The problem with teams

By Heather Campbell

Developing teams and creating the right conditions for teams to thrive are timeless leadership topics. Leaders put a great deal of effort into ensuring their teams are the best they can be. So-called high performing teams get a great deal of air time, and for good reason. A plethora of models, definitions, principles, theories and roadmaps all promise to deliver leaders the holy grail – the high performing team that is capable of producing work of the highest quality in a super efficient, cohesive way. 

However, is the high performing team more akin to rhetoric than reality? In this week’s CommsMasters blog, we present an alternative perspective on the team, and ask the controversial question: Is the role of the high-performing team as we know it dying out? If so – what should future-focused leaders be doing instead?

The allure of the ‘high performing’ team

The idea of the high performing team holds a great deal of allure, and they are incredibly sought after by many organisational leaders. Imagine. A super group of individuals who remain highly focused on their goals, and who achieve extraordinary results time after time. Looks great on paper, but how achievable is this for leaders in practice? 

In their drive to find the secret sauce that takes a team from mediocre to high performing, some leaders are perhaps losing sight of their real objective – to maximise organisational performance

Problems with teams

The demands of today’s fast-moving, global workplaces have significantly eroded the traditional concept of the team as we know it. All too often, people in an organisation are called a team when they are anything but. In large organisations, individuals don’t come together often enough, or stay together long enough, to become a mediocre team, never mind a high performing one.

CommsMasters Tip
If any of the following characteristics are familiar to you, perhaps it is time for a review of your approach to teams and how you develop the people within them.

1. Absence of common goals

A ‘team’ is often no more than just a group of people who happen to report to the same manager. Frequently, these ‘teams’ struggle to find a common goal or purpose. That’s often because these simply don’t exist. Each individual is responsible for delivering their own siloed set of results, even when they themselves are leaders. In this instance, it can even be that the ‘team’ defines itself simply in terms of the monthly meeting they all attend.

2. Poor cohesion

In the modern workplace, people simply don’t spend enough time together to bond and become the sort of team that trusts and relies upon each other. Globally-based individuals, remote working, matrix and highly fluid structures all help to breed this lack of cohesion. The pressure of conflicting demands placed on individuals exacerbates the disparity as people work to fulfil their own agenda and not that of the team.

3. Lack of stability

Fast-paced organisations, where people join and leave the so-called team, means that ‘the team’ per se never really exists, and certainly doesn’t settle long enough to become truly high performing. Lack of stability means that individuals are often just treading water, waiting for new pieces of the puzzle to arrive. However, the picture they’re expecting keeps on changing.

What can leaders do instead?

Given the complex issues that beset teams, what can leaders do to work towards the goal of maximising performance?

CommsMasters Tip
Instead of thinking about teams and their development as a singular, often unwieldy unit, the answer is to break things down and focus on the development activity of key individuals.

Start by identifying those people in your organisation who need to move quickly and effectively between different groups to get results – individuals who don’t stay in one unit long enough for it to become a ‘team’. Then, focus on defining a specific set of capabilities for these individuals, capabilities that will enable them to engage and dis-engage easily. Consider how well they are able to read and adjust to new environments. Can they adapt and flex their approach depending on the situation? 

The power of emotional intelligence

These capabilities are more likely to be about self-awareness, agility in engaging well with diverse people and goals, and openness to working through conflicting views; ultimately, this could be defined as advanced capacity for emotional intelligence. People with these capabilities are particularly skilled at working collaboratively with a number of small groups – ones that they may move into and become part of for short periods of time. People may be members of several groups at any one time – never really being a team as such, but still needing to get results quickly in relation to a shared goal.

Ultimately, there is still a role for the traditional team – the group of individuals who work together closely enough and for the extended period of time that allows for true team development. However, flexible groups who have to achieve challenging goals, quickly and effectively, are increasingly the norm. 

To accommodate these, leaders need to build self-awareness and emotional intelligence, and equip their people with top notch interpersonal and communication skills. This will result in a cadre of highly skilled individuals who can successfully join any number of groups for short periods, quickly settling in and working well with one another thanks to their skills as individuals.

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