For five years (2003-2008) Jill McGillen wrote a weekly work advice column for several Northern California newspapers. Many of those questions and answers on team building are included below. Feel free to browse the Q&A archives below.

If you want to read more of Jill’s work advice, she is now writing columns for

Management style focused or cold?
Deadlines and details
Challenging administrative assistant
Friendship with boss
Supervisor’s complex system
Receiving constructive feedback
Making team-building last
Cost-effective training alternatives
Importance of customer service training
Mixed results for Employee of the Month system
Motivating team during transition period

Dear Jill,

I recently began working for a new employer in a manager position. I have been thinking about my previous job. My priority was always to get the work done ahead of deadlines and to not get overly involved in my staff’s personal issues. In an exit interview, my former boss told me that I was perceived as being cold and that the morale of the department was negatively impacted by my approach. I always felt that if work were too social, deadlines would not be met. Suggestions to do it better this time? – M

Dear M,

Ensuring that the work gets done is one important priority of a manager. However, a hard driving manager can be perceived as wanting to look good at the expense of those that work for them. This may not be the case. But, a good manager is also concerned about the growth of the people that work for them. Short term, almost anyone can get a group to produce results. Long term, most individuals need to feel valued to continue to be productive. Some ways to let your staff know that you value them is to create a true team environment. You can accomplish this by having weekly staff meetings ensuring communication is solid in your group. Involve your staff in solving problems. Encourage them to be part of the solutions. Have an open door policy. Ask them what they need to further their career growth and try to assist in their development. In your new company look for a person in senior management who has the respect of his or her team and solicit their advice. Give your staff honest appraisals of their work, focusing on both where they add value and where they need improvement – make sure to discuss both. Don’t wait for an annual review, but meet quarterly (at a minimum) to discuss these issues. This will take time but will be worth it in the long run. Good communication is a proactive step toward good morale. I was fortunate to have had great bosses. When pending deadlines were stressing out the department, one boss would interrupt his own work and ask “what can I do to help?” Another made it a policy of always being the last one to leave work. This behavior inspired their teams to deliver the best they could. The attitude you possess is essential to positive morale and getting good results!

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Dear Jill,

I am often asked to partner with a co-worker who has a very different style than my own. To her credit she is extremely detail oriented. But she is such a perfectionist that we are often delayed in meeting deadlines for the reports that we produce together.

I prefer to report the key points rather then less significant detail. Also, committing to and meeting deadlines is more important to me. Our boss just assigned us to work on another project. He thinks we are a great team. He wants me to learn to work with her. Any ideas? – L

Dear L,

My guess is that your boss pairs you specifically because of your different styles. Both of you contribute in an important way to the final product. However, sometimes when a project is shared a team member can be less concerned about deadlines because the accountability is shared. A few suggestions:

  • Praise your co-worker for her focus on detail. Explain that while working together you want to find the perfect balance between providing the right level of detail while also meeting deadlines.
  • Create a project timeline, identifying task owners and dates when certain key tasks must be complete. Add cushions to these tasks since you already know that prior deadlines have not been met.
  • Suggest that both of you meet with your boss to review the time line and identify task-owners. This will create more individual accountability.
  • Review past projects. Ask your boss for feedback on what detail was good and what was un-necessary. This will give your co-worker and you an idea of where she can scale back and where her detail is necessary.

Be honest with your co-worker. Let her know that your interests should be the same: To provide a high quality project, delivered on time.

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Dear Jill,

I manage an office and report to a VP. Recently, the VP hired a new Administrative Assistant for us. I had some reservations about this woman because of her strong personality. However, her skills and experience were impeccable. The VP convinced me that she was the right fit; however, she has only been a good fit for him. She is making me miserable because she never has time for my work and often says undermining things about me to other staff. Plus, she thinks I do not treat her with respect. I suspect she would rather report only to the VP. My VP thinks she is terrific, and I know she is not going to leave any time soon. I loved my job before she was hired. Do you have any tips? – A

Dear A,

A manager is always responsible for taking the high road when it comes to staff.

  • Find out the specifics behind her complaints.
  • Ask her to speak honestly and communicate directly with you when there is a problem.
  • Explain that you want your entire department to work well together and that your relationship is an important part of that.
  • Ask in what ways the department processes and systems could be improved.
  • Be open to her feedback.
  • Explain the necessity of your work to be prioritized.
  • Set up weekly or daily meetings for the three of you to coordinate the workload.

In regards to respect, remind her that respect goes both ways—she needs to give respect in order to receive it. In work, respect is more important than liking or being liked by others.

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Dear Jill,

My boss wants to be my friend. This makes me uncomfortable but I do not want to lessen my chances of promotion. I remember several months ago, a reader asked about friendships at work. You gave some good advice. Could you reprint that column? – L

Dear L,

The previous question asked about having ‘close’ friendships with peers at work. Given your boss-employee relationship, tread carefully. Here is my reprinted response: The priority in the workplace is to work. My advice is to be friendly to all, and keep your close friends outside of work. The stakes are too high. When work friendships do succeed the expectations are different than traditional friendships. The main difference is related to exchanging important confidential information. Trust is an important part of a traditional friendship. In an organization if trust is misplaced, the results can cause widespread problems. In work it is better to have many people respect you than a few who like you.

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Dear Jill,

I am a supervisor. There are two other supervisors in my department. We cover each other’s job when one is out of the office. One of the supervisors is responsible for scheduling clerk rotation of responsibilities. This supervisor uses a very complex system to schedule tasks. When she is away she wants me to use her system. Her system is not only complex, it is unnecessarily time-consuming. I have my own method that is much simpler and less time consuming. She wants it done her way. When she returns and retrieves the schedules for her files, she gets angry with me. I cannot take the time to do things exactly as she does. We cannot seem to find a good compromise. Can you help? – S

Dear S,

Find out the business reason for her scheduling process. If her request is merely a personal preference, then explain that you cannot afford the time to create schedules using her system. If there is good business reason for her wanting the scheduling done this way while she is out, then re-evaluate your position. Consider the good of the entire office. You might want to explain your process to her and show her the benefits and timesaving value. If your method works as well and is less time consuming, would she not want to use it? If necessary, involve your manager in determining the best way to solve the problem.

If this is not a practical solution, here are a couple of other options:

  • Could the third supervisor assume the scheduling responsibility? In return, offer to assist him/her with a task that you can handle while she/he is out of the office.
  • Could the scheduling be done in advance of the supervisor’s absence to alleviate someone else assuming the task?

Try to use business efficiency rather than personal preferences as the model for making work decisions. That way everyone wins.

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Dear Jill,

I was recently promoted to a new position. There is a lot to learn and I get constant feedback from my manager. I get defensive because much of it is “constructive feedback”. She tells me I am doing fine overall, but I still have a hard time receiving all these “learning tips.” Please help! -N

Dear N,

There are four stages to adult learning:

  • Unconscious and incompetent (we don’t know what we don’t know);
  • Conscious and incompetent (we now know what we don’t know);
  • Conscious and competent (we know and we become skilled); and
  • Unconscious and competent (We know it so well we don’t even think about it).

Stages one and two are very humbling because our desire to “look good” needs to be put aside while we learn. Instant feedback is an excellent way for you to arrive at stages three and four.

Try this approach:

  • Be open-minded and view the feedback as a means to an end, not as a criticism.
  • Listen without interrupting.
  • Don’t react defensively or explain why you don’t know.
  • Paraphrase (“I think you said …”) to make sure you understand.

Finally and very importantly, thank your supervisor for giving you feedback. The smartest people aren’t the “know-it-alls” but those who admit what they don’t know – and then take the time to learn it!

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Dear Jill,

My group has been in constant conflict over the past year. We have suffered from personality clashes, not working together well, and not trusting or respecting each other. Recently we had a team-building session which seemed to help. How can we make the after-effect last? -F

Dear F,

There is often a “bounce” in team spirit after a good team-building session. The challenge is to implement some changes so that the bounce stays permanently. Here are some ways to do that:

    1. Strategic meeting (immediately)
      In a strategic meeting, review the outcomes from the team workshop. Re-establish the goals for the group. Identify which quarter of the year you want to work on them, who, and how. This strategic meeting could be the touchstone for a weekly meeting to continually link back to actions and timeframes. The strategic meeting could have several parts:

      • Work objectives, communication objectives, and timeframes to accomplish them.
      • What we continue to do; do differently; start to do; stop doing.
    2. Group meetings – for entire group
      • Give everyone a chance to design and lead or to report the meetings.
      • In each meeting, have at least one learning or fun fact or success story to reinforce concepts learned in the team workshop.
    3. Reward and recognize results
      Teams need to know their successes. Is there a way (company bulletin, meeting, etc.) to announce individual and team successes? Are team behaviors included in performance measures? What gets measured gets done.

      • Social get-togethers inside/outside of work It is important that a team have a structured way to socialize more frequently in a “safe” atmosphere. Assign a sociable person to “get the ball rolling.” Some ideas for socializing:
      • Have lunch on a weekday at a local restaurant or club, or dinner after work.
      • Bowling or some other recreational event.
      • A designated game time lunch. Choose several board games and have food delivered.
      • Lunch ‘n Learns. Have one person speak on something they know about at lunchtime.
    4. Cross-training
      Allow everyone to be fluent on each others’ jobs. This not only increases efficiency but also builds understanding, comradeship, and relationships.
    5. Additional training or coaching

Consider one-on-one coaching for certain individuals and additional training for the team to introduce other ways to work effectively in a team. You are on the right track by reinforcing team behavior. When it comes to groups, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Thanks for writing.

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Dear Jill,

I read your recent column about what to do after a training session and found it helpful. I manage the HR department for a very small company with budget constraints and unfortunately training is expensive. What are some alternatives to skills training that would be cost-effective? -D

Dear D,

According to a recent newsletter in ASTD (American Society of Training and Development) there are three elements of human resources (HR) that all businesses should focus on regardless of size–establishing and documenting corporate values, performance management, and training and development.

      1. Strong corporate values help employees understand what is required of them, and actions that contravene values should be censured. Values should also govern how leaders manage the firm and who gets hired or dismissed.
      2. Performance management can take the form of regular discussions on employees’ achievements, strong points, development areas, and long-term career goals. Such a process allows firms to set targets for the period, identify what is working and what is not, and create a platform for realizing business goals.
      3. Regarding training and development, ASTD recommends that companies formulate a targeted training initiative to help the company reach its objectives and eliminate skills gaps. Training can be done internally or through outside providers based on requirements and what the company’s training resources are.

In your case–a smaller business–you can provide skills training internally by relying on the more experienced members within employee teams, using mentoring, coaching and on the job training. And by focusing on these three HR areas, companies of any size, sector, or location can facilitate leadership development and improve their human resources approaches. Along with the above considerations, a critical component for on the job training is communication. Employee blogs (weblogs) can be highly useful as a tool for small (and large) companies that are expense-conscious. Blogs work very easily where discussion between employees can occur and documents can be edited communally utilizing Wiki software. In addition, a new employee can quickly become aware of what is happening on any project by reading the blog. For more information on this technology go to or

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Dear Jill,

Last week you advised on how to measure results of a customer-service training program. Our department is badly in need of customer service training. However, I cannot get anyone in upper management to listen to me. The focus in our organization is short-term and bottom line oriented. What I keep hearing is that training is too expensive and we have to use internal resources to fix our problems. However, nobody has expertise in this area. As a result, we have lost customers over the past year due to lack of proper training for our customer service team. Do you have any suggestions on how to convince upper management that a customer service program is important? -F

Dear F,

Agreement from upper management is essential for you to implement a customer service-training program. Senior management in most organizations is (and should be) bottom line oriented. Work with that. Instead of using anecdotes to persuade, use numbers.

      1. Calculate the value of one lifetime customer to the organization. Multiply the annual revenue of the customer times 20 (years). For instance, if one customer brings in $14,000 in revenue per year and stays with the company 20 years then this customer’s lifetime worth to the company is $280,000.
      2. If this customer has a good experience with your organization, research indicates that they will bring you 10 other customers during the 20 years. Assume the additional business is approximately the same revenue, use an average of a 10 year time span, what is that total?
      3. You may also want to calculate the cost of lost business this past year, attributable to poor customer service. Another important consideration but more difficult to measure is the ripple effect of a customer who has a bad experience. Statistics show that that they will talk about their experience to at least 5 others within one year.

Now you have some statistics to discuss the return on investment for customer service training. In reviewing the situation this way, the cost of effective training is a small fraction of the future earnings that can be realized from having a well-trained team.

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Dear Jill,

In an effort to recognize high performers in our company, the management group implemented an Employee-of-the-Month program. It has had mixed results. At first it seemed to be a good thing but over time there have been lots of complaints about unfair selection. Do you have any experience with this type of reward system and do you have any other recommendations for rewards for high performances? – J

Dear J,

This type of program is a perfect example of good intentions bringing bad results. Certainly the idea of honoring an exemplary employee would appear to be a positive action. In fact, through experience I have learned that the negatives outweigh the positives. Consider:

      • One person wins while many others lose who may be worthy or, as importantly, perceived by others to be worthy.
      • Is there really only one person who is worthy of special recognition each month?
      • Rewards are often not customized to the particular person. For instance a plaque may be appreciated by one person and considered meaningless by the next. A prize such as a designated parking space may actually incur resentment from other employees and embarrass the winner by the entitlement.
      • Regardless of a judicial decision-making process, it is hard to avoid perceptions of favoritism for 12 consecutive months; this perception destroys the credibility of the program.
      • What is the incentive for someone who has already won the award?

A different way to think about employee recognition and motivation is to have it on your daily planner vs. a ritualized monthly event which will only honor one employee. First, be generous and specific with praise with all your employees as they complete a task that has been done well. Recently I was in a meeting with a director and his reports. The subject matter was serious and a lot of important decisions were being made. At the end of the meeting, the director turned to the group and said, “Good work on this – thank you.” I watched the reactions of his staff – a combination of pride and appreciation for the acknowledgement. The remainder of the meeting was very upbeat, and I predicted that these supervisors were probably more likely to praise those who report to them later that day. Words of praise cannot be underestimated in immediate value, resulting motivation and widespread impact. Of course the opposite is also true with lack of feedback.

Regarding other types of rewards, it really needs to fit the person. By offering choices, you make the reward uniquely theirs, not a cookie cutter gesture. Get a sense of what is important to each individual on your team. Match the reward to the personality and again make it part of your management routine instead of an unusual occurrence.

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Dear Jill,

In the department I supervise we are undergoing big changes. Over the past several months, staff have been asked to go beyond their regular work to analyze processes and design new and better ways of doing things. However, there is not money in the budget to give monetary rewards at this time. Also, the changes that are likely to occur are causing a pervasive climate of worry and concern. Everyone will have jobs at the end of this process (I already know that is true) – they just may be a little different in scope. Do you have any ideas for ways to keep the team motivated during this transition period? – T

Dear T,

Let them know that you do not yet have all the information to answer all their questions. Emphasize that they do have job security and that the changes will be positive. Your honesty is essential for both trust building and motivation building.

Right now they may feel like they are putting more into their jobs and that the rewards may not match their effort. There are numerous ways to recognize people outside of money. Compensating good performance may require “psychological paychecks.” Consider the following list of psychological paychecks. Some involve small amounts of money.

Make sure to spend generously with:

      • Words of encouragement and positive feedback
      • Interest and questions to them about their lives outside of their work roles
      • Notes or e-mails of appreciation
      • Catered lunches
      • Bagels, coffee, fruit at the beginning of the day
      • Special assignments
      • Soliciting opinions and their recommendations
      • More decision-making authority
      • Listening…really listening
      • Delegating tasks that the employee enjoys doing
      • Recognition for your team’s efforts in company newsletter or meetings
      • Accurate and regular communication about effective dates and timelines of the changes and resulting impact
      • Special recognition for those who are working hardest
      • Meetings where group and you can discuss changes, issues and concerns

When it comes to handing out this “soft” currency, be generous. All of these are needed right now. Be honest and let your staff know the situation you are in and your desire to help them stay engaged and motivated about the project.

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