David Trueman


Great Teams

Have you had the pleasure of being on a great team? If so, you will certainly know it and you will agree with me that it is a wonderful, fulfilling experience. This is an experience that I hope everyone will have. The good news is that creating and fostering a great team is attainable and far from magic.

What is a great team? My first thought is “I’m not sure but it’s obvious when you experience it.” Fortunately, I can do better than that. Google has spent millions studying the factors that contribute to high performing teams. I highly recommend reading the New York Times article reporting on their work. They looked at 180 teams from all over Google and worked painstakingly to find patterns connecting team performance to team properties or behaviours. The patterns were largely elusive.

They found no evidence that composition of the team was important. “We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.” This is good news for those trying to improve an existing team; bad news for those hoping to parachute in a rock star to improve team performance.

The pattern that they did find is one that good managers have always known: “in the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.” On any team, one can work to establish and practice group norms that encourage and build on these two winning properties: giving everyone a voice that is heard and taking an interest in and responding to others’ needs.

Amy Edmondson of the Harvard Business School coined the term psychological safety to capture these properties. She defines psychological safety as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

It’s a great feeling to know your team is there for you.

This notion is also central to Patrick Lancioni’s writings on organizational health. In his book, The Advantage, he makes a strong case for organizational health trumping all other attributes in determining a company’s success. The first step toward organizational health is having a strong, coherent leadership team. The first underpinning of the team, he asserts, is “vulnerability-based trust” — which is effectively the same as psychological safety.

Lancioni goes on to construct a pyramid which is the basis of a high-performing leadership team:

When you have psychological safety, you can then have healthy conflict because people can focus on the ideas and facts and positions without others feeling under personal attack. With healthy conflict, the team can make strong commitment to decisions because all views are expressed and considered before a decision is made. With commitment it is possible to meet higher levels of accountability since each team member has committed to their actions arising out of a decision. And finally, the top of the pyramid is a focus on results. Company results take precedence over personal or team agendas.

Similarly, Edmondson weaves together psychological safety with accountability which she illustrates in four quadrants:

Clearly, the Learning Zone is where we want to be, with high levels of psychological safety and accountability. If you’ve been in this zone you know how exhilarating it feels. Perhaps, like me, at times you have been in one of the other zones at some time in your career — enough said!

I want to describe an exercise, inspired by Lancioni, that I carried out in my last team. This will help to illustrate that deliberate actions by leaders can advance the conditions for a team to become great.

Sitting around a table, each team member has one index card per colleague with the colleague’s name written at the top. On one side of the card, they write a quality of that person that they admire or appreciate and on the other side a suggestion for improvement. They do this for every member of the team. Once everyone has a chance to record their thoughts, starting with the team leader as the subject, each person in turn reads the quality that they admire or appreciate. The subject can thank them before hearing from the next person. When everyone has read their card, the suggestions for improvement are read in another rotation. Once again, the subject can say thank you — nothing more is needed. All the cards are given to the subject for future reference. Then, the next person in the circle becomes the subject.

I wouldn’t attempt this exercise with a team until I was confident that they were mature enough. I can tell you that for my team the exercise was a great investment of time and the team emerged stronger and more effective in their collaborations.

My experience says that building stronger teams is possible by creating group norms that support the traits that I have discussed, starting with psychological safety. The outcome will not only be better business results but also team members who feel less unhealthy stress and are happier in their work.

This article was originally published at http://shoulders-of-giants.org

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