Monday, December 15, 2008

Go Team!

Enhancing Cohesion and Success
We work and, thus, communicate in team settings a good deal of the time. Sometimes you can choose with whom to work, sometimes you can’t. And some people would just like to be left to work alone.

I was interacting recently with five teams of randomly assigned, similarly experienced people all working on comparable tasks. Most were in the same city but in remote locations and did not normally work together. After observing some struggles, I asked each of them (about 30 people) for some feedback on how their teams were functioning and what they were doing to improve their performance. Three common themes emerged:

Some people wouldn’t do the work; they wanted a free ride.

A dictator took over the team; before we knew it, this person was delegating.

Some people would do the work if assigned but they simply would not communicate.

I think you will agree that this example isn’t particularly unusual. Some people are passive, some are aggressive and some are passive-aggressive. Baseball Hall of Famer Casey Stengel had it right when he said, “Getting good players is one thing. The harder part is getting them to play together.”

I responded to the concerns voiced by the teams with some questions: Why was it so hard to push aside individual agendas and adopt a team agenda? Did you define upfront how the team would operate? Did you discuss and agree on roles and responsibilities? Did anyone suggest a schedule or timeline? Did you discuss and agree on the best way for the group to communicate – email, IM, phone? If more than one person wanted to lead, did you consider rotating the position? Was a leader even necessary? Was time ever set aside to review and assess team performance?

After some “oh yeahs” and “we should have done thats,” we discussed the importance of finding common ground, setting expectations and keeping focus on mutual goals. Then, I made a few more queries: Why weren’t these problems ever aired? Did you try to engage the individual in question? Did anyone confront the issue?

The responses were on the order of, “I wanted to speak up about a problem person but wanted to avoid confrontation – I didn’t want to make things worse.” When I asked if there were things that held them back I heard, “Well, I was hoping someone else on the team would step up.”

We know it’s hard for most people to articulate their feelings, especially around sensitive issues. Few people go looking for a confrontation but it’s a critical part of working in teams, supervising others and being a strategic communications advisor. But it’s up to you, not someone else. And it’s not “making waves.” Making waves connotes stirring up trouble and creating new problems. This is about airing and addressing the issues by asking questions, and seeking clarifications while showing respect for different views.

We routinely seek to understand stakeholder issues and concerns when developing a message strategy or a communication plan. We need to have the same mindset when working with colleagues. Also, it helps to have at least occasional face-to-face contact. As I wrote in the December 9th post, “Face-to-face allows us to observe all the nuances and evaluate the visual cues. With these additional inputs, we’re able to assemble a more accurate picture of the particular circumstance.” And, as James Surowiecki notes in The Wisdom of Teams, “A successful face-to-face group is more than just collectively intelligent. It makes everyone work harder, think smarter, and reach better conclusions than they would have on their own.”

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