What to do when you need a real team

Gale Mote/Tree Full of Owls

As a manager, sometimes you inherit a group of people who simply don’t work well together. The symptoms are clear: team members would rather discuss issues behind each other’s backs rather than directly confront someone. Concerned only about their individual performance, rarely do members offer help and encouragement to their peers. Information is not willingly shared nor are some members willing to cross train in fear of losing their status or power within the group. When goals are not met, a flurry of finger pointing, blame and excuses makes it difficult to resolve the problem and prevent future occurrences.

Recovery is more challenging yet very achievable when managers recognize the real causes of the dysfunction and apply the appropriate remedies.

Understanding the difference between a working group and a real team is an important first step.  In their bestselling book, The Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith describe the distinction. A member of a working group does not need the people around her to be able to complete her tasks – she works independently and is focused on her own goals. Members of working groups have regular staff meetings to discuss what each person is working on and overall departmental goals.  Each is only accountable for their individual goals. The group is focused on one central leader – usually the supervisor.

Teams have shared goals and do real work together. This structure is absolutely necessary when processes are interdependent, when tasks are so complex that one person along does not have all the skills and knowledge necessary to produce positive results and when there is a need for creative and innovative solutions. Ken Blanchard once said, “None of us is as smart as all of us together.” Because everyone has ownership of shared goals there is mutual accountability in a real team – what you do and how you do it impacts others ability to reach their goals.

As a manager, ask yourself if structuring your department as a real team is necessary to achieve positive results. If the answer is yes, it is important to follow these steps in ensuring the team has a solid foundation.

Be certain all team members clearly understand the common purpose and shared goal(s) that everyone is accountable for making happen together. Equally important, everyone must understand his role within the team and how his individual contributions fit into the overall picture. Team members need to see and understand how their work impacts others. In this way, it is more feasible that individuals will put the team first over individual egos and agendas.

Establishing a set of core team values along with operating guidelines helps team members to clarify expectations – what do we need from each other to communicate and collaborate effectively together.  If a core team value is “tell me first” then the team is agreeing to be loyal and respectful of one another rather than engage in negative gossip. When the team agrees to cross-training to provide maximum flexibility for serving customers, hoarding information is not being supportive of what the team believes and needs. If the team does not take the time to create their own norms, they will evolve on their own.  These may or may not be the behaviors most conducive to high performing teams.

Having a clear set of expectations also helps team members to hold themselves and one another accountable for behaviors and results.  Team members must demonstrate peer-to-peer accountability.  Establishing an escalation process for unresolved issues is important so team members clearly understand that everyone on the team is held to the same high standards. If two team members cannot reach agreement on an issue, what is the next step?  Who needs to be involved?

Partners in Leadership define accountability as “a personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary for achieving the desired results.” This requires team members acknowledge what is, learn from mistakes and focus their collective energies on how to positively move tasks forward.

A group of people will never become a real high performing team without trust. Trust builds when every team member is more trustworthy. By clarifying expectations and then demonstrating in action your commitment to be a positive influence within the team, trust grows.

Being personally accountable – admitting mistakes, asking for help, sharing weaknesses and being completely transparent – help team members learn to trust each other.

Spending time getting to know one another as people is a good start to gaining trust and respect. Learning to value the diversity in a team is the only way to capitalize on the various strengths and talents within the group.

Rebuilding trust requires being real, open, forgiving and focused. “I know you and I have not always worked well together up to now.  I apologize for any of my behaviors that were hurtful to you or the team. From now on, you can count on me to be completely open, honest and supportive of you as a member of this team.  We cannot be great unless all of us are working together.  I am committed to you and our team’s success.”

As a manager, faced with a dysfunctional group, ask yourself, “Do I really need a team?”  If the answer is yes, begin the important work of setting shared goals, clarifying expectations, expecting and encouraging peer-to-peer accountability and building trust.  I’m confident you’ll see the group slowly transition into a team of individuals who perform as one.