Building and Leading Effective Teams

Business leaders recognize the importance of leading effective teams, but today teams look different compared to traditional teams. Once mainly consisting of employees from the same business unit or position level, they are now composed of people from across the organization and all staff levels. Most business teams today are also more diverse, hybrid with employees onsite and working remotely, and made infinitely more connected through digital communication systems. Focusing on teams within the workforce and leading and building effective teams are crucial to dealing with the dynamic and unpredictable environment in which your company operates.

Why Should We Worry About How Our Teams Function?

The scale and quantity of changes businesses have had to rapidly address over the last few years are breathtaking. Once upon a time, you could rely on R&D for innovation, hire as much talent as you needed with a fair amount of ease, and manage employees who worked onsite (or physically checked in every day if field workers) and were composed of just a couple of generations that had similar perspectives about work. There wasn't a supply chain backlog, rampant inflation to deal with, and a pro-worker NLRB General Counsel. 

Teams that don't function well only add more uncertainty to every business challenge because the business will not have the full capacity to respond well to change and is unlikely to be capable of problem-solving. They are more likely dealing with team issues rather than business issues, like anxiety, conflict among teams and employees, disagreement about things like goals, and an inability to self-manage or solve problems. A poorly functioning team can cause chaos and drama because they accomplish so little, which cascades into problems for the workforce that rely on the team's ability to deliver solutions. Employees may also play the "blame game," claiming it's not the team's fault it fails to perform. It's management's fault, Sally's fault, IT's fault, and on it goes.

Everyone in business has dealt with a team that doesn't perform well. It makes work life difficult for so many people.

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What Does An Effective Team Look Like?

Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith defined teams in their book The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization this way, "A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable." If any element of this definition is not met, the team will not succeed, but how do you get the commitment to purpose, goals, and accountability?

The first step in developing an effective team is for the team leader to understand that teams go through developmental stages. Creating a diverse team and expecting the team to perform smoothly and productively on day one is unrealistic. 

How well the team moves through the stages greatly impacts overall productivity. The four development stages are as follows.

• Forming – People are getting to know each other at this initial stage. They are also assessing people's differences. There is no commitment yet. There is probably some wariness as people wonder if each member is genuinely qualified to be on the team and willing to fully contribute and carry their fair share of the work.

• Storming – People recognize they can work together in the second stage. Each person is focused on personally winning. Individuals attempt to establish their uniqueness in terms of their expertise, knowledge, and ability to take control. There is undoubtedly going to be conflict among members, and some people will challenge the team leader. There is a good reason why this stage is called "storming."

• Norming – In the third stage, the team begins to coalesce as the team operating rules and procedures are established. People have worked through conflicts, and the team is intact. Now teams should begin to work together, be more appreciative of differences, and be more willing to let each member of the team contribute equally. 

• Performing- The team is operating well at this stage. There are shared purpose and goals, positive relationships, good communication between members and with the team leader, and high performance.

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An effective team is usually made up of a mixture of generalists and specialists; people that come from diverse backgrounds in terms of cultures, gender, race, disabilities, etc., and perspectives and experiences; people at different skill levels; and perhaps cross-functional employee representatives (if not a department team).

How Can Leaders Increase Productivity?

Who guides a team through the stages and keeps the team on track to be as productive as possible? Productivity refers to the amount of work a team accomplishes within a certain time frame. One of the risks teams face is getting bogged down in some aspect of the project or interpersonal relationships

It is an effective leader who guides the team towards achieving desired outcomes by using the behaviors and communication needed at each step. The optimal team outcomes are based on the mission and goals of the team, but getting to optimal is not always easy. Employees disagree, get busy with other work, hesitate to communicate their ideas, fall silent when feeling anxious or get upset with someone, feel excluded because they don't "fit in" due to their diverse experiences, interpret goals in different ways, and sometimes simply don't feel like they are part of the team at the moment.

Leading effective teams is about helping the people on the team succeed and achieve a defined purpose. Another way of saying this is that team leaders have to address interpersonal processes and drama because the roles that members of the team assume have a direct impact on team productivity. Increasing team productivity requires a set of leadership skills and a leadership style that can increase the productivity of each member. For example, the leader knows how to:

  • Provide compelling direction that keeps teams inspired
  • Engage employees and re-engage those who are having issues 
  • Clarify goals as the work progresses
  • Keep the team motivated as a team
  • Ensure communication within the team remains productive
  • Address interpersonal issues
  • Develop reasonable productivity measures
  • Delegate
  • Actively listen
  • Employ transparent communication skills
  • Employ an effective inclusive digital communication system
  • Increase team employee engagement
  • Coach team members so they expand knowledge and build on competencies
  • Measure the team on team performance and outcomes

Improving team productivity also requires innovation and flexibility. For example, if the team includes onsite and remote employees working in different time zones, the meeting schedule should be flexible enough so that a burden is not placed on a particular group of workers. Ensuring adequate resources are available to all team members is just as important.

In The Secrets of Great Teamwork, Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen described product development team leader Jim's challenge. Jim was based at the U.S. headquarters, and some team members were based in Mexico. The Mexican subsidiary had trouble meeting deadlines. Upon visiting the Mexican team, he learned they had a shortage of capital and people, and in fact, the team was to be admired for accomplishing so much with so little. A lack of communication and resources can lead to false assumptions, like the Mexican team and the U.S. team were experiencing a culture clash. 

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What Does A Highly Effective Team Accomplish That Less Effective Teams Do Not?

A diverse team delivers diverse thinking, which increases creative thinking. A diverse and highly effective team has "collective intelligence," which is the ability to perform more as a team than team members could accomplish alone. A study of a large engineering team project with a record of success in problem-solving demonstrated a collective ability to quickly handle project challenges as they arose. The team had formal processes and lean practices, but its success was also due to collective:

  • Situational awareness
  • Task-based subgroups
  • Direct lines of communication
  • Trust

Highly effective teams feel psychologically safe. Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmonson first presented the principle of "team psychological safety." She defined it as "a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking." Team members feel safe taking risks because they trust each other and their team leader. Mistakes are not held against team members; ideas are not automatically rejected; people are willing to ask each other for help and bring up problems, and individuals feel valued for their skills and diverse perspectives. 

A TINYpulse Employee Engagement and Organizational Culture Report found the number one reason employees are willing to go above and beyond is when they have the respect of peers. The work of a team leader involves so much more than just establishing work rules and accountability. The team leader needs skills across the spectrum, from developing precise work goals to developing a team that experiences psychological safety. One reason teams fail is that the leader does not use well-developed soft skills to address the emotional and mental factors that influence team performance. They concentrate on hard skills.

Compared to a less effective team, the highly effective team is more:

  • Focused
  • Committed to team success
  • Adaptable
  • Diverse
  • Likely to find innovative solutions to problems
  • Motivated to collaborate
  • Willing to adapt interpersonal communication skills for the good of team success. 

Five Characteristics of High-Performing, Effective Teams

One survey of office workers that was discussed in the Harvard Business Review asked them to rate their team's effectiveness. Five characteristics of high-performing teams were identified.

1. Team members communicated more frequently, including making old-fashioned telephone calls. Talking on the phone can prevent misunderstandings and promote more productive results in some situations. People can talk through topics or issues.

2. Teams were more strategic about meetings. They were more likely to have an agenda, require prework, and begin meetings with check-ins.

3. Team members spend some time discussing non-work topics, which build connectivity and positive relationships on common ground.

4. Team members feel more valued, respected, and appreciated because they give and receive appreciation from leaders and colleagues.

5. Teams are more authentic in expressing positive and negative emotions.

The role of the leader is to guide teams in developing characteristics like these through effective leadership. 

Team Building in the Age of Disruption

There are proven team development processes that can increase team effectiveness. Team leaders face many challenges today that didn't exist a decade ago or didn't converge at the same time, including changing values of employees, a pandemic, multiculturalism that embraces diversity in experiences and demographics, and the hybrid workforce. Developing the skills for leading effective teams is now important to every leader and not just those at high organizational levels. 

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About the Author Walter Orechwa

Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.