively and negatively. We must be aware of these consequences before we can make informed decisions about the ultimate worth and usefulness of teams and other participation programs. Thus, my purpose in the pages that follow is to illuminate some of the “social” consequences of working in teams and to provoke you, the reader, to consider the potential effects of these consequences.

    My analytical story about the social character of teamwork is set at “ISE Communications,” a manufacturing company successfully using self-managing teams. It is a story created from the lived experiences of ISE's team workers, through their actions and actual words during work and from their reflections on their work as team members. The consequences of teamwork emerge from a real story of real people working on real teams. The people at ISE invited me to observe their work and to hear their voices in confidence, which is a confidence that I will protect in the following story. The company name and the name of all the workers at ISE are pseudonyms.

    In addition to protecting their confidence, I have another important reason for wanting to preserve these people's anonymity. That lack of personal identity helps us to translate their experience into our own. In a sense, the team workers at ISE are members of an “everyteam.” The social consequences of teamwork that they experienced are our consequences, too. Their experience can help us decide whether we like this era of greater worker participation, and their experience will help us decide what about teamwork we want to maintain and what we want to change.


    I would never have finished this book without Kurt Heppard's selfless help and encouragement. After four years, three job changes, four moves, two kids, and all the rest life has to offer, the book was languishing on my back burner. During the past year, however, Kurt helped me get restarted, inspired me to develop the unfinished sections, and motivated me to finish. I will always appreciate his confidence and treasure his friendship.

    Linda Macdonald and Graham Sewell both contributed immeasurably to the last few months of work on the book. Graham graciously took time to read the manuscript and gave me both excellent suggestions and strong encouragement to finish. Linda has been an invaluable editor, reading the manuscript with a keen sense for how the audience would respond while catching untold numbers of vagaries, densities, and grammatical errors. Kurt, Linda, and Graham's hard work have dramatically improved this book's quality. Thank you all.

    Over the years, a number of others have generously assisted me with the various aspects of book writing. Here at the Air Force Academy, especially, I have had the luxury of extremely supportive colleagues who have graciously sustained me over the last 2 years. Steve Green provided strong encouragement and the logistical support I have needed. Julie Chesley and Christy Strbiak read manuscript drafts and offered very helpful comments. Sandi Long did close detail editing for me. Kevin Davis helped me arrange my teaching schedule, and Earl McKinney taught one of my classes to give me more time for the book. Rita Campbell and Chuck Yoos read earlier manuscripts for me, as did Liz Gilbert. To all of my present colleagues, I am deeply grateful for your support and encouragement.

    Hugh Willmott debated my more provocative assertions with me, and the arguments are much improved as a result. Dave Whetten and Mary Jo Hatch helped me formulate some of my key arguments. Blake Ashforth, Michael Beyerlein, Anson Seers, Keith Murnighan, Chris Neck, and Charles Booth have all given much encouragement along the way. And I have a special thank you reserved for the ever-patient Marquita Flemming and Harry Briggs of Sage who stuck with me during all the trials and tribulations of book authorship.

    At the University of New Mexico, Todd Wydra, Caleb Rabinowitz, and David Diamant all helped me analyze the ethnographic data, as did Rob Grice and Bill Pawlshyn at Marquette University. Karen Foss and Brad Hall read some of the earliest versions of my ideas and helped me formulate the core themes I have developed. I also received a grant from the College of Communication at Marquette University that funded a substantial part of the data analysis.

    I am indebted to the Reverend Christine Robinson, who is one of our society's most insightful but lesser-known social critics. Her words guided my thinking as I formulated the last half of Chapter 7.

    Back to the beginning, I am forever grateful to Bob Sutton, Linda Johanson, and the ASQ family for all their assistance over the years. Also, my original doctoral committee members, George Cheney, Phil Tompkins, Patti Adler, Brenda Allen, and Michael Pacanowsky, have continuously given warmly of their counsel and friendship over the years.

    And there is Linda Macdonald, loving wife and partner as well as invaluable editor, and our children, Sara and Felicity, who all make life wonderful each day. Their love gives me the sense of purpose to write about the consequences of our organizational world and how we ought to make that world a better place.

    Two final notes: First, I can never express enough thanks and appreciation to the team members at “ISE” who shared so much of their work intimacies with me. Obviously, without their and “Jack Tackett's” cooperation, willingness to let me into their lives, and support, I would have no book.

    Last, at some point I have to write the following, and this is a good place: The opinions I have expressed in the following pages are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policy of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

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    About the Author

    James R. Barker is Director of Research and Associate Professor of Organizational Theory and Strategy in the Department of Management at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He received his PhD from the University of Colorado and his MA from Purdue University. His recent projects include collaborative research with scientists at the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories. He has previously held faculty positions at Marquette University in Milwaukee and at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, and has also consulted with a variety of public, private, and service organizations. His research interests focus on the development and analysis of participative control practices in technological and knowledge-based organizations. His teaching interests focus on the application of theoretical principles to solve day-to-day organizational problems, and he has taught a number of courses that emphasize the development of critical thinking and decision making skills.

    His work has appeared in a number of professional journals, including Administrative Science Quarterly, Communication Monographs, and Advances in the Interdisciplinary Study of Teamwork. He serves as an associate editor of the Western Journal of Communication, and on the editorial board of Administrative Science Quarterly. In 1993, he won the Outstanding Publication in Organizational Behavior Award from the Academy of Management for his research on self-managing teams, and he recently lectured on teamwork in organizations at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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