Teamwork is the last real untapped advantage in organizational life that is totally free!
What’s the best team you’ve ever been on?
What did that experience feel like? What were the results of the team?
Have you been on a not so great team?
What did that feel like?
What were the results of that team?
Chances are that most of us have felt and experienced a lackluster team more often than we’ve experienced a great team. Why? Because real, high-performing, cohesive teams are rare.
Which is too bad because teams have the potential to unlock human and organizational potential.
Why Is Teamwork Rare?
The reason teamwork is hard work and rare is for all the same reasons marriage can be challenging. Both require a lot of vulnerability, emotional investment and pushing and growing and challenging of ourselves and being willing to do that for others.
No, not for most people. Definitely not for me. But I want it for myself and the teams I lead because I know, despite the discomfort involved, that when true teamwork is achieved everyone is better because of it. And that is really rewarding and fulfilling. The best things in life require a lot of work, but are well worth it.
A Community At It’s Core
The team relationship is unlike any other. It should be a place of trust, vulnerability, support, challenge and growth. Psychologist and marriage counselor David Schnarch calls marriage a “people development machine”. And a team has the capacity to be the exact same thing, although maybe not in the same specific way.
Brene’ Brown, author and researcher on vulnerability and what she calls “Whole Heartedness”, points out that our greatest joy and happiness in life comes from being in a safe community where we can be vulnerable. And a team, like a family, has the potential to be that for us in our work lives. Even His Holiness The Dalai Lama believes that belonging to a community is the single greatest source of happiness in life for anyone anywhere.
This is a big reason why great teamwork is hard to achieve. It requires opening up and going places with people that is healthy and required for great relationships but typically avoided at work. Why? Because it’s uncomfortable. And some leaders think, although incorrectly, that it could lead to liability or severe negative consequences. So the colder the better and less risky has become a norm. But with that comes less realization of fulfillment, performance and greatness.
Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks, built a huge business and even industry based on our need for connection. He calls Starbucks the “third place”. First, home, then work, then Starbucks, a place in between the two, a getaway and place to meet with friends, family and colleagues to connect.
In really cohesive teams, people are so personally connected and invested in each other that they want the best for each other and the entire team.
As a result, being part of a team can be one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives.
But is does require sacrifice. As Lazslo Bock puts it in his book Work Rules,
being part of a team means that on some level you’ve given up a level of personal freedom in exchange for accomplishing more together than you could alone.
Putting others needs above our own, especially at work, can be hard and scary. But its in that place of vulnerability and reliance that we find connection, meaningful relationships, fulfillment, community and great achievement.
Good For Business Too
But not only is building great teams good for people, it’s also great for business. Katzenbach found that really cohesive teams can outperform non-cohesive teams and work groups of individual contributors. This is why teamwork has become such a popular word in organizations. Because of the potential for great performance and results. Unfortunately it hasn’t been fully realized yet. So both individual and organizational potential continue to be unrealized and people are disengaged in their work.
Achieving great teamwork has the potential to unlock human and organizational potential all at the same time.
A Model for Teamwork (or 2)
There are two models of teamwork that I’ve come across that when combined make the best framework for building the most high performance teams that I’ve ever seen. They both happen to be pyramids so it worked out beautifully to just marry them together (I’m not sure of the designers of each, Pat Lencioni and Mark Miller, intended that or not). I call it the “Great Team Pyramid”.
Supporting Structures of Teamwork
The first model is based on Mark Miller’s outlined in his book, The Secret of Teams. Its basically the 3 themes on the outside: Skills, Community, Talent. I call them the supporting walls of the pyramid.
I don’t believe Miller put these 3 elements in any particular order but I would argue that community should be at the base. Because I believe that community is the foundation for all other elements of great teams. Not necessarily more important because every element in the model is critical, but definitely where a leader should start when building or fixing a team.
I already pointed out that a team is a work community and that community can be a great source of satisfaction and fulfillment for us. But what does that look and feel like? Miller calls it, “living life together”. Meaning spending time together outside of just doing the work of the team, knowing and caring about each others’ passions and lives outside of work and generally caring about each other as people not just a means to an end in the workplace.
I have a friend that was a career Army officer named Brian and he puts it this way: the best teams struggle together. And he’s exactly right, going through trial and tribulation in and outside of work together is all part of building that sense of community, belonging and camaraderie.
Why, How and What
Community is also where mission, values and strategy or the “Why”, “How” and “What” come to life. Every community has an identity, whether stated and explicit or not.
The “Why” is the mission, purpose and reason for being. The “How” are the values, strategies, priorities and goals. The “What” are the results and physical manifestations of the “Why” and “How” being lived out well.
I won’t go into detail on each of these here since I already talked about the these before.
Just know these are very important elements to clarify and institutionalize in your team as part of building a sense of community so make sure to clarify them from the beginning and use them in guiding all decisions and actions.
Talent of course, are those natural, inherent traits we all possess that make us each unique and can be enhanced through focused training.
Having talented people on the team is vital to enable team success. Everyone knows this and it gets a lot of attention. It is rightly attributed as a leading cause of success and that’s what most people, analysts and media professionals focus on in every industry, especially sports and business.
It’s the responsibility of the leader, with help from the rest of the team, to systematically and thoroughly recruit and select the best and most talented people possible for the team.
Google spent twice that of other businesses in recruiting because they wanted to be like the Yankees.
Recruit (and pay) for the best and then you’ll need much less infrastructure to manage and motivate them to achieve great things. Which has helped the Yankees be the highest winning team in the MLB.
Although I would also argue that talent must not overshadow community. There are countless examples of teams placing far too much stake in talent, even at the expense of their communities values and priorities. It lends to short term gains, but long term losses.
When a team hones all other structural and behavioral elements and gets them all in sync, they can typically outperform the high talent teams. There are several inspiring examples of this: the San Antonio Spurs, the Butler Bulldogs, Seattle Seahawks and the list goes on.
When talent and community are combined is when real magic can happen. A strong community can naturally raise the talent of everyone within it.
Unlike talent, skills are more developable and tangible and technical in nature. And skill has a little more to do with the actual business of the team. In a work setting, people refer to this as “experience”. Although not all experience is created equal. Experiences that also leverage our talents and push us outside our comfort zone in an intentional way lend for the best growth. The frequency and intensity of these experiences determine the quality of our “experience” and thus the level of use our talents and depth of our skills.
Behavioral Traits (or Building Blocks) of Great Teams
Now I’ll talk about the center components of the pyramid. Unlike the supporting structures, these are not physical or tangible things. These are about interactions between team members.
Think of it like a garden. The 3 supporting walls are like the greenhouse, walls of the boxes, etc. The environment. The behaviors are like soil, water, seed, etc. The growth material. And then your job as the leader, to quote the great General Stanley McCrystal, is to be the gardener.
In other words, build and constantly monitor and nurture the environment and give the plants what they need to grow so they can do what they do best. You as the leader can’t force the plants to grow. All you can do is simply provide the environment.
Pat Lencioni wrote the wildly popular book, 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, that details the behavioral traits every team must possess to be great. Those traits are trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and results. These traits are the building blocks of the Great Team Pyramid.
Like community is to the supporting of the entire structure, trust is to every interaction and relationship within the team.
Trust is at the heart of every great team. And trust is built through vulnerability, shared experience and struggle and psychological safety. Google found in an internal study safety to be critical to their most successful teams.
And trust is fragile. It takes a ton of time and effort to build but only a moment to lose it. So work tirelessly to build and maintain it. If something happens that could deteriorate trust, address it before it festers.
This is not literally fighting, fists and all, but more challenging of ideas and mindsets.
I love how Lencioni words this.
When teams have really high levels of trust, conflict of ideas becomes nothing more than the pursuit of truth.
This happens when the group gets together to solve a problem, make a plan or strategy or to learn and grow together as a team. In business, meetings are a team’s court. The place where they come together and do the work of their team. I talked about meetings in a different post so I won’t go into detail here.
Just remember that conflict is normal, healthy and necessary for a team to be successful. But it has to be built on trust and in the context of how the community norms. The style doesn’t really matter as long as everyone on the team is encouraging the challenge in every direction.
Once a team does the hard work of digging deep into a problem they know that a solution and way forward must be decided on. Because of healthy conflict, great teams know that all options have been weighed and considered so they can be confident they have a thoroughly vetted approach. This will give everyone on the team the psychological ownership over the decision being that voices were heard.
Next every team member needs to support the implementation of the approach to enable team success. They have to ensure everyone on the team is crystal clear as to what next steps are so as not to have missteps or worse a failed strategy.
This is the hard one. Every team I’ve been on has struggled with this. This is the part where team members hold each other accountable for team commitments.
Why is it difficult?
The number one response? “I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings”. Understandable but what happens when we don’t give the feedback? The rest of the team suffers and has to work harder to produce results and the results inevitably suffer. And then the rest of team becomes resentful and trust is negatively affected.
The funny thing is most all of us want feedback from all different sources, especially our peers but everyone is scared to give it. All were doing is holding ourselves, others and our entire team back!
So give that feedback! Do it from a trusting, trustworthy, well-intentioned place. And give it regularly and consistently so others know they can rely on you for it.
Every team should have a collective goal and every member should be actively workings towards it.
Of course every member has their own personal and professional goals but they cannot compete with or take away from the team goal in any way.
Ultimately the measure of any great team is performance. How a team and organization decide to put numbers to that is up to them and secondary to have a clear, inspiring and unifying goal.
This is what great teams are made of. In order for a team to be successful it must have all elements of the Great Team Pyramid. Stylistically each one will look and feel different. And that’s natural, healthy and great.
I’ve led dozens of teams and have learned this the hard way. There were times I went very deep on the behavioral parts thinking that was enough and the team relationship was healthy but performance still wasn’t there because we hadn’t put structure and discipline around the supporting elements walls.
So how do you build a great team? Or many? Here are some practical approaches for you as the leader.
Approaches to Bring the Great Team Pyramid to Life
3 Supporting Walls
Clearly define the “Why”, “How” and “What”, plaster it all over the walls and build it into everything you do: recognition, meetings, team scorecard.
Have them meet their customer so they see the impact and importance of the team “Why” in the flesh.
Live life together: spend time together outside of work.
Nurture team rituals and traditions.
Thoroughly include your team in hiring.
Spend a lot of time getting to know people before you hire. Treat it almost like courtship.
Always be looking. As soon as you stop, you’re already behind or missing out on someone great.
Build in learning time and give your team the space to do it.
Have your best teach both groups and individually.
Send them off to trainings and seminars periodically too.
5 Behavioral Building Blocks
Put yourself out there first and be vulnerable.
When others do the do the same, recognize it like crazy!
Create opportunities for people to open up to each other and/or struggle on something together.
Encourage debate. Don’t shut down emotionally charged conversations unless they’re becoming personal attacks, which will be rare.
Give ownership for problems to the team. If they feel the responsibility, they’re more likely to really own the problem and outcome and thus be more willing to have healthy conflict to get a better solutions.
Once a decision and approach is made, make sure everyone is absolutely clear on what they’re agreeing to.
Once clarity is achieved, make sure everyone is fully on board with the plan and has intellectually and emotionally bought in to it.
DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT let people complain to you as the leader about others on the team. Your response should be, “let me know how that conversation goes”. And then follow up to make sure they do it.
Regularly hold group sessions where the team can give each other feedback too. This opens the door for it in the future.
And you must be ultimately willing to hold everyone accountable too. If someone is not right for the team, do the merciful thing and move them on. The rest of the team will know you’re serious about accountability and respect you more for it.
Build your team scoreboard together that include your “Why”, “How” and “What”. Part of the “What” is the thematic goal, or the most important near term goal of the entire team.
Nurture your teams’ personal goals and work with them to align them with the team goals.
The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Dr. Howard Butler
Work Rules by Lazslo Bock
Secret of Teams by Mark Miller
5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Pat Lencioni
Devin W. Craig
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