by Morag Barrett

Building a high-performing team starts with getting to know the individuals

Dec 08, 2015
IT Leadership

Many teams focus time and effort on what needs to get done, the results that need to be delivered. Unfortunately, when the interpersonal relationships are not nurtured, a high-performing team tends to plateau and may fragment and become toxic.

I recently worked with a senior leadership team that had become fragmented and was at risk of becoming toxic. Other leaders in the organization could see the slow downward trend on the team, the feedback was clear, this team needed help. However the team members were in denial. Meetings were no longer productive, problem solving, decision making opportunities, in fact team members had started to “dial in” and attend the meetings remotely. Even though they were in the same building as each other!

As I interviewed the team members and other stakeholders to understand the situation it became apparent that collaboration and teamwork were concepts that had long since left the building; silos and internal (unhealthy) competition and politics were rife; passive aggressive behavior in play; egos were being brandished at every opportunity.

Maybe you recognize some of these signs and symptoms of a team (or organization) stuck in ineffective patterns of behavior.

The leader who had contacted me had had enough. Another key project deadline had been missed and he was starting to believe that the only way to move forward was to start again, and to bring in a new team of leaders. An extreme course of action!

Now, he may well have been right, maybe this team was beyond help, however as we discussed the situation we started to form a different plan. A plan that would bring this team together and create a different path and way forward. A new beginning.

We decided to build a highly interactive program to get the team out of their chairs and talking with each other. It always surprises me how often, when attending team meetings, conferences etc., people travel in “packs.” On a team that is stuck in poor behaviors we see people sitting in their cliques, conversations remain transactional and there is little to no interpersonal conversations. The activities throughout the team retreat were designed to get them talking and working together, not with the “usual suspects” but with everyone on the team, which was especially pertinent given the intent of building collaboration and a renewed sense of team.

High performance requires an understanding of what’s working and what’s not

When a team is stuck or going the wrong way, it can be tough, as the only way back onto the path towards high performance is to have the the tough conversations, the candid debate and discussions that “name the elephant(s)” in the room. The baggage that is preventing the team from working effectively together. When there is mistrust, or worse, distrust on a team, getting to the real issues can be tough.

The team needed to understand what had led to the current situation, the individual and collective negligence that allowed the team performance to deteriorate. Toxic teams are quick to point the finger at each other and to those outside the team and to ascribe blame. It’s everyone else’s fault, the system is broken, the processes suck. Rarely do teams look inwards, at themselves, the behaviors that they have allowed to continue unchecked that have contributed to the current state of play. My role was to help hold up the mirror and ask the tough questions on individual and team accountability.

Once the team started to talk the flood gates opened, it was a torrent of ideas, suggestions that moved from being stuck in the past, to future focused. The team transitioned to agreeing the fundamental values and behaviors needed for high performance. From there they could start to build the new norms, the new rules of engagement that change the direction and results for the better.

The first activity was a career history / get to know each other better. I could see (sense) the eye rolling as I announced the instructions “draw a picture of how you got to where you are today, including one thing you do for fun outside of work. The only rule is no words.” Pens were raised, career and life highlights and timelines drawn, and then we did the gallery walk. Each person presented their picture, shared their story.

The impact was almost immediate. Some banter on the quality of the drawings, comments like “You went to that university too? so did I!”; “You worked on that project … do you know X?”, the walls started to come down. Team members were curious about each other, the pigeon-holing of people into current roles and titles lessened as the team started to better understand the experience and expertise that everyone brought to the table. A small step in the right direction. Understanding was increased, perspectives better understood.

As we moved through the agenda I asked the participants to share their real world experiences of collaboration at work. Who were the role models for collaboration, and what was it that these role models did, or did not do, to make it to the shortlist. The behaviors that were shared included:

  • They listened to others’ ideas and suggestions.
  • They asked questions to increase understanding.
  • They were curious, eager to learn and to share their learning.
  • They sought out new perspectives and acknowledged people’s contribution.
  • They made others feel valued.
  • They broke down the walls and silos that prevented communication and collaboration.

When the participants reflected on these characteristics (and there were plenty more), they recognized immediately that they weren’t a reflection of how smart the individual was, it wasn’t even about their technical know-how. They certainly didn’t describe the individual and collective behaviors of this team.

The characteristics that made these role models successful at collaborating and working with others were all about their people skills, their ability to connect and work well with others. When asked if they would want to work with this person again, the answer was a resounding “yes”. Similar characteristics are reported when I ask about “Best Bosses” or “Best Colleagues.”

High performance is more than “knowing”

We then moved to another activity, one that was supposed to result in collaboration and teamwork (after all we had been discussing the concepts all morning) and put into practice what had been discussed. Three small teams were formed. The challenge was announced and immediately everyone dived into action. However, once time pressures and the hint of competition and potential “winners” was introduced the result was (predictably) three separate towers, none of which met the collective success criteria as each team had received only part of the instructions. (Feel free to call me if you’d like to know more about what happened!) So much for collaboration!

The team camaraderie was such that they could laugh at themselves and the predictable outcome that had occurred. However it clearly reinforced that this team was stuck. Simply knowing what they should be doing didn’t automatically result in the behavior and follow through, the doing necessary for change.

What followed was one of the most candid and focused team discussion on what they were committed to doing differently going forward, the ground rules for engagement and how they would hold each other accountable, especially when old habits resurfaced.

High performance is requires action and “doing”

Was this team transformed overnight? No. While we at SkyeTeam are very good at what we do in our work building high performing teams, we aren’t miracle workers. WE remind leaders that the events that resulted in the team being less than effective probably took longer than a day or two to occur. It will therefore take longer than 48hours to move the team to a higher level of performance.

However we did accelerate the team’s understanding, individually and collectively as to what and why change was needed. We reignited the sense of team, one that now speaks a common language of high performance and a way for the team to “name their elephants.” We provided the the tools and techniques to maintain momentum and continue the journey to high performance.

Achieving results is only part of the equation. Ultimately, collaboration and teamwork is about the conversation and personal connection between the team members. High performing teams are built (or destroyed) one conversation at a time. 

  • How are you role modeling the values and behaviors important to your organization and your success?
  • What are the barriers to effective collaboration in your team or organization?
  • What is one thing you can do today to increase the collaboration in the teams you are part of?