The high performing team…. key to an organisation’s competitive advantage? Well, yes. The research consistently demonstrates that great teamwork delivers higher quality outputs resulting in better customer satisfaction.
But despite huge investments in the recruitment and development of key talent, and leadership and team building interventions, truly high performing teams remain a somewhat elusive concept for many companies. And today, with the shifting dynamic of work, more and more teams are facing the likelihood of permanent remote working – making this an increasingly complex issue for leaders.
Before we explore this further, let’s consider what we mean by high performing team. In its simplest terms we are talking about a team that delivers its stated objectives consistently, considers all team members to be equal (and not dependent on a stand-out ‘quarter-back’), and continuously innovates to stay ahead of changes in the external market and its customers’ requirements.
The question is how you create and then maintain such a team. Is it just a matter of recruiting the smartest, high potential individuals? Or is it about recruiting a specific blend of personality profiles, a unique human algorithm whose output ultimately results in high performance?
Numerous studies over the past decade by leading institutions including Gallup, Harvard, and McKinsey, have sought to answer these questions and uncover the elements of high-performance cultures. They have consistently found that high performing groups share certain characteristics such as a common focus on effective performance management, autonomy, accountability for results, and a culture of innovation and learning. And indeed, these are certainly critical to team performance. But a push towards optimizing these areas does not always yield better business results for organisations. Something deeper is at play.
The four elements to team collaboration
A longitudinal study by Google over a period of two years shed some further light on this. They found that team performance across their business was less about who they hired, and much more heavily related to the environment they worked within and how this enabled (or not) team members to work together constructively. More specifically, this was about the environment created by the leader to build trust among team members, and to allow them to put forward ideas and have healthy dialogue without conflict. The Google findings and subsequent publications identified four key elements critical to team collaboration and ultimately high performance:
1. Psychological safety – essentially, this is the ability for team members to speak their mind (respectfully, of course), float their ideas, and take measured risk without fear of reproach. A team environment where members feel psychologically safe is now consistently recognized as the most critical element in driving high performance. Such an environment is a prerequisite for innovation and autonomy. Physiologically this can be explained by the fact that when we feel criticized or judged, the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response is activated by the amygdala (the part of our brain that controls reasoning and decision making), rendering us unable to respond rationally and think laterally – let alone strategically.
2. Trust between team members – closely linked to the culture of safety within the team, the strength of the relationships between its members is key to its overall performance. Teams with high trust depend upon each other, support each other, and ultimately collaborate to achieve a common goal; this last point being very important. The distinction here is that high performing teams are more focussed on the overall team’s outcomes than their individual results because the inherent trust between team members serves to override the potential human inclination to compete with other team members in order to prove our own worth.
3. Role and goal clarity – it stands to reason that the team must have a clear understanding of its ‘north star’ in order to deliver exemplary results. This also means that team members must have absolute clarity of their own accountabilities and how each member of the team contributes equally to its overall success. This belief that each member of the team is equally vital to its success is another key element driving genuine collaboration.
4. Autonomy and purpose – as identified by Daniel Pink in his book “Drive” it is the intrinsic motivators of role autonomy, mastery and purpose that have the greatest impact on human performance. Pink found that as a collective, we are motivated far more by our connection to our work and how it contributes some way to the greater good, than by extrinsic rewards such as salary, bonuses, and recognition awards – although we must clearly feel we are compensated fairly and equitably for this to be the case. The confidence to effectively exercise our own skills in the team environment, our sense of autonomy, is also directly related to the levels of trust between team members and with the leader.
In these complex and ever uncertain times, the role of the leader in creating clarity for the team regarding strategy, direction and priorities cannot be underestimated. But even more important is the leader’s role in connecting team members, building rapport, interdependency, and trust. Especially when team members cannot connect physically in natural and organic ways as perhaps previously taken for granted. The current work context requires leaders to role model the behaviours which engender trust: authenticity, consistency, empathy, honesty – and personal vulnerability. This is the bedrock for establishing a psychologically safe team culture where people can generate ideas together and truly perform to their highest levels.
Author: Suzanne Jenner-Wall
Suzanne is an experienced international HR leader, coach and organisational development facilitator with a background in biochemistry.
Updated from the original post in 2014
At its heart, good teaming is about creating the space for a bunch of different people to build rapport – to get to know each other; their likes, dislikes, where they’ve worked before, what excites them, their personality. All of these factors, if explored will provide your team with a level of connection that will build rapport and contribute to more effective team work. After all, building rapport is about establishing sameness, and reducing differences. If you can achieve this, then you will go some way to having a connected team; but you won’t have a team that has achieved a level of closeness required to perform above and beyond expectations – both for themselves and for each other.
Effective teaming goes beyond this and allows the group to connect on a values level around their reason for being. If you can create the opportunity for this to occur then you are setting both the team, and the team members up for long-term success.
So how do you do this, especially in an era of remote working when the opportunities for coming together are limited? Well, here's the key.
It's not about 'what' you do. Reframe the idea of teaming to be 'what's our intent?' Then be open to the possibilities for how the intent can be achieved.
Whilst ever we are fixed on 'what' we should be doing, we are limited to our past experiences of teaming and fixed on activities. In fact, the best way to think of teaming in a remote context is as a 'process' of teaming. It's not going to be one single event or activity. In a remote environment it will be a process that reflects the nature of the team, the constraints of the team and the starting energy of the team. On that last point. If the team is buzzing and full of energy - leverage it. Which is a different starting place than if it was a new team, or one with multiple cultures in different countries where the energy will usually be more reserved.
It's the 'intent' behind what you do that counts; and if your intent can address these three key elements you will be working on a journey towards a connected team:
1. Get clarity on the team's reason for being
2. Create a common language
3. The teaming process never ends
Get clarity on the Team’s Reason for Being
I’ve worked with many teams and groups struggling to be effective in all sorts of situations; in matrix organisations, joint ventures, projects, leadership groups and teams spread across many countries. And the one thing they often have in common is a lack of alignment on their purpose - their reason for being.
What they hadn’t done when forming the team, was that critical piece of work that ultimately sets the team up for success. They hadn’t taken the time to ask themselves the questions that help define purpose… "why are we here – what is the specific purpose of our team?" This question is an opportunity for the team to be fully aligned around what this group has been brought together to achieve, and to be clear on the expectations that may exist of their team from other groups, such as the leadership levels above or other stakeholder groups. More importantly, when working remotely if you ensure your team has a crystal clear understanding of their collective purpose, and how their roles contribute to achieving the team purpose, then you are providing some of the most fundamental aspects of employee engagement. Clear direction. Role clarity. Sense of Purpose. In a face to face environment these are important. In a remote environment they are critical.
Create a Common Language
Language is symbolic, and it helps to define who we are. When different people come together to a team, they bring with them their own language defined by who they are. This can be defined by factors such as their race, gender, their life experiences, their knowledge and their skills. When you bring two groups together, like a joint venture, or multiple groups in a project consortium then the variables are increased and the issue of common language extends far beyond their mother tongue or the use of technical or organisational jargon – that is merely the tip of the iceberg.
One of the greatest inhibitors to sustainable teaming are the beliefs held by individuals that they have to hold on to who they are and what defines them. We see this more often in matrix structures, joint ventures and consortiums where more energy is invested in defending their patch rather than relaxing the boundaries and collaborating. Creating a common language is about defining how the group can work and succeed together without having to give up who they are. This means your process needs to provide a safe way of exploring this despite the virtual environment; and this will come back to how you frame the process up front, and the demeanour and style of the process facilitator. My suggestion is that as the leader of the team about to undertake a process of virtual teaming, that you connect with your team individually to share the intent, and your desire that they contribute as fully as they feel comfortable. Also encourage questions on the process, the intent or the content on your team sharing platform so that there is a level of transparency and demonstrated safety that it's ok to be curious and contribute without retribution. This of course means that you as the leader also need to be up for a bit of vulnerability and openness.
An extension of this in the 'new normal' is agreeing the best platforms that will support effective communication. In the past it was assumed that we could just come together or have spontaneous water cooler chats. Thought needs to go into a group commitment around the best platforms to enable their new commitment to each other.
The Teaming Process Never Ends
A team is made up of people, and people are constantly changing as is the environment in which the team exists as we've witnessed this last year. So, what’s the plan for continuing to bring the group together and check in on the commitments made during the teaming process? Think medium to long term when you pull your teaming process together and look for ways to integrate the outcomes of the teaming process into your everyday operations. Importantly, if there is a seismic shift in the environment, such as a restructure, or a major change to the make up of a team or its purpose, then it makes sense that you revisit the teaming process, even if it’s an abridged version, to ensure you are still on track, and capable of delivering as a team.
These are three core tenets of building a connected team. It doesn’t mean you can’t relax socially throughout the process or have some fun and games; but these become complimentary or a more intentional means to an end. The point I will leave you with is simple, but far-reaching.
Good business results require really good teams who are engaged not only with each other, but also with the reason their team exists. It therefore makes a whole lot of sense that investing a little more in your team at the beginning will yield longer-term success. And as we make sense of the 'new normal' it's almost a non-negotiable that this needs to happen if you are serious about setting your virtual team up for success.
We’ve been supporting the development of geographically spread teams for years; global project teams, functional teams spread throughout a region, and teams located in one office whilst the manager is in a different city. And now we have the enforced remote working team; the team that signed up for jobs in an office, with plenty of human interaction and opportunities for spontaneous connections, and who now find themselves working remotely. And not through choice.
Between our experiences pre-Covid 19 and what we've been through in these past 6 months, we are seeing that there are teams who are really struggling with the shift to remote working, some who are hit and miss, and around a third who are really getting it right and thriving. Below are the five things the thriving remote teams have in common, and do really well that we can all be learning from.
1. Get aligned on your new operating principles
The successful remote teams we've worked with understand that how your team will be working together remotely is going to be different to face to face. So how we collaborate, communicate and resolve conflict will all need to be done differently. The risk is that we each have our own ways of perceiving how those elements should happen, so the role of the charter is to do the one single thing that can set your team up for success the most. Make sure the team is aligned in a very clear and explicit way on how they think they should be working together in this ‘new normal’. All teams should go through this process – from the C-suite down. And the good news is that we have continued to work with teams and functions across many industries who understand this, and have been proactive with resetting the ways of working. The ones who are thriving have completed this step, and are doing a combination of the following steps.
2. Optimise how you work between teams
Work still needs to get done between teams – and for companies who have struggled, this is one of the forgotten aspects of converting a face to face business to a virtual business as the focus has tended to be more on how ‘a’ team works. So there is a piece of work that successful virtual teams have been doing that simply mirrors the principles of the first point, and provides a means for the leaders of teams to connect, share and be clear on expectations regarding priorities, eg; what business objectives are more important or how shared resources should be deployed. It also allows the team leaders to create some rules of engagement for how collaboration, communication and conflict resolution happens between teams. This is underpinned by the team charter, and the common feedback we get is that it allows guesswork to be replaced by real work!
3. Train and be coached for working in a virtual team
One team we have worked with in particular identified early on that working and leading in a virtual team would require a different set of skills and mindset. Their ability to understand and work with uncertainty and ambiguity, manage stakeholders remotely, build and maintain relationships and collaborate all require different development to that in face to face structures. There's no point training to ride a bicycle when you will be riding a motorbike! And this applies to everyone. Good remote working training combines behavioural skills with a focus on connection at a values and relational level. But we also know that on a deeper level, there are other factors that enhance or reduce our ability to be effective in a remote team; our confidence, need for recognition, cultural background and personality (eg; rigid vs flexible). Our rate of coaching has remained steady as there are leaders who have self-identified (or the company has identified for them!) that working and/or leading remotely doesn't fit who they are (yet!). But teams who have leveraged the capability development provided by their organisations, or those who have taken it upon themselves to get development for their teams, are doing well. And it is usually combined with the next point.
4. Things Change - so talk, review and make change if needed
This point comes into its own in these times of rapid change. The really good virtual teams look for opportunities to reinforce a culture of collaboration by using this as an opportunity to come together and to work on the team, and continually update their preferred ways of working. And when things are changing so quickly, you can’t afford not to be reviewing the way you work together. We are working with a handful of leadership teams, who are using this step as a an opportunity to pull out of the day to day management stuff, to take a helicopter view of their teams and functions and to make smarter and more strategic decisions. If you don't have an Agile mindset in you company, this is a nice step to implement that will help you move in that direction. The best thing about this step? It enables proactive conversations, that enable a more controlled response to change in a highly volatile and uncertain business environment. We are working with one leadership team who is working in an extremely volatile environment - on top of Covid-19 factors - and it is the ritual of regular team catch ups, in person, that is allowing them to extract themselves on a fortnightly basis to focus on themselves, the business and their people, in a more objective manner.
5. Culture Matters.
Successful remote teams are recalibrating their team culture to reflect the remote working environment. The really effective remote teams that I’ve seen acknowledge that the culture that got them here, may not get them there. A simple example of this is the shared thinking around how open and approachable we should be. In a face to face environment it may be ok that a new team member needs to work a little harder show how they fit in and being slightly more closed between teams may be acceptable. But in a remote setting that unspoken way of thinking won’t fly. One function we have worked with recently has decided to make their culture more explicit, and part of that was through the creation of a new team charter. But this function, also understood that culture is needed to drive the execution of strategy which is a critical point when we consider that plenty of strategies and plans have been revised and in some cases completely re-written. So, it makes sense that even at the level of the virtual team, a conversation be had around how the culture may need to be shifted to help them execute a little differently on their team objectives.
In January I wrote about the importance of taking the time to engage with your people. And that was just before our world was tipped upside down by Covid-19!
Upon reflection, the suggestions for taking the time to engage with your people are probably more relevant today, even though it feels as though one hand is tied behind your back in terms of freedom to connect. But it is still very possible to maintain the quality of your relationships despite the enforced distance; in fact ask any leader who has successfully led a high performing virtual team and they will gladly tell you it's possible.
Now, we know that not everyone signed up for being a remote leader, and I'm sure there are some who find it difficult enough being a leader of people when you are in the same place! We've all been there at some point, so you aren't alone. But the reality is you're not alone now either, because we are here, only a phone call or email away for a chat and the opportunity to pick our brains. You have the experience of the Ponte Valle team at your fingertips to help guide you through this interesting leadership time.
But there are some things you can be doing right now that are reflective of that article I wrote back in January. They are:
Value your 1:1’s with your team and what they represent. You can still have meaningful 1:1's with your team even though there is distance. In fact right now, your ability to maintain your 1:1's and to have meaningful conversations may be a lifesaver for your team members as much as it is for you.
Be interested in your team members. Not everyone will be coping well with social-isolation, and we know that for some people the ability to connect with others is critical; not just because they may be a 'people-person' and more extroverted, but because they may also be prone to depression when they are cut off from social connection. At our very core all of us like to be acknowledged for for 'who' we are and not just 'what' we are doing. So make your 1:1's or team member touch points frequent, and really do check in on them - ask how they are doing - don't just ask what they are doing.
Create opportunities for connection in the team. This point remains the same. Create those opportunities that allow the team to come together and share on a values level. Most people are comfortable sharing about the things that give them enjoyment; and this is the level of sharing that removes the superficial layers and boundaries and opens the door to genuine connection.
If you’d like to know more about the ways in which you can build a more engaging 'remote' leadership style, view our Engaging Leadership Resources, or join our next Lead 2 'Remotely' Engage leadership course.
The problems that come with a matrix-structured organisation are well documented; ambiguity, silo’s, poor communication, cross-functional competitive behaviour and the list goes on. There is hardly a matrix organisation in the world today that isn’t dealing with these issues, and so it’s probably little wonder that when a project team is formed, despite the best intentions of the project leadership, these problems start to hinder the running of the team and in turn impact negatively on project performance. Sitting alongside these more widely understood issues is another that both feeds on these issues and magnifies them; the level of alignment between knowing what the project has to achieve, and how the project team needs to perform in getting there.
The good news is that this gap can be bridged if you clearly understand these three factors:
1. The objective and outcomes of the project.
2. The skills and experience required to achieve the project outcomes.
3. How the team needs to function to achieve the project outcomes.
Simple right? The first point is straightforward; you won’t be commencing the project without knowing this. The second point is also relatively simple; you work with Human Resources to identify the right skills and experience, and in some cases seek to match personalities and values. It’s usually at this point that a project team charter is created that summarises things like who is responsible for what, the skills that exist in the team, and how often the team should meet and why.
At this point of team creation the team is still focused to a large extent on ‘what’ we need to be doing to achieve the project outcomes, and in a smaller project team, in a domestic setting where the team is co-located, or spread around a single country, this may be all you need to get by.
The reality is that in a complex setting, such as a matrix organisation that relies strongly on cross-functional and intercultural collaboration, the first two points are not enough and it is a failure to focus on the third point that can bring a project to its knees.
How your team needs to function requires a clear direction in the same way that ‘what’ you are doing needs to be aligned to a clear objective. For example; we know that the objectives and outcomes of the project provide a clear direction for what processes, technology, skills and experience you require to complete the job. But what, or rather, who, sets the direction for how the team needs to function in achieving the objectives?
The answer is simpler than you think and requires two steps:
1. Ensure that the project leadership group are aligned around what key behaviours and ways of thinking will set the project up for success, and
2. Go beyond the standard project team charter and engage the project team in creating the ways of working that will reflect the alignment, behaviours and ways of thinking established by the leadership group.
Leadership Alignment & Commitment to Clarity
Why is this important? If we strip it right back, there are two things to keep top of mind. Firstly the obvious, people follow leaders. If the leadership of the project are not leading by example and demonstrating a collaborative mindset, then the people in their respective functions or teams will follow their lead (eg; silo’s). Secondly, when we consider this statement in the context of a matrix, which comes with it own challenges, then it becomes more interesting. Take the example of time and resources. In a project matrix structure there are always incredible demands for both of these elements, especially if your people are deployed on more than one project at a time. And if that is the case, then reality bites at times when things like annual leave or time away for professional development needs to be negotiated with multiple project leaders as well as with the home unit manager. If the different leaders (eg; between each project and the home unit) are not aligned on factors such as priorities, how and when leave should be taken, work/life balance factors for the deployed resource, then there is a heightened risk of:
- employee disengagement
- ambiguity creep
- project creep
- lack of accountability (and everything that comes with that - politics, finger pointing, blame etc)
A Commitment to Clarity
Ultimately we see the fall back position of silo’s, defensive behaviour and protecting time and resources rather than sharing. It makes sense then that the leadership group have a level of alignment on how they need to work and in turn, what behaviours and thinking they should be reinforcing on a daily basis in the project. The easiest thing to implement, which I've seen used successfully around the world in many project matrix environments is a Matrix Contract. The Matrix Contract is simple, exists between the home unit and the project, and is the first step to ensuring there is clarity between the home unit and the project. It can take many different forms, but the central theme is that the home unit and the project make explicit, and sign/commit to factors such as:
- what competence is being provided
- length of time on the project
- expectations on when/how often professional development will occur
- the process for approving leave
- the process for ensuring priorities are aligned
I've also seen some situations where an additional step is built in and each manager and the deployed resource state what they will each do to ensure that this is a success. In all, once in place, the conversation to agree these factors only needs to take 30-60 minutes maximum!
The clarity spoken about above often evolves around the core relationship between the home unit and the project. But there is a deeper level of alignment required for a project to work effectively and requires the leadership group to come together and ask a simple question:
“what do we believe are the key behaviours and ways of thinking required to meet our project objectives?”
A simple question, but one that starts a different conversation from the outset that filters down through the project. This conversation, and everything you read below can (and often should) include representatives of the home unit, other transversal groups that have an input or influence on the project (eg; finance, HR, IT) as well as the project leadership.
When working with project teams who are stalling, my opening question is designed to gauge the level of alignment that exists in the leadership group, firstly about the level of shared understanding of the project objective and secondly about the behaviours and thinking required to achieve the project outcome. In most cases there is a mixed response to both questions. One recent case involved the leadership team of a major construction project that, amongst many issues, was dealing with a high rate of workplace injuries, one of which had led to a death. In this case they were clear and unambiguous when stating the objectives of the project. On the other hand, their response to my question about behaviours and ways of thinking was diverse; out of the six leaders there were five different responses ranging from “we need to achieve zero harm no matter what” through to “we just need to get the job done no matter what”! This diversity of views was directly reflected in how the different collaborators in the project went about their work with most accidents coming from the “just get it done” influence; and little to no sharing of best practices across the site despite the project charter dictating what meetings and communication points would exist across the site.
But what about culture?
Given the complexities of different languages and cultural frames of reference regarding how work is to be achieved, it is easy to see how this can increase the levels of defensive behaviours in the team if there is no effort made to address the issue of behaviours and mindset in the team at the level of leadership.
A second and more common example involves projects that have team members from more than one country involved, and this issue was highlighted in a recent intervention. The project involved three countries and each country had very negative views of the others, with feedback which included the other countries not sharing proactively or at all, no respect for time zones for meetings, people not returning emails or phone calls and many more comments similar to this. Our involvement came when the relationships and tensions in the project were at breaking point and impacting negatively on performance. In this situation when we met with the leadership group, which had representatives from each country, we quickly established that when completing the project team charter most effort was placed on being clear about expected milestones and outputs, and ensuring that everyone was clear on the contributions expected of each team and country. The focus was on “what” and not “how”. Missing from the initial teaming process was the 'how' question; "how do we need to be behaving and thinking individually and collectively to meet our project objectives?”
The leadership group worked on this question and realised that they had taken for granted the idea of collaboration and assumed the team would just work with the additional complexities of culture and collaboration across borders. Some of the leadership group also added that they hadn’t even considered this level of complexity. By not being aware of the constructive ways of working that would set the project up for success, the leadership group were reinforcing a non-collaborative mindset on a daily basis without even realising it.
Taking care of this first step is as simple as bringing the project leadership together and spending an hour or two exploring the question of what behaviours and mindset are required for the project to be successful, considering factors such as culture, communication, collaboration and conflict resolution, remembering to start the conversation by ensuring everyone is clearly aligned on the project objectives.
Align the Project Team
The second step in building a successful project team for matrix environments is engaging the rest of the project team on the output of what the leadership group agreed in the above step. If there is a project team charter workshop or a kick off meeting taking place that involves the wider project team, this is the ideal place to create this alignment. This process is about presenting the key behaviours and mindset that the leadership group identified and asking the wider team to define what this means in ‘real world’ terms. Below is an extract from a recent project team charter that had a session focusing on behaviours and mindset:
The best thing about this step is that the team is not only creating it’s own rules for engagement, there is also a level of alignment between leadership and the team that is often missing, especially in large multi-country projects. In a domestic environment where the it is a project/functional matrix arrangement, this is of equal importance, and my recommendation is that you would have included the home unit and other transversal groups in this process so there is a broader shared agreement on what it means to collaborate.
A matrix environment is one that easily makes room for complacency and ambiguity, and so there is one final step; and that is to revisit the team charter for relevance, and to ask the question on a regular basis around whether the project team is keeping to it’s agreed operating principles.
A successful team in any setting is one that communicates, collaborates and builds a level of engagement that leads to trust. In a matrix or international setting this becomes even more critical. A project team is never a long-term proposition; it needs to come together, get on task quickly and efficiently, deliver and then disband. The reality is that if we dissect a traditional teaming process, in most cases the focus will be mostly on ‘what’ we need to do, and perhaps ’who’ we are (personality, skills and experience) as a team member. Rarely do we look at how we should deploy our skills for optimum impact, how we can share and optimise our experiences, or how we need to modify or adapt our behaviours to quickly and effectively get on task with each other.
The project team charter process is just the vehicle to use for having one of the first and most critical conversations that will impact how your project will unfold constructively - especially in a global context.
First published on Gower’s GpmFirst, July 2015 at:
Author: David Morley
David is a developer of global-minded leaders, teams and organisations.