Teams need a structure in which to operate, and without one they can easily run amok. Creating structure for a team is so simple that it’s often assumed by the members of a team. They may think, "we are all smart and know what we are doing and what we are trying to achieve... We don’t need to explicitly declare it, do we?"

Emphatically, I say yes...yes you do!

Why? Because, simply put, the road to hell is paved with good assumptions. This is a way of saying: don’t trust your assumptions. It never hurts, and always helps, to clarify 6 sets of assumptions in particular: the team’s purpose, the team roles, how effectively communication is being received, how decisions are to be made, what the team’s rules of engagement are, and what the level of trust is between team members.

In my experience, the biggest barrier to team effectiveness is often the lack of team structure and process. Many team members often think that structure and process will take care of itself because they think they are all committed, smart people - and this is sufficient. The problem is that structure and process don’t take care of themselves and - when sufficiently weak - misunderstandings breed, misalignment emerges, and the team starts to to exhibit dysfunctional behaviors as a result. Instead of solving problems together, team members may meet informally (outside of a meeting) to resolve issues, or resentment may build up between members and complaining starts. None of this adds to effectiveness and only diminishes engagement among the members. Trust erodes, communication breaks down and the team stops working. It’s frustrating for everyone involved.

The problem is that most teams spend all their time talking about their work. You might think, “right...isn’t that why we are all here?” Yes and no. A team consists of human beings, which means you can’t ignore the interpersonal aspect of working together. To be effective, teams have to dedicate some of their time to creating clarity and structure for each other. Engaging not just in what a team does, but also how it does it, leads to outcomes that matter.

For example, let’s look at trust as an indicator of effectiveness. How can you measure the level of trust on a team? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do team members openly challenge each other without high levels of reactivity?

  • Can the team debate an issue with involvement from everyone?

  • Do the team members understand what’s motivating each other?

  • Is there complaining about each other outside of meetings?

  • How does the team handle conflict? Is it in a direct and respectful manner? Or do team members shut down and ignore it?

Trust may not be pervasive on the team - and if weak, the team won’t get the best from its members. It won’t operate optimally, running the risk that problems won’t be solved, members will become disengaged, decisions will be avoided or made with dissent, frustration, and/or lack of true buy-in. Overall, working together will feel hard, dissatisfying and frustrating.

To avoid these scenarios, as a HR Business Partner, you can support leaders by helping them become aware of, and strengthen, the 6 characteristics of an effective team (see this blog post on what they are). While working together is hard, it’s even harder if no boundaries have been set. Invite the leaders you support to ask these questions:

  • What’s the purpose of this team?

  • What are the team’s rules of engagement? (e.g., how does it handle conflict?)

  • What are the different decision models this team uses?

  • How can this team develop more trust between members?

  • What’s the most effective means for communicating on this team?

  • How clear are members on their team role and responsibilities?

To help you support a more effective and high-functioning team, work with the team leader to establish the norms of the team and invest time in thinking and talking about how the team works together. Encourage the team leader to model the behavior he/she expects from the other team members - such as by practicing humility and vulnerability, or asking others for assistance. You can explain how doing so will make the leader easier for others to identify with - ultimately helping him/her to better connect with team members and foster their commitment and engagement. Help the leader to structure team conversations prior to key meetings. You may even propose to help facilitate the meeting by ensuring everyone is engaged and aware of dynamics in the room - and then debrief with the leader afterwards.

Remember that where attention goes, awareness flows. So if you and the leader pay attention to how the team is working together, the self-awareness and impact of the team will flourish as a result.

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By Virginia| Feb 25, 2019

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