Management by Coaching
BUILDING A HIGH-PERFORMING TEAM
How you may be undermining teamwork without even realizing it
Assembling a team of talented, knowledgeable, ambitious individuals is one thing. Creating a dynamic where they can work together to tackle the organization’s toughest challenges and fully commit to a common direction is another.
Leading teams is tough. Team members come from different disciplines in the company, each with its own priorities and perspectives. Personalities and work styles are different. Workloads vary, and so does the commitment to any single initiative at any given time. Competition for resources, influence, and attention can be an ongoing source of conflict.
Getting the team dynamic right is crucial to the business’s success. According to McKinsey, when a leadership team is effectively working together toward a shared vision, it has a 1.9 times increased likelihood of delivering above-median financial performance. But when a top team fails to function well, it can paralyze an entire company.
[W]hen a leadership team is effectively working together toward a shared vision, it has a 1.9 times increased likelihood of delivering above-median financial performance.
What it takes to build an effective team dynamic is an ongoing source of debate. But five factors consistently top the list: trust, the ability to manage conflict, commitment, a focus on the collective result, and the willingness to hold each other accountable.
Leaders often are so fixated on managing results that they overlook the team dynamic and the role it plays in achieving the goals. In pursuit of performance, leaders may unconsciously behave in ways that disrupt the teamwork they seek to create.
Trust—the fuel that powers high-performing teams
Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. There is no quality or characteristic more crucial to building a positive team dynamic. Leaders erode trust when they:
- Fail to own up to their weaknesses and mistakes. Team members are generally well aware of the leader’s weaknesses and mistakes. When the leader acts as if these don’t exist, he sends the signal that it’s unwise to be open about shortcomings or missteps. As a result, team members waste valuable energy pretending to be someone they’re not. Fearful of being wrong, they avoid risk, which makes it difficult for the team to move beyond the status quo. When things go wrong, people feel compelled to hide their slip-ups and place blame on others. Team members become protective and guarded with each other. The team environment is competitive, characterized by watching one’s back, the formation of factions, and maneuvering behind closed doors.
- Facilitate the end run. Leaders further feed mistrust among the team when they have “offline” one-on-one conversations about team issues or individual team members. Leaders who want their teams to thrive need to resist the temptation to be the filter or fixer and instead force these issues back to the group for resolution.
- Avoid the elephant in the room. Team members need to know that they can trust the leader to surface the real issues that may be holding the company back. All too often, team meetings consist of status updates and top-down communication. Little time, if any, is left for tackling the real issues that people need to talk about but prefer to avoid.
The ability to manage conflict
All great relationships require productive conflict to grow. But conflict often is considered taboo at work, where people may spend inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to avoid the kind of passionate debates that are essential to any great team. Productive conflict is necessary if people are going to openly express their views, tackle tough problems, and pursue the best possible solutions. Leaders stunt their team’s ability to grow when they:
- Discourage conflict. Some leaders aren’t comfortable with conflict. When people express forceful opinions and strong feelings, it seems too confrontational. The need to lower the tension level and maintain harmony among team members takes priority. In reality, suppressing conflict has the opposite effect. It blocks cooperation and alignment around common goals. Over time, tension, negative emotions, and polarization build up.
- Allow conflict to spiral out of control. While most teams would say that they are committed to listening with respect, or that they will debate, decide, and commit, anyone who has ever been in an argument knows how hard it is to keep one’s cool. What starts out as an ideological discussion quickly deteriorates into interpersonal politics. Effective leaders create a safe space to disagree. To keep things civil and respectful, they set up clear ground rules and enforce them.
To better understand what creates an optimal team dynamic, McKinsey asked 5,000 executives to think about their “peak experience” as a team member and to write down the word or words that described that environment. The number one answer was a shared belief about what the company is striving toward and the role of the team in getting there. As obvious as that may be, leaders chip away at the alignment they seek when they:
- Send mixed signals about overall direction and priorities. This happens when direction and priorities frequently shift. People question how serious the leader is, and often they take a wait-and-see position before committing. It also occurs when new initiatives are not weighed against the reality of current project and time demands. People may want to commit, but they’re already overcommitted.
- Overestimate buy-in. “Yes” doesn’t always mean yes, and silence doesn’t always mean agreement. Team members commonly nod their heads in support but are quietly harboring doubts about whether to support the agreed-toactions. It’s crucial for leaders to surface divergent views and facilitate vigorous debate. When team members believe that their opinions are heard and considered, they are more likely to commit to the agreed-upon decisions.
- Don’t clarify the “now what?” Valuable time is spent discussingissues and brainstorming ideas. But there is no conclusion at the end of the meeting. People waste valuable time wondering and second-guessing what they’re supposed to do next. Without clear and specific resolutions and calls to action, there is no commitment.
Focus on the collective result
Managers are naturally preoccupied with the performance of their individual business divisions. Getting them focused on big-picture issues impacting the company and initiatives with a long-term focus can be challenging. Leaders encourage tunnel vision when they:
- Create a silo-oriented environment. In a silo-oriented structure, information doesn’t flow freely between groups. Knowledge becomes power as people compete for resources and visibility. People outside one’s group often are viewed as difficult or unresponsive. This creates a dilemma for senior leadership. While they’re tasked with developing strategies that require departments to work well together, typically they’re not the ones implementing action plans. For this, they have no choice but to depend on their teams. When there is a silo mentality, getting interdepartmental teams to work together can be a painful and time-consuming process.
- Give insufficient weight to team goals in determining compensation. Often, leaders view team goals as critical. But when it comes to compensation and promotion, people actually are evaluated based on their performance in their individual area of responsibility. As long as this is the case, it is tough to get team members fully engaged in the collective goals of the organization.
A willingness to hold each other accountable
High-performing teams set high standards for themselves. They are willing to call their peers out on performance or behaviors that hurt the team. This level of honesty can be tough even for the best teams. Even team members who are particularly close to one another may hesitate to call one another out because they fear jeopardizing that relationship. Ironically, this only causes relationships to deteriorate and resentments to build.
The willingness to hold one another accountable in a constructive way is key to developing cohesion and can help a team avoid far more costly and difficult situations later. Leaders undermine accountability when they:
- Don’t make roles and responsibilities clear. When team members aren’t certain about one another’s roles and responsibilities, it leads to misunderstanding. Peers may hesitate to assume responsibility or fail to act because they fear stepping on their colleagues’ toes.
- Tolerate non-performers. Little does more to discourage accountability than a leader who tolerates poor performance or individuals who may work hard on their own but limit their contribution at a team level and allow others to carry the load. People begin to feel comfortable doing subpar work, knowing they won’t be confronted.
- Give “stars” a pass on bad behavior. Almost every team has one. It may be the company’s number one rainmaker or the brilliant CIO. They’re among the best when it comes to doing their job but the worst when it comes to getting along with others and teamwork. When clear action isn’t taken to improve or remove these individuals, team members know that being a role model and teamwork don’t matter.
Stay mindful of the team dynamic
Every team has a dynamic, and it is fluid. Nurturing a healthy, productive team dynamic is a continual process. People change, business conditions change, and what’s needed from the team changes. If you don’t consciously determine the dynamic you want, one will be created for you.
While you never have total control, if you define the dynamic you want and consistently act in ways that support it, you’ll be much more likely to achieve the outcome you desire.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies, and brokers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.