In my career I’ve been privileged to have been part of several executive teams trying to rapidly grow an organization. We were the most senior leaders, and charged with building out our functions to support the needs of the growing organization. We were all smart, experts in our functional areas and committed. We believed those qualities were sufficient for us to be effective, but in retrospect, not quite. What were we missing?
Inevitably tensions grew because what we were doing was hard, but also because we had never talked about actually being an effective team. It was going to take more than showing up every week to our regular meeting and talking about the issues. It was going to take some committed time to figure out how we would work together as a team. Specifically, we needed to develop trust between us, understand our purpose as a team (not just as functional leaders), have a clear understanding of the rules of engagement, communicate effectively, and embrace conflict all in the service of being able to make effective decisions for the company.
Why is operating as an effective team so hard? I have witnessed time and again teams coming together, jumping into the “work” and ignoring the dynamics of the team. Without engaging in the structure of how the team will operate and the human dynamics struggle emerges as a dominant force between team members because of inadequate trust, weak conflict management skills, ineffective communication, and lack of clear roles and accountability. One or more of these challenges can handicap a team from being optimally effective. The result is frayed relationships, resentment, burnout and not getting the work done that is critical to the organization’s success. There are ripple effects into the organizations as well. The staff will see the leadership dysfunction and this will create doubt and often cause “churn” of work that the staff has to endure. Tension will increase, nerves will fray and engagement will start to wane. Ultimately, attrition will start to occur and the organization will be at risk of losing its most important talent.
Why is teaming so hard?
Often teams wonder why they aren’t being effective. Members of the team may think, “we are all smart and committed people… why isn’t this working?” There are two distinct reasons.
First, leadership teams are made up of a group of domain experts. Their expertise is why they were hired. It’s a big part of their identity and it defines the value they believe they bring to an organization. Effective teaming is challenging for experts because leadership and collaboration are very different skills, and require very different roles, from simply applying technical expertise.
Second, team members come with their own styles, preferences, skill sets, and ways of approaching problems. This diversity helps teams to accomplish more and do so creatively – but it also makes it hard for them to “synch” together. Team effectiveness requires that team members value, adapt to, and leverage diversity in order to create synergy – where the sum is truly greater than the parts.
As an HR Business Partner or leader it is your role to help the leaders you support and the team you participate on to practice effective teaming. You need to coach and support the team leader into effective “teaming” work and establish criteria for the six aspects of teaming listed above. You are perfectly positioned to ask the questions that will lead to the team recognizing the importance of this work. HR plays a highly critical role in ensuring that team are effective and have the skills they need to be successful.
Do the teams you support just focus on the work, or are they also taking time to focus on the team dynamics? To answer this, ask yourself these questions about the teams as you observe them in your role as HR Business Partner:
Is the team purpose clear and shared? Is the team aligned around why it exists?
Are the roles of team members clear? This isn’t just about titles - but also the boundaries of accountability and responsibility.
Does team communication lead to desired outcomes?
How effective is team decision-making? Are they clear, timely, and do all team member agree on the decisions made?
Are there regular meeting norms and explicit “rules of engagement”? Has the team defined which behaviors are acceptable and which are not? Does the team actively raise unacceptable behavior?
Are there indications that trust is a challenge for team members? Some indications might include lack of reliability, lack of perceived credibility, avoidance of difficult conversations, or too much egocentric behavior?
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