When I reflect back on the teams I was a member of during rapid and constant change over my 15 years in high-tech product development, what I remember most is how much habitual reaction I witnessed - both in myself and others. I’m talking about the quick, automatic behaviors (like retorts or knee-jerk emails) that occurred without much thinking.  During periods of intense firefighting and reaction to events unfolding outside the team, the gap between thought and action was razor-thin - and discussions were fast and frequently furious. So what exactly was I witnessing and what could we have done about it?

In retrospect, what I witnessed was the ripple effects of all that habitual reaction. Jumping into problem solving, we lacked alignment and clarity on the ultimate purpose of our team (beyond the project at hand). Our rules of engagement were often unclear - and we unconsciously experimented with what was acceptable to the group and what wasn’t. We rarely explored differences of opinions as they arose - and instead, eroded trust in one another by over-advocating for our own point of view. Most of our communication in meetings was either information sharing or advocacy, pure and simple, and we didn’t have the tools to engage productively in conflict when it arose. I also rarely remember agreeing on a decision-making approach in advance of any debate or discussion, leading to some less-than-effective outcomes.

What I learned first hand was what research in team effectiveness over the last 30 years has made clear. For a team to be effective, team members need to be able to do the following well:

  • Understand their purpose to clarify commitment

  • Have a clear understanding of roles and rules of engagement

  • Trust one another

  • Communicate productively

  • Embrace and manage conflict

  • Make good and timely decisions

One of the most common obstacles to team performance is lack of trust. What does this look like? In high-trust teams, positive intent is assumed, team members actively listen to each other, relationships are healthy, and diversity of opinions is valued. In lower-trust teams, negative intent is sometimes assumed, over-advocacy is the norm, some relationship breakdowns occur, and different perspectives often lead to unresolved conflict.

Trust comes from believing in the competence and character of another person. Competence and character together generate the behaviors that drive the perception of trustworthiness. The good news? The behaviors associated with trustworthiness can be learned – and these include listening, acknowledgment, acceptance, and inquiry.

To be effective it’s important for teams to talk about how they work together. This is equally as important as talking about strategy, quarterly sales results, execution, and innovative ideas. Like any relationship, teamwork takes tending to and without it the team dynamics will wither.  How we communicate with each other, make commitments, state our accountability, make decisions and, most importantly, engage in difficult conversations and manage conflict between team members acts as a fertilizer for any team. With careful attention, commitment and an understanding that this work takes some time, a team will flourish. The result is that each team member knows that their colleagues are operating from a high level of integrity and commitment because the team has discussed how they work together. From there trust grows and regardless of the challenges faced, the team will work effectively to collectively find a solution.

So if you’re seeing lots of habitual reaction on your team, what can you do about it? Take these 4 steps:

  1. Review the list of 6 competencies of effective teams above

  2. Identify the highest potential competency to strengthen (perhaps because it is weak or infrequently used)

  3. Collect observations on what ineffective team behaviors you’re seeing that are related to this competency, and note how these connect to results that matter. For example, if decision-making is your choice, you might observe that decision-making discussions begin without having a clear understanding of how the decision will be made - and how much time is spent talking in circles as a result.

  4. Get 5 minutes on the team agenda to share your observations (without naming names) and ask the team if anyone else has seen this. Make clear the link to results and ask if this is something that needs attention. If you can motivate the team to act, invite them to dedicate a block of time to identify new strategies they are willing to adopt and how they will be used. Talking about how you work together is as critical as how you solve strategic challenges.

Habitual reaction during times of rapid or constant change is challenging, no doubt. Directing team attention to its own behaviors, fostering awareness of what’s working and what isn’t, and exploring the motivation to act on it will help you and the team prepare to respond more skillfully to what’s around the corner.

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By Jonathan| Jan 24, 2019

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