Who is really on the team?

Main idea: Teams need well-defined members and roles in order to have an identity, build trust, and establish a culture. Four common management practices that actually hinder team development are exposed along with five ways to establish a strong team foundation.

This is the 2nd part of a 6-part blog series on teams. Start with the first blog here.

Ask most team members who else is on the team and many will quickly begin listing the names on the org chart. Pressed further and the names of the people who have attended some of the meetings are added to the list. Upon further scanning, the individuals who routinely partner with the team are scribbled down, a little further out and we start scanning the room for who is sitting in close proximity. We don’t want anyone to feel left out, right?

Everyone is on the team, everyone gets a trophy!

The concept of team and its importance has lost its meaning over the years. Team has become a feel-good concept to convey a false sense of inclusion and openness. We need to remember the original intent as a leadership tool for effective execution and diversity of thought. It’s time to take our team back.

A few years ago, I was working with an executive to prepare for an important staff meeting. As I gathered the data and built out the presentation material I was surprised by an unusually large number of edits and strikethroughs. When I followed up to ask why, the response was almost apologetic… “Everyone on the team brings a surrogate, an assistant, or a specialist and I have no idea who these people are. I might as well be presenting to a room of strangers”.

Walking into this type of scenario is all too common, especially in large firms, but the worst part of this situation is that this was the executive’s own staff meeting. Somewhere along the way, the culture ate up the staff meeting and each week we kept feeding it.

At one time, a team existed. Information was shared, candid debates occurred, outlandish ideas were scribbled on the whiteboard in the spirit of innovation, problems were called out, and bonds were formed. The circle of trust emerged because there was a clear boundary around the team. There is no real talk without a real team. As a result, information is often withheld, debates are minimized, problems are relegated to the hallway, and unhealthy alliances are soon formed.

There are a lot of ways to kill a team.

One of the biggest culprits of killing a real team is the lack of clarity on who is actually on the team. It’s natural that a lot of leaders want to open the door for others to be a part of their team. It conveys a sense of transparency, inclusion, and collaboration. Unfortunately, this seemingly harmless approach also leads to ambiguity, confusion, and a shared lack of responsibility. In these situations, like the example above, the team loses its identity and focus.

Assigning tasks to a team that is better off left to a single individual is another popular killer. One of my favorite (tongue-in-cheek) management maneuvers is to assign the same task to multiple individuals. Sometimes it is done innocently as a way to “spread the visibility”, sometimes out of ignorance, and unfortunately sometimes as a way to test team members.

A third killer and one that many popular HR practices undermine is the lack of team stability. There is plenty of evidence to prove that stable teams outperform teams that constantly change in membership. Ask yourself the next time you board a flight, would you prefer to have a crew that has worked together for a long time or one that prides itself on frequent rotations of the staff. Which of these two teams do you think performs better under stressful conditions?

This may seem obvious considering the time it takes to develop trust, establish roles, and the distractions that come with exiting and onboarding team members. This is not to say that rotating team members and job movement is not healthy. There are also real risks associated with long-term membership such as groupthink. The point attempting to be made here is that this needs to all be managed thoughtfully.

A fourth killer of real teams is lack of structure. A clear call to action from a McKinsey and Company study released in 2011 declared that more structure of knowledge workers in collaborative work teams is desperately needed. The lack of structure usually means confusion over decision making authority, ambiguity on what to communicate and to whom, and fear of job security.

When real teams come into formation collective confidence becomes apparent.

The team’s identity begins to emerge through real teams. The individuals on the team recognize their interdependence and communication becomes easier. This sets the stage for trust to form and healthy group behaviors begin to become the routines needed for future performance.

Glimpses of this usually occur shortly after teams emerge from what is often referred to as “off-sites”. This is a common management practice to remove teams from their daily environment to a new location as a way to break from stale routines and create the conditions for focused discussion. It also has benefits of declaring publicly who is on the team. When done well and facilitated effectively these exercises can be what’s needed to establish a real team.

Design your team and ruthlessly defend the boundaries.

First, clarify what is the role each person plays and the value they bring to the team. This goes beyond the job title, but includes personality, communication style, thought process and values. As each person begins to express the value they bring to the team through their actions an identity of the team will begin to emerge.

Second, ensure each person knows who is on the team and the interdependencies that exist between each team member. Every team has a core set of players and a supporting cast. It is important to be brutally honest with each person involved with the team whether they are on the real team or play a supportive role. Like a sports team, there are positions to play.

Third, clarify how decisions are made and who has authority to make the final call. This can be done by examining the work on a scale from tactical to strategic. As teams evolve they become more self-sufficient and as trust is built they are able to move from making only tactical decisions to a more democratic approach on the overall direction.

Fourth, start building trust through modeling the behavior you need and investing the time in forging a bond among team members. You will be tested the first time a meeting is scheduled. Requests will come in from members not on the team to “sit in” under the guise of many excuses from the harmless of just wanting to learn to the more devious of wanting to extract information for selfish purposes. Be vigilant on the boundaries of the team.

Fifth, examine the current management practices. What aspects of the culture are slowly eroding your team? What new management practices could be implemented that would better enable and accelerate the growth of real teams? What cultural attitudes, philosophies, and values need evaluating to ensure successful teams?

Take Action

Take the time to define who is really on your team. Discuss the roles with each team member and the attributes they bring to the team. Let others know why you’re establishing boundaries to nurture and develop a real team.

Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope you will consider giving the post some likes and shares, it’s the fuel that keeps me writing.

Read the first blog of the series here.

About the author:

Kris Potrafka, Ph.D. is the Founder and CEO of Music Firsthand, a music technology start-up. He is a former Operations and HR executive working with leaders to solve complex organizational development challenges. Follow Kris on Medium and connect with him on LinkedIn.

#teams #trust #leadership

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