The Team Myth

The papers are full of it, just of late. Acknowledgment, admiration, respect and a hint of adoration for the sports teams – Team New Zealand, the Super Twelves, the Coco-Cola Netballers – who have excelled in recent events. On competition days, they made the path to success look effortless, almost easy, yet we know they succeeded on the day because of the work done behind the scenes in the months leading up to the final event.

So for the rest of us, the office-bound, couch-potato types who will only ever grapple with teams in the workplace and not in the sports arena, what are the pitfalls and what can we do to increase our chances of having successful workplace teams ?

You would know, from your own and others’ experiences, that some teams don’t function well. There can be any number of reasons for this. Some participants may not want to be there. Some participants may not like, respect or wish to work with others. Some may not believe in the role or purpose of the team and therefore can’t or won’t commit to it. Some may lack self awareness or an appreciation of how their work style or practices impact on others. Some participants may lack basic skills yet be technically very gifted in some area. Some may prefer to be lone rangers, to be self directed and left alone to get on with their job. Some participants may have knowledge of personal and group profiling, yet not know how to apply it to themselves and others in a team setting. Some participants may have no interest in nor the ability to compromise, negotiate, problem identify and problem solve. Some may wish to avoid personal and collective responsibility for the team’s outcomes. Some may be deeply cynical that ‘teams’ are just another management fad, one that will quickly pass.

There are a number of things that can be done, to minimise potential team problems and increase their chances of success.

Develop a solid infrastructure. Spend time, before a team becomes operational, developing its operating systems. For example, internal communication systems; ‘ground rules’ for formal meetings and for working together; procedures for dealing with conflict; systems for facilitating and recording meetings; ways of monitoring work in progress; reporting systems; confidentiality requirements. Tempting as it is to get immediately stuck in with whatever the team has to do, progress will be thwarted if the basics aren’t developed first. You don’t need to be a tailor to adopt a ‘stitch in time saves nine’ approach.

Clarify the purpose of the team. Be very clear why a team is established; what its function and purpose is; what outcomes are expected; how the team fits into the workings of the organisation. Define the roles and responsibilities of every position and ensure all participants know what they are.

Choose the right people. Ensure the team has the right combination of experience, qualifications, skills, motivation, desire to achieve, willingness to be part of a team, compatibility, maturity, social and interpersonal skills. If possible, exclude the unwilling, the unable, the reluctant.

Expect a settling-in time. It takes a while for a new team to work well together. Getting familiar with the role, responsibilities, team dynamics, new systems, new colleagues, or old colleagues in a new role, farewelling the past or other teams, takes time and lots of work. Don’t expect miracles immediately – next week will do.

Assist team members to know themselves. There are real benefits to be had in team members knowing their own and their team members’ working styles and personality types. This can help individuals work to their strengths, minimise their weaknesses and enable the allocation of tasks to suit the skills, experience and styles within the team. It’s not enough for the team to know, at a head level, ‘what they are’ in relation to certain profiles; the information needs to be worked with on a daily basis. Help them ‘get it’.

Provide support. Some teams do struggle on occasions; some may not know how to move forward, once stuck. Some may require a little targetted support, others a lot. Do provide support, coaching, encouragement and guidance when needed. Ensure the teams have the resources they need to do their job. If you have delegated certain tasks to a team, make sure the authority to do the task is given over also.

Expect professional behaviour. Individuals bring a range of different values, beliefs and approaches to their work. With the teams, at the very beginning, determine the professional behaviours expected from them, both individually and collectively. Make sure too, that you model the behaviours and the standards you expect from others.

Expect results. Teams can spend inordinate amounts of time discussing and deliberating, especially if there is no real expectation of outcomes, or no clear requirement to be decisive, work efficiently and effectively within timeframes. Be clear about what you want and when you want it by. Time is money. If you have a team which is all process and no results, it’s time to go back to the drawing board – quickly.

Celebrate successes and achievements. It’s easy to lose sight of achievements when there’s still lots to do. Take time to stop, reflect, identify the successes and acknowledge them fully.

Teams can and will fail if they contain the unwilling, the unskilled, the reluctant or if they don’t have an appropriate infrastructure, resources or support structures. If you want to have successful teams, don’t leave it to happenstance. Instead, use good planning and good people – so that Together, Everyone Achieves More.

First Published in NZ Business August 2000

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