Assumptions can derail team dynamics,” says Vicki Halsey, VP of applied learning at The Ken Blanchard Companies. “But replacing those assumptions with researched action not only replaces frustration with focus, it also increases team success.
“Many people assume individuals called together to serve on a team will automatically know what the team is trying to achieve and how to gain alignment, set group goals, and identify individual roles—they even assume a plan is in place for dealing with the conflict that inevitably occurs.”
Those assumptions are seldom true, says Halsey.
“Some people understand the concept of being on a team but don’t have a lot of experience actually doing it well. It’s like the behavioural interview question ‘Tell me about a time when you successfully helped a team of your peers align around a common goal, identify individual roles, and successfully deal with conflict.’ The person may know the steps, but they’ve rarely if ever applied those steps themselves.”
That’s a problem, considering how much time people now spend working in teams and the critical nature of team success, says Halsey. She points to Blanchard research that finds only 27% of people are satisfied with the performance of the work teams they participate in.
“Management legend Peter Drucker once said, ‘The only things that happen naturally in organisations are friction, confusion, and underperformance. Everything else takes leadership.’
“Leading a successful team requires clarity, communication, and a process. Unfortunately, most people have never been trained in any of these. As a result, people bring to a team whatever skills and techniques they’ve learned along the way—and that can be a mixed bag of good and bad strategies, depending on each person’s life experience.”
It’s important to have a structured start to any new team formation, explains Halsey.
“We call it chartering. Team chartering helps a team leader cover, up front, all the basics that have to be in place to both align energy and avoid trouble and heartache later on.
“This is where a team leader gains the clarity they can draw on later when the team’s commitment and performance starts to waver. It’s the good, clear, inspiring foundation the leader can bring into play as the team forges ahead. It’s the most essential building block of a high performing team: strive for clarity first.”
“Communication skills are the mixed bag I described earlier. Depending on life experience, people bring all sorts of different interaction strategies into a team discussion. Some people jump right in while others hold back. Some have a tendency to monopolise conversations and others are quiet and only share when asked. Some almost seem to enjoy conflict while others avoid it at all costs.
“Blanchard’s Team Leadership program has a great section on this, which was developed by my colleague Craig Weber. Craig is the author of the books Conversational Capacity and Influence in Action. His work focuses on increasing candour and curiosity when communicating with others, especially in a team setting. Candour is about speaking your truth and sharing your experience in a way that sheds light on things other folks on the team might not know about. Curiosity is about keeping your mind open and your mouth shut. It’s about asking questions and helping to draw out the wisdom and experience of your team members instead of waiting for an opportunity to share your own.
“Both candour and curiosity are critical to team success.”
Having a process and a predictable model is the third resource a team leader needs, says Halsey.
“Teams go through four predictable stages on their way to high performance. These include a Dissatisfaction stage that derails many teams. It occurs after the team has been formed, when the first deliverables are due. Depending on the skills people bring into the process, some people do well on their first set of deliverables while others fall short—they didn’t have enough time, they had competing priorities, etc.
“Now the team faces its first test. Do team members know how to redirect behaviour, regain commitment, and keep the team moving forward? Or does the team stall because no one steps up who has the skills to lead?
“This is the critical point when everyone on the team needs to be able to diagnose where the team is along a continuum that many of us know as Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. When a team finds itself in the difficult Storming phase, people need a predetermined plan for moving forward into Norming (alignment and commitment) and then on to Performing (getting the job done.)”
Go Far Together!
“As an individual, you can only do so much. You need a team of mutually committed individuals who are able to help clients with the complex issues they are facing.
“The good news is that you can learn the skills necessary to be a great team leader—when you get the chance—and a great team member until that day comes. Strive for clarity early on, no matter the role you are playing. Encourage team members to practice communication skills like candour and curiosity so that they are ready to share their wisdom and tap into the wisdom and experience of others. And make sure the team has a process for dealing with the conflict and disillusionment that predictably surfaces.
“I love the proverb ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ It’s a great mantra for the modern work environment. Develop the skills you need for your team to succeed!
About the author:
David Witt is a Program Director for The Ken Blanchard Companies. He is an award-winning researcher and host of the companies’ monthly webinar series. David has also authored or coauthored articles in Fast Company, Human Resource Development Review, Chief Learning Officer and US Business Review.