This is the first of a series of posts on how teams work. There is some updated research to which I have referred (several times) in my other posts on teams. However this series is a deeper dive on a few topics that I have found to be important in creating a successful team. Most of what I have learned in practice over the last 20 years aligns well with the research. There are nuances that happen in action working with real teams that deserve a deeper dive.
A couple years ago I was working with a CEO and his direct team. They were a pretty successful team. However, the CEO wanted them to create higher performance in their lines of business and to pursue more innovation and growth in their product offerings. He felt that this would require that they challenge him and each other more and that they make decisions and implement faster. When I started working with them, they clearly got along and there was little friction in their team meetings. They were a bit more candid in the individual meetings I had with each of them, but all but one felt that they had good working relationships with each other and didn’t see much need to work on their team dynamics. For the most part it became clear the CEO was driving this project. This is never a good thing by the way. I like to have a lot more buy-in. So that is where I needed to start.
As I got to know them I started to hear about some of the “meetings after the meetings” and how they let each other down in various ways. I observed that their divisions were way more interdependent than they realized (or admitted) and there was more friction at the next level because they were missing deadlines and not handing off projects to each other’s teams as promised. It became clear to me that they didn’t have real trust. Here are some behaviors that tell me a team trusts each other:
It is a big bonus if they perform AND can demonstrate that they care about each other as people. To be a successful team, you need both. You might be thinking, “Well such perfect teams don’t exist.” I would agree that they are not the norm. But teams that actively work on trust, and it is work, reap the performance rewards. They also tend to like each other more. To be clear, being honest does not mean you can be a jerk. Being a jerk is largely ineffective and can undermine team cohesion in a big way especially if you take it to the point of being a bully. That is a subject for a whole other post.
Teams need to talk about what signals trust for them. Once they agree on this and ground rules, they can start to hold each other accountable. With the team I referred to earlier, I can identify the day they started making progress. In a meeting the CEO was asking why an important project was so behind. It turns out that two of his direct reports who were mutually accountable for aspects of the project, had yet to discuss. He looked at the two executives and said, “You two always say what a great relationship you have. I will say that I have to doubt that. If you can’t trust each other enough to hold each other accountable, you don’t have a very good relationship. So we really do have work to do.” He was right.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a (mostly) monthly post about the work of building better work places: people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.