#548  Innovative Leader      Volume 11, Number 3          March 2002

How to Get Teams to Achieve
by Christopher M. Avery, Ph.D.

Dr. Avery, of Partnerwerks in Comfort, Texas (www.partnerwerks.com), is author of Teamwork Is An Individual Skill: Getting Your Work Done When Sharing Responsibility (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2001).  

Competition and cooperation are not opposites as traditionally supposed.  This is a notion which has created problems for a new way of doing business.  We have created a work culture where we tell people that if they do a good job, do as they’re told and keep their noses clean, they’ll be rewarded as individuals.  And now we’ve changed the game.  Now the game is to work in a networked economy, cross-strata, cross-level, cross-functional, cross-organizational and in teams.

Many people have not yet been trained for this “new game” of working in productive, individual-driven teams.  They still see cooperation as something that diffuses responsibility and subsequent rewards.  This misconception—that working in teams is incompatible with working for yourself—is behind a lot of biases against working with others.  We think:  If I help you get more, then I get less.

As long as we believe that teamwork is a group skill and continue to focus people’s attention on someone else being responsible for the effectiveness of that group, then professionals are going to continue to suffer.  The idea is to continue to contribute as an individual who is now part of the team.  In other words, in order for me to win, you and I have to win together.

Teambuilding is simply a set of messages successfully shared among a group of people.  Any individual can easily learn and practice teambuilding if she chooses.  Professionals often use challenge courses, personality inventories, and other games and exercises to provoke groups into sharing this set of messages.  But when such tools are used without understanding exactly why, critical communication skills can become hidden and results can appear magical.  Individuals who want to get their work done through interaction with others must learn to make their wants and desires known without ambiguity and without magical thinking.  To maximize team performance I recommend that team members engage in the following five conversations as the first order of business after the team has been formed.

Focus on the Collective Task

If you are assigned to a team, or just want to create a team atmosphere at work, the first thing you should do is establish shared clarity about what the team was formed to do.  Teambuilding starts with clarifying the reason for the team.  It does not start with getting people to like each other better.  The task itself, not the people performing the task, is the reason for the team.  When work has specific beginnings, ends, deliverables, and results, people can get more focused on it.  By the nature of its task focus, then, a team is temporary because that task has a beginning and an end.

The first conversation for any new team should be how to work together to accomplish something larger than any one member of the team.  If you think about it, you will understand that the move from independence to interdependence begins with asking for or giving help.

Aligning Interests

The second conversation concerns members’ individual reasons for contributing to the collective task (commitment to other members is a by-product of having an individual stake in the collective outcome).  Making sure everyone is at the same level of motivation is far more important to successful teamwork than matching appropriate skills.  Skill mix is an important issue for project management, but it isn’t necessary for teamwork.  Why?  If members don’t have the required skills, a high performance team will improvise.  The same is not true for motivation, however.  Every team performs to the level of its least invested member.  Because this principle of group behavior is not widely taught, most team members don’t know how to respond when it manifests itself, and it manifests itself frequently.

People do recognize one element of the principle, however, and that is freeloading:  individuals who don’t do their part.  Freeloaders are actually an invention of institutions.  Naturally forming teams don’t have them; freeloaders only show up in institutionally sanctioned teams with assigned members.  If not for the bureaucracy protecting each freeloader’s membership, the team would unload him immediately if he didn’t quit on his own first.

Most professionals aren’t equipped to align motivations or confront freeloaders, but it isn’t difficult to do.  It isn’t so much a lack of skill as a lack of perceived permission and responsibility.  The most common excuse for not addressing issues of low motivation and commitment on teams is “that’s management’s job.”  You can make it your job if you want to get more done.

Establishing Behavioral Ground Rules

The widely used four-phase model of team formation (forming, storming, norming, and performing) suggests that norms don’t develop until phase three.  You can accelerate the development of norms, however, by initiating a conversation about appropriate and  inappropriate behavior in your collective effort and then enforcing those agreements.

Whatever the operating agreements are made must be policed by the team.  Members must be equipped to “call” each other on broken agreements.  Until employees learn the distinction between tall and flat organizational structures, and how it is in their individual and collective interest to provide behavioral feedback to teammates, most won’t “call” teammates on behavioral issues.  They won’t because most of them believe “It’s management’s job.”  But you can make it your job.

Setting Bold Goals and Anticipating Conflicts, Breakthroughs, and Synergy

Unless they have experienced it a number of times, few employees appreciate and anticipate how their work on a team can lead to real breakthroughs.  This lack of understanding contributes to resistance toward team activities.  The fourth conversation you must have with colleagues at the beginning of team formation then is about setting bold goals, the anticipation of conflicts in working toward such goals, breakthroughs, and synergy.

When it comes to productivity, team performance corresponds to the first half of the classic S-curve.  Due to the team’s flat organizational structure (shared responsibility without authority), members require time to orient themselves with each other and to the task.  Thus, performance is frequently flat for the first half of the team’s investment of time and energy.  After this initial period, however, breakthroughs will occur and the team’s performance turns up rapidly.  If you understand this pattern, you can anticipate it.  The “high performance” part of teamwork is always temporary, not sustained.  Teams, unlike institutionalized departments, do have beginnings and ends as their collective tasks begin and end and the high performance part of the cycle is at the end.

Honoring Individuals and Their Differences

Differences in perspectives are powerful, especially when they are aimed at a collective task in an environment of trust.  Team members must create explicit opportunities for each team member to participate and add value.  The goal is to produce synergy through the discussion and appreciation of different perspectives.  Two types of behavior kill synergy:  people saying more than they know, and people saying less than they know.  The fifth conversation, then, should be designed to discover what each member brings to the task and to honor differences in perspective and approach.  From this utilitarian viewpoint, diversity is not about morality.  It’s not even about equal opportunity as an end to itself.  Diversity is about productivity, breakthrough, and synergy.

Individual contributors must learn how to stay engaged with each other under time and performance pressures.  They must expect that their interactions will lead to breakthroughs that create results beyond their imaginings.  More importantly, individuals must learn how to talk about these dynamic relationships in ways that create breakthroughs rather than breakdowns.

Ten Principles for Creating Powerful Partnerships

Do you struggle to get what you need from the people on whom you depend at work?  Do you feel that you’re on each other’s side?  Make every work relationship a true partnership by applying these principles.

Work with others to determine what’s in it for them.  It’s smarter and easier to tap into others’ motivations rather than to try to dictate them.  Ask what’s in it for them to work on a particular team until they come up with the personal benefits that motivate them.

Be helpful to others (it’s in your best interest).  Learn as much as you can about others’ goals, then look for opportunities to help them achieve them.  Don’t subordinate yourself or give up your own pursuits to help others exclusively, but understand that you gain greater access to their ideas and motivations when you are helpful to them.

Protect others’ interests.  Playing the role of “integrity cop” makes others uncomfortable, but it also contributes to the strength of the team.  Record and remember the explicit agreements and implicit expectations made within your team and sound the alarm when one team member’s actions threaten to violate other members’ interests and boundaries.

Give “efficient gifts.”  Efficient gifts—favors that cost you little or nothing, yet provide great value for the receiver—often add more value than traditional exchanges.  Efficient gifts include giving a heads-up on an opportunity or threat, proofreading a document, or making an important introduction.  Give them often and ask for favors with the same principle in mind.

Celebrate others’ successes.  Envying the success of others reinforces the assumption there’s a limited amount of success in the workplace.  Fertilize the ground to grow unlimited success by celebrating the wins of others.

Appreciate conflict.  Treat team disagreements as an opportunity to learn.  Give others permission to express their viewpoints or dissatisfaction and remember that any upset, fear, or conflict disappears once it’s thoroughly confronted by the group.

Distinguish criticism from feedback.  “Constructive” criticism is still criticism and should be replaced with “compassionate revelation”—or telling your truth with compassion.  Feed the consequences of others’ actions or behaviors back to them truthfully and compassionately.  And when you find yourself about to give criticism, stop yourself until you can compassionately “feed back” your thoughts and feelings.

Practice “tit-for-tat.”  Tit-for-tat makes others aware of their responsibility for your relationship.  Derived from game theory, computer science, and evolutionary psychology, this simple strategy has two rules:  1) always cooperate on your first interaction with someone; and 2) follow his lead on each successive interaction.

End with the beginning in mind.  As teams come to an end, most members jockey for position, politick, or blame negative circumstances on others.  Improve the quality of your endings by avoiding burning bridges, harming reputations, and being inhumane to yourself or others.  Instead, bring to mind the best days of the collaboration and envision a way to craft a more responsible endgame.

Achieve closure.  Don’t allow your team to begin ceremoniously, then disregard the value of a ritual ending.  Determine what closure activity would make you all feel complete, then design an event that has meaning for everyone.

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