Improving Teams is not about focusing on the soft fluffy. It’s damn hard work!

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(This is a repost of my LinkedIn article)

When I was a fresh HR advisor and then later internal Organisation Development consultant, I was often called in by team leaders to run a “team-building” session. More often than not the trigger was disagreement, conflict, poor performance or general dissatisfaction with the quality and effectiveness of team outcomes. As one manager said, “I need you to help my team play nicely together. You are good at that soft and fluffy stuff”.

At the time I had been schooled in a variety of tools and methodologies that looked at differences within the team and how, if these differences were addressed, would result in improved performance. I held a belief that “competent interpersonal relations are essential for effective task performance and that group members themselves must be intimately involved in analysing and improving those relationships.” (Hackman & Wageman, 2005).

In my toolkit were assessments, guides and other team-building trickery that would result in people being identified either on or in various 2 by 2 matrices, labelled or coloured. I remember during one certification programme the instructor going to great lengths to reinforce that this tool was not about labelling people…and then promptly handed out badges with our ‘labels’ that we were to wear for the rest of the programme. 

I was actually quite good at running these sessions, well that was the feedback on the happy sheets. The team felt good as they had discovered something new or took away an insight. I felt good because the participants felt good. And I had been able to deliver the session as per my strictly timed agenda.

Now, none of this was surprising. We know from brain scans that when we experience a new insight or new learning our brain releases dopamine; the chemical that gives us a good feeling.

Don’t get me wrong. All these tools have a place. In the hands of skilled facilitators and coaches, they can trigger insightful conversations. The problem when linking back to team effectiveness is that “although interventions that address members’ relationships and interaction can be quite engaging and do affect members’ attitudes, they do not reliably improve team performance” (Hackman & Wageman, 2005). A review of the research literature by Kaplan (1979) found that “not one [piece of research] supports the hypothesis that process consultation promotes task effectiveness”.

As for the teams I was helping, I never went back to assess whether the intervention in the long term addressed what the needs of the team were.

So, what is really happening?

What appears to be a clash of personalities is more often a misalignment on team purpose, structure and work practices. Often coupled with a void created by a lack of leadership direction or the required authority exercised by the leader.

If we are not aligned on what it is we need to be doing as a team and have not agreed how we will work together, in order to do my bit, I will develop my own work strategies and approach the work the way I believe it needs to be done. In doing so, my approach may be different to your approach, driven by my preferences or personality, and we potentially clash. Thus, the root cause is not personality but lack of clarity.

Rather than addressing the symptoms, teams should address the root cause, and team leaders should reflect on whether they have created the structure, conditions and team strategies for success.

Consider the following questions:

  • What is the required work of this team?
  • Does the work really require that we need to be an interdependent team?
  • Are we aligned around a team purpose that clear, challenging and consequential?
  • Do we have the right people with the diversity needed to be successful?
  • Have we designed the work in a way that makes sense for this team?
  • Does the organisation make available what we need in order to be successful?
  • Are we taking time out to regularly reflect and improve on our processes?
  • Have I as the leader been clear on the decisions I will take and those which I expect the team to take? Have we appropriately distributed authority within the team?

These questions cover the 6 Team Conditions for successful teams (Wageman, Nunes, Burruss, & Hackman, 2008).  

Hopefully, you can see, actively working through these questions and creating the conditions for success is hard work, and certainly not soft and fluffy. Get the conditions right from the start and continually review and course correct as needed. I bet this will address most of the interpersonal challenges your team is facing.

References

Hackman, J. R., & Wageman, R. (2005). A theory of team coaching. Academy of Management Review30(2), 269–287. Retrieved from http://10.0.21.89/AMR.2005.16387885

Kaplan, R. E. (1979). The Conspicuous Absence of Evidence That Process Consultation Enhances Task Performance. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science15(3), 346–360. https://doi.org/10.1177/002188637901500309

Wageman, R., Nunes, D., Burruss, J., & Hackman, R. (2008). Senior leadership teams : what it takes to make them great. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

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