In the introduction to his wonderful little book “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team”, Patrick Lencioni calls team-working “the one sustainable competitive advantage that remains largely untapped”. Quite a claim, but what does he mean?
Well, first of all, let’s make sure we know what we’re talking about when we mention the word “team”. In a ground-breaking 1993 article, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach, for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” This deﬁnition lays down the discipline that teams must share to be effective.
There are some interesting parts to this definition:
- “a small number” – research implies that anything above 12 becomes too unwieldy to be classed a team
- “complementary skills” – whereas no-one doubts the usefulness of complementarity (after all, we all have strengths and weaknesses), along with different skills come different ways of working, different communication styles and different needs, and this can be problematic
- “committed” – following on from the last point, we may all demonstrate our commitment in different ways and therefore have different expectations of each other in that regard
- “hold themselves mutually accountable” – our experience tells us that this is perhaps the most difficult area of all, especially around behaviours. Our behavioural differences can result in these interactions going horribly wrong. Just reading the phrase “Can I give you some feedback?”, let alone having someone say it to me, can get my hackles up!
Anyway, let’s assume a team meets these initial criteria. So, what is the “competitive advantage” that Lencioni refers to? Well, it’s not hard to list the potential benefits of team-working.
Can get more done in less time through being more creative (bouncing ideas around people of different skillsets)
Can achieve what might have looked impossible on paper
Can make decision-making more robust through hearing different perspectives
Can increase individuals’ sense of self-worth (through valuing and supporting each other) and belonging
Can increase levels of motivation, job satisfaction and commitment to the organisation
Can reduce stress and absenteeism
Is that your experience? Does your team achieve its full potential?
Very few of the teams we work with can claim to. And from the most senior and powerful to the shop floor, it’s always the same barriers that get in the way – individuals’ behaviour (always someone else’s!) and consequent working relationships.
In “The Cost of Bad Behaviour” (2009), researchers Christine Pearson and Christine Porath found that just one incidence of “bad”, inappropriate or uncivil behaviour between colleagues did not only affect the “victim”. They found that, of all those who witnessed the event:
- 47% intentionally decreased time at work
- 80% lost time worrying about the incident
- 63% lost time avoiding the offender
- 66% said their performance declined
- 78% said their commitment to the organisation declined
And the implications of these findings for the team’s productivity become even more dangerous when we consider that “bad behaviour” means completely different things to different people. I might, for example, think it extremely rude and dismissive that my boss never says “Good morning” or asks how I am, whereas s/he might consider such niceties as unimportant and irrelevant. Additionally, I might see it as entirely reasonable to raise my voice to get my point across whilst others might find that an aggressive personal attack. With this level of sensitivity affecting our ability to work on our own let alone in teams, it’s perhaps surprising that we manage to get anything done at all!
However, there is no question that it is at this behavioural level that things appear to go wrong in teams. Other people’s behaviour affects me and vice versa. And when I am affected on this emotional level, I cannot be working as efficiently and effectively as I could were I totally focused on the task.
So, whereas these complementary skills, experiences and opinions undoubtedly harbour huge potential, they are also the source of massive tension that can cause clashes, friction, mistrust, misunderstanding and, consequently, under-performance.
So, how can we use this knowledge to overcome these barriers to effective team-working? Let’s go back to Lencioni. In his “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team” he lays out 5 ascending essentials for developing high performance in teams, the first two (and therefore most important) of which are:
1. BUILD TRUST
Now, mention the words “trust” and “team-building” and visions of bedraggled individuals trudging through mud and building a raft in the pouring rain come to mind. I’ve done this and, although I personally enjoyed it, I know others didn’t and all it seemed to achieve was a cementing of existing bad relationships. What Lencioni is referring to here is not just trust in colleagues’ ability to complete a task but trust on a more emotional level.
“Members of great teams trust one another on a fundamental, emotional level and are comfortable being vulnerable with each other about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears and behaviours. They can be completely open with one another, without filters.”
Teams that fail to do this will waste time and energy managing their own behaviours to conceal weaknesses and mistakes and fail to tap into others’ skills & experiences. They are also more likely to hold grudges.
2. CREATE HEALTHY CONFLICT
We can only make use of the differences of skills, experience and opinion in the team if we are prepared to engage in passionate debate, or healthy conflict. There should be no hesitation in disagreeing with, challenging and questioning one another all in the spirit of finding the best solution and making great decisions. Otherwise we will ignore controversial topics that are critical to team success.
However, so much of where teams fall down is around this topic of communication – some people are fast-paced, loud and task-focused, others quieter, more reflective and need time to consider before committing and we easily get frustrated with those who are “not like us”. This frustration can boil over into mistrust, de-motivation and exclusion. Unless we are prepared to manage our own style in order to accommodate others’, we won’t hear what everyone has to offer.
So, the questions become:
How can we as a team build an atmosphere of trust and understanding?
How can we get right the thing that most often goes so wrong – communication?