#280 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 6          June 1997

Getting Teams to Really Work
by Barbara Pate Glacel, Ph.D.

Dr. Glacel is chief executive of VIMA International, Inc., an organization development firm in Burke, Virginia (phone 703-764-0780; email VIMAInt@VIMA.com).  She is co-author of Light Bulbs for Leaders:  A Guide Book for Team Learning (John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1996).

With all that we have heard about high-performing teams, self-managed teams, quality-circle teams, cross-functional teams and so on, you would think that developing a good team ought to be pretty straightforward.  But no matter what “method” you use, good teams simply don’t happen.  People must conscientiously learn to be good team leaders and members.  These ten practical lessons are essential to developing a high-performing team.  The lessons may sound like common sense, but they are learned only through experience.

Teams start the formation stages over at each meeting. 

Every time team members come together, they must adjust to the fact that changes have been made since the last meeting.  Since then, individuals have had new experiences and new ideas. Therefore, each meeting should begin with a check to see how each person is and if there is anything new he or she can bring to the team.  This shows interest in the individuals, who then will work more easily together when it comes down to business. 

Any change in team membership means a new beginning to team formation issues.

People are not pegs that can be readily interchanged.  A new team member will not be the same as the one who is being replaced.  Because high performance and quality results are based on the interdependence of team members, a change in personnel influences the entire team.  Therefore, when a new person joins a team, formation issues are renewed as trust is reduced and the members are not sure how the whole team will act in the presence of a new-shaped piece of the puzzle.

Honest and real feelings expressed by team members help stimulate new ideas.

When people know and express their feelings, it makes them more real.  How many times have we heard the old adage that when one comes to work, feelings and personal problems should be checked at the door?  This ingrained work ethic is a tough one to break, even when one rationally knows better.

Expressing fears, hopes, anger, uncertainty, elation, or any other feeling is a first step toward building the trust that a team needs to be high performing.  This does not mean going back to the touchy-feely exercises of the sixties.  It means being truthful about who you are and what you bring to the party.  The idea of expressing feelings also demonstrates that rhetoric isn’t always reality, and that common sense isn’t always common practice.  People connect better with each other when they believe that feelings are expressed.

There is more information and knowledge within a team than is usually revealed.

Information is power and even in the flattest of organizations, there’s significant competition for promotions, access, success and/or recognition.  Information may be guarded carefully for fear of someone else using it to individual advantage.  Or, perhaps more commonly, the information does not seem relevant to share because team members do not understand the big picture.  Team members must feel a sense of unity and interdependence among themselves to comfortably share significant information.

Responsibility falls on all team members to bring people into discussion and to listen to ideas opposite from their own.

All members should share responsibility for leadership.  High-performing teams have a minimum of hierarchy.  Members join or are assigned to teams because of the value each can bring to the topic at hand.  Therefore, input from all members is required.  When hierarchy, conflict or style get in the way of individual contributions, any member of the team should help the team to be more open and collaborative.  Each participant needs to keep an open mind to opposing ideas, and share in the responsibility for leadership.

Talking about the team task is easy; talking about the process, or working together is difficult.

Talking about a task is a technical, mechanical, logistical or rational discussion.  Only in rare instances does discussion of the task evoke considerable emotional input.  It’s more comfortable to discuss the task, which is external, than to work together, which involves internal and interpersonal issues.  Discussing the process of working together means accepting responsibility for one’s impact on others.

Face-to-face meetings are needed for confronting difficult issues and reaching closure.

Even in this day of cyber-magic and instant communication, there is no substitute for face-to-face communication when dealing with difficult issues.  Often, teams are virtual, located in geographically separate places.  Without the advantage of bringing a personality into the discussion, conflicts may either escalate or be swept under the carpet.  Reliance only on e-mail to avoid solving problems means that teams do not form, products and services do not improve, and quality is always at risk.

The team should reflect on team process at every meeting.

As activities and actions are identified at a meeting, members should analyze how they came about.  Whose thoughts and feelings were most important to the discussion?  How were they expressed?  Who helped them express these thoughts and feelings?  It is useful to have this type of discussion both at the beginning (reflecting on prior meetings) and at the end of a meeting.  Have the group generalize what helps the team come to good conclusions.  By reflecting on how the team works, each meeting is certain to produce better team results.

Teams can get a lot done away from work.

Because team formation requires people to be themselves, to be vulnerable, and to recognize the whole aspect of one another, considerable progress can be made outside of the work setting.  Conflicts and barriers to progress can often be reduced away from work.  Individuals with interpersonal difficulties can see each other in a new light.  Stress, a cause of team dysfunction, can be mitigated in a social setting—during lunch, for instance.  Celebrations, such as birthday parties, or company picnics also facilitate the search for a common ground as they allow members to meet each other on equal footing, putting aside business differences.

Allocate time for forming, storming, norming and performing.

These simple rhyming words describe the process of team development over time.  Individuals do not immediately come together and produce quality results.  Unless the procedure they are asked to perform is routine and requires no discretion nor judgment, team members must learn to work together.  The progression of form, storm, norm, perform is not linear.  Rather it is an iterative process, which often results in two steps forward, one step back.  The various inputs over time may cause conflicts (storming), alter behaviors acceptable to the team (norming), and develop a new standard for performing.

These ten lessons will only work with effective communication, commitment, behavior change and continuous feedback.  This requires hard work and skills that are not easily learned within the context of a business crisis.  They are better learned within the context of everyday team activities.  Pay attention to how your team works.  Which of these lessons will make it work even better?  

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©2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.