By EVA CHRISTODOULOU
Team managers, whether they are newly-promoted or experienced, face the gruesome task of bringing a team together and getting the members to deliver to the best of their ability.
Their role is to direct, coach, advise, mentor, and even discipline where necessary.
It’s been a common practice in the working world and beyond, that in order to have a team that works effectively as part of a bigger machine, we would also require a manager – a leader who could provide direction or merely be the representative of the team to higher management in an institution. Or both.
How does a manager ensure that the team performs well?
For one, we cannot overlook the fact that adjusting to the new role takes time – a new manager has to be responsible for the work of other people, and he or she is often the first to take the blame if team members mess up.
It takes patience, practice, and ample reflection to perfect the role of a team manager, especially if you are unfortunate enough to have a less-than-well collaborating group of people under you.
In this article, I would like to talk about building an effective team as well as some ideas for team managers to implement.
Apart from the multitude of skills you will have to employ as a manager – delegation, coaching, managing performance, and many more – looking at the areas outlined below can allow everything else to have a higher impact.
Don’t forget that small teams make up the whole organisation, and ensuring that a team works well together and produces high quality work contributes to the overall success of a company.
At Leaderonomics, we believe that in order to help teams become high performing and effective at what they do, we need to take care of three components.
Let’s look at the main elements of each component, and what we feel each team manager should look into to ensure they set their team up for success:
What Castka, Bamber, Sharp and Belohoubek call system factors, the Action Plan is essentially about having clarity in the team. Clarity of purpose, objectives, as well as strategy to be able to achieve those. Managers, therefore, need to concentrate on the following areas:
Defined focus for the team – Clarity on the purpose of the team, how it contributes to the organisation’s mission, what is the expectation in terms of output and impact, what the decision making process is, clarity on the team and project goals, as well as the strategy to get there.
Alignment and interaction with external entities – Explicit knowledge on what kind of information flow is necessary, and how to ease the flow between teams within the organisation, or external stakeholders such as clients.
Organisational impact – Understanding how the team contributes to the organisation as a whole, and also what the team needs from the organisation in order to work effectively. Team members must also be able to see how their contribution makes a positive impact to the organisation’s goals.
Measures of performance – Understanding how the team gets measured, and how clearly these measurements are communicated.
Competency – Staffing the team with the right people that have the necessary skills (or at least mindset) that are needed for their work.
Individual performance of team members – Understanding the personal capacity of team members, and how this affects their output of work as well as their relationships with other members.
Team size – Looking at the size of the team and the role the team has to play in order to determine whether the team is of the right size.
Other elements to consider are: colocation of team mates and how it affects their work; workload size, and tenure of the team as a unit as well as individuals.
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Loosely correlating to Castka, Bamber, Sharp and Belohoubek’s human factors, the Engagement Plan has to do with the needs of the individuals within the team, and how comfortable they feel there.
It is possible that the “conditions” may vary significantly across teams within the same organisation, even when a company feels it has a strong company-wide culture.
Looking at the following areas will therefore help a manager assess where there needs to be more emphasis in their own team.
Psychological safety – Amy Edmondson of Harvard University introduced the term psychological safety, in the context of learning. She defined psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of the team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking”.
In fact, psychological safety was found to be the most crucial element of high performing teams in Google’s Project Aristotle.
In her TEDx talk, Edmondson offers three simple things individuals can do to foster team psychological safety: frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem, acknowledge their own fallibility, and model curiosity and ask lots of questions.
Dependability – This was the second most important contributor to a high performing team in Google’s case: Understanding whether team members can trust the rest of their peers to get things done on time and meet their and the organisation’s high bar of excellence.
Meaning – When it comes to having an engaged team, it is important that team members find the work that they do to be important to them, on a personal level.
When assigning work tasks, ensure you also do so based on individual development needs and interests, in addition to ability and expertise.
Connectivity – The interpersonal relations between team members can make or break teams. Everyone should be comfortable with one another to share ideas and joke around.
Inquiry vs advocacy, other vs self-orientation, and positivity vs negativity – Marcial Losada, in his study of high performing teams used these as indicators of highly engaged, effective team members.
The concept is simple: Are team members looking to ask questions and contribute to the betterment of the team’s collective opinion and quality of work, or are they merely looking out for themselves (as an individual or a team), arguing in favour of their own viewpoint?
Equally, showing support, encouragement and appreciation are usually behaviours observed in high performing teams, as opposed to disapproval, sarcasm and cynicism in low performing teams.
Needs of the individuals – In addition to meaning, team members also need to feel that their personal needs and interests, as well as aspirations for the future (personal and professional), are met.
In addition to the engagement and action plan, we also believe that for a team to be truly effective, they would also need to have a clear Learning Plan.
And we do not mean learning in the narrow sense of training, but rather, a plan that examines the openness of team members to learn from all sources around them.
Amy Edmondson’s study of 53 teams (just under 500 people) in an office furniture manufacturing company – where she conducted a series of interviews, observation of team meetings and surveys – found a strong correlation between psychological safety and learning behaviour.
Edmondson found that for teams, “learning behaviour consists of activities carried out by team members through which a team obtains and processes data that allow it to adapt and improve.
Examples of learning behaviour include seeking feedback, sharing information, asking for help, talking about errors, and experimenting. It is through these activities that teams can detect changes.”
Let’s take a look at a few areas in particular.
Knowledge and skills – While knowing the basics is a good prerequisite, members of a team should be open to continued learning.
It’s also good to assess what kind of learning works for the team in order to ensure that team members have a good chance at improving.
The proactiveness of members to pursue their own learning, the frequency that this is done, as well as the sharing and implementation of it are good ways to discover where a team stands.
Seeking feedback – Since the objective of providing feedback is for the receiver to learn something and improve, it is important to look at how open team members are to feedback from the team lead, peers, other teams in the organisation, as well as external individuals or teams.
Do team members actively ask for feedback even if not offered? How do they deal with the feedback received, and how do they make use of it?
Sharing information – How open and willing are team members to share information with each other? How open are they to share information with others both in and out of the organisation? Are they proactive in seeking information, and do they know where they need to look for specific information in the organisation or outside?
Asking for help – How willing are team members to help each other with workload? How willing are they to seek help from outside the team – from subject matter experts or relevant parties?
Talking about errors – Admitting to an error can be hard.
Looking at how willing team members are to bring the team’s attention to the problem and seek/offer a solution indicates heaps for the culture of the team and the psychological safety aspect of it, as well as their willingness to reflect on mistakes and learn from them.
Equally, how willing are team members in pointing out another team member’s error?
Experimenting – Not all companies are open to this, but generally, a company advances if there is sufficient amounts of innovation taking place – which involves experimentation.
How willing are team members to experiment with a new idea, not knowing whether it will succeed or not? How open they are to suggesting a new initiative?
Losada warns: “It is important to realise where teams get stuck. Is it in endless advocacy? Is it in self-absorption? Is it in an excess of negativity and destructive criticism that imprisons them in restrictive emotional spaces that close possibilities for effective action?”
The long list that we provided above, can be used as a reflection and observation exercise for an interested manager.
From there, it would be the manager’s job to identify which of these areas are in more need of attention. If many areas seem to be in need of attention, you’ll need to prioritise.
However, as Losada argues, “the more affirmative answers to these questions [where your team is stuck], the more difficult it is to find the way out. . .No matter where you enter the. . .cycle you end up being locked into the same repetitive cycle.”
In that case, looking for more drastic solutions may be a suitable choice. Don’t make up your mind, though, until you have thoroughly observed, and successfully assessed, your situation.
Eva is the Research & Development leader at Leaderonomics. She believes that everyone can be the leader they would like to be, if they are willing to put in the effort and are curious to learn along the way, as well as with some help from the people around them.