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Five Ways to Know When Team Building is Urgent

In the words of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, “great things in business are never done by one person, they are done by a team of people.” He’s right. Teams are at the heart of all high performing organizations. 

That’s true for small businesses, large corporations, non-profits, government organizations, and everything in between.  No matter how much talent, hard work, and determination individuals can offer, teamwork is required to achieve results.

If you’re a business owner or leader at any level, you probably rely on one or more teams every single day.  Whether you are talking about leadership teams, functional teams, project teams, or any other kind, the challenge is the same - you need your teams to work effectively and produce results if you are going to be successful.  

“Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”  Andrew Carnegie

This raises some interesting questions.  If teams are essential to success, why do so many leaders and organizations spend little to no time working on them?  Why do they leave team development to chance?  Why do they allow poorly performing teams to languish?

Often, leaders simply take for granted the power of high performing teams and they underestimate the consequences poor performing teams.  Spending time creating and developing teams doesn’t feel like “work.”  It sounds like a nice idea, not a direct way to solve a problem (more on this below). 

Yet in many cases, nothing is more impactful for a business or organization than investing in building winning teams.  As a matter of fact, fixing your teams should be an urgent priority. As you reflect on your teams and consider if you are getting the most out of them, keep these three things in mind:

  1. High performing teams -- those that align to a shared vision, draw on strengths, and get the job done, even in spite of organizational, interpersonal, and technical challenges -- don’t happen by accident. 
  2. “Sick” teams -- those that have low productivity, divergent goals, poor morale, and destructive infighting -- don’t get better without treatment. 
  3. World-class leaders take action to create and sustain great teams. 

This is the first of many Modern da Vinci posts that will give you guidance, tools, and resources on building and leading great teams.  The focus of this post is to provide you with a specific strategy for assessing and strengthening the teams you have today

How can you discern if they are healthy?  How can you spot those that are faltering?  If you have a team that is struggling, what are some immediate steps you can take to get things on track? 

5 Key Areas for Assessing Your Teams

To give us a simple and proven framework from which we can quickly assess teams, we’ll rely on the excellent and acclaimed “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni. 

The book walks readers through a “fable” where a new CEO is charged with turning an organization around.  She quickly realizes that a dysfunctional leadership team is at the heart of the company’s struggles. (Note – the company’s pressing problems are related to lagging revenue and customer growth – yet the CEO decides to focus her energy and efforts on team building.  This surprises her colleagues who are overwhelmed with “real work.”)

The book goes on to break down five interrelated dysfunctions that undermine genuine teamwork.  They are:

  1. Absence of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results

Let’s take a look at each one of these areas to understand what they mean, identify symptoms caused by each of the dysfunctions, and outline the top steps you can take to address the root of the each problem.

Trust

“Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” – Stephen Covey

Trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good.  On a trusting team, members aren’t afraid to ask questions or admit mistakes.  They will share feedback and treat each other with respect.  Trust is a foundational trait of a strong team; without it, not much else is going to work. 

Teams with an Absence of Trust will conceal weaknesses, shy away from feedback, hesitate to ask for help, and jump to conclusions on other’s intentions and aptitudes.  A lack of trust will undermine a team’s ability to authentically communicate and work collaboratively.

To test for trust in your team, consider the following questions:

  • Do team members hide information and mistakes from each other?
  • Are they quick to pass judgement on each other’s work and effort?
  • Are team members holding grudges and avoiding each other?
  • Do team members hesitate to help each other?

The Fix for Trust - If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, you likely have a problem with Trust. 

To fix this, you must take steps to create an environment of “vulnerability” in the team.  The simplest way to do this is by setting a personal example.  Be willing to discuss your own mistakes, weaknesses, and concerns.  Let others know that it is ok and encouraged to be open and honest with each other. 

It also helps to give team members opportunities to share more information about themselves (personal values, experiences, preferences) and to solicit input on ways to improve the team. 

Coach Tip – Listening is another great way to engage others and build trust.  Learn the skills it takes to become an Attentive and Empathetic Listener.

Conflict

“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” – Thomas Paine

High performing teams are able to identify and handle conflicts sensibly, fairly, and efficiently.  All great relationships and teams have some degree of conflict.  Instead of turning conflict into destructive fighting, strong teams proactively address issues and conflict to reach solutions.

Teams with a Fear of Conflict refuse to acknowledge that conflict is normal and healthy.  They are unable to surface and explore controversial topics.  They avoid difficult discussions, instead engaging in back-channel politics and complaining. 

To assess for conflict tolerance in your team, ask the following questions:

  • Do team members hold back opinions and honest concerns?
  • Does the team have a tendency to ignore or gloss over controversial topics, even when they are critical for success?
  • Do team members talk behind each other’s backs?
  • Are team meetings painful, boring affairs? (here are some tips on How to Run Exceptionally Successful Meetings)

The Fix for Conflict - The leader is responsible for setting the tone for Conflict Management within a team.  Encourage debate.  Don’t let difficult questions and conversations slide.  Allow team members to work through disagreements.  Remember - harmony is only good when it is the result of working through issues, not as a result of people holding back feelings.

Coach Tip – Managing conflict requires strong Emotional Intelligence.  Read our post on “Conquering People Problems” to learn the basics on EI and how to handle Difficult Conversations.

Commitment

Individual commitment to a group effort - that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work. – Vince Lombardi

Commitment in a team setting is a combination of clarity (clear mission and shared goals) as well as buy-in (each member knowing what they need to do to contribute to team success).  Teams with commitment will make decisions and move forward.  They have a shared confidence among team members that they are taking the right steps and heading in the right direction.

Teams that have a Lack of Commitment become paralyzed by ambiguity.  They have differing opinions on priorities.  They revisit decisions and spend too much time and energy trying to reach a perfect consensus on every issue and question. 

To test for commitment in your team, reflect on these questions:

  • Is there confusion and disagreement on priorities?
  • Does the team suffer from excessive analysis and difficultly making decisions?
  • Do team members constantly second guess each other?
  • Do you observe a lack of confidence and/or a fear of failure?
Having trouble with team commitment? Define a set of goals for your team while also defining individual responsibilities of each team member to help reach those goals. 

Having trouble with team commitment? Define a set of goals for your team while also defining individual responsibilities of each team member to help reach those goals. 

The Fix for CommitmentMany of the issues around commitment are the result of poorly defined goals, expectations, and roles for the team.  Going through a simple Team Chartering process can help address this.  Ideally this is done as the team is formed but it can be employed at any time. 

Lead your team through a process of writing specific goals, defining responsibilities of each team member, and agreeing to processes for decision making.  As a leader, embrace your ownership for making decisions.  Involve others and communicate but don’t be overwhelmed trying to find perfect answers or consensus. 

Coach Tip – A simple and effective strategy to foster commitment is to lead by asking Powerful Questions.  Inviting team members to offer creative solutions through questions will encourage engagement and buy-in. 

Accountability

“When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice.”  - Brene Brown

Accountability in teams is the willingness of members to call themselves and their peers on performance and behavior that could hurt the team.  Teams with accountability set standards for their work and expect each other to meet them.  Team members aren’t afraid to speak up when expectations aren’t met.

Teams with Avoidance of Accountability will be inconsistent in what they deliver.  Varying standards of performance can cause imbalance and even resentment among team members.  In this environment, there is little to no peer pressure to perform.

To evaluate accountability in your team, consider the following:

  • Do I have a subset of team members who do all the heavy lifting?
  • Will my teammates let each other down?
  • Is there variance and/or resentment among team members when it comes to roles, output, standards, etc.?
  • Are team members unwilling to become “uncomfortable” when it comes to giving feedback?

The Fix for Accountability For accountability to be present, a team needs agreement on expected standards of behavior, quality, and performance.  This requires that the team has openly discussed how members are expected to behave, the values they demonstrate, and what constitutes a good work product.  It helps to have some written guidance or examples for each of these areas.  Having simple processes in place for peer reviews can also help.  Leaders should be ready to step in if needed but must be willing to let the team develop its own sense and culture of accountability.

Results

Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes. – Peter Drucker

In the end, teams exist to produce results.  Results driven-teams stay focused on big picture goals and outcomes.  Team members yield their own interests to achieve the collective job that everyone signed up to do.

Team with Inattention to Results will eventually stagnate as individual members prioritize their personal status and accolades.  A team like this can easily become distracted and typically won’t have what it takes to rise to meet a challenge.  Employees who truly value achievement may decide to leave. 

Ask these questions to assess the commitment to Results in your team:

  • Do team members prioritize their own goals over team goals?
  • Is personal ego a driving force?
  • Are team members more concerned about their status on the team than outcomes?
  • Does the team assess success and failure as individuals or as a whole?

The Fix for Results – Inattention to Results sits on top of the other dysfunctions.  Assess the other areas to make sure a foundation for achieving results is in place.  Additionally, look for opportunities to publicly share goals so team members know that others are watching.  As much as possible, tie individual performance evaluations to team outcomes.  Recognize and reward those who prioritize team results.  Remind your team - when the team loses, everyone loses.

Take Action to Make Your Teams Great

For those teams you’ve diagnosed as struggling and suffering from one or more dysfunctions, identify one to three concrete actions you can take to start turning things around. 

Start with trust and work your way up.  If you’re not the direct manager of a team but are still concerned about performance, use the framework in this post to guide the team leader and members through a self-assessment process.  That’s a great place to start working on trust, commitment and accountability. 

Additionally, consider what resources you may have to help you through a team building process.  If you’ve got a team that is truly struggling and you don’t see a clear path to get them on track, consider bringing in a third-party coach to lead the team though a formal assessment and team building engagement.  A coach can facilitate discussions focused on setting expectations and will actively identify where the team and individual members are falling short.

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Share your experiences with both high and low performing teams in the comments below.  Ask any questions you have about what it takes to turn a struggling team and we’ll be happy to respond with our suggestions and best practices.