09 November 2013

Healthy Teamwork

Today I am in Houston to help facilitate a team building event with two colleagues of mine. Over the years I’ve had the privilege of coming alongside all kinds of teams for similar events. Every event contains interactive modules that aim to fulfill three purposes: 

1. Articulate a unified vision.
2. Develop understanding of one another.
3. Establish habits and protocols that encourage healthy “as-you-go” teamwork.

It has been my experience that, if any one of these arenas suffers, the whole team suffers—and ultimately the project itself could fold.

Team members that do not have a clear, common vision move in all different directions.  If the vision is murky or unshared, the team will disperse and you will be left with neither teamwork nor accomplishment. Sports teams can attest to the unifying power of a shared goal.

But common vision is not enough. Team members must also develop an awareness and understanding of one another. Let’s say I’m an extrovert and I happen to serve on a team with an introvert. As an extrovert, I think “on the fly” and “out loud”. This means I thrive most when I can meet with others and have time and space to interact, ask questions, and verbally summarize ideas.

But the introvert is different. They work best when they have time and space to think quietly. They may need more time to process something before they feel prepared to give a thoughtful response. In fact, I’ve seen that when introverts are given this time and space they are able to articulate an idea more deeply and cohesively than I could with my on-the-fly approach.

To foster healthy teamwork leaders need to provide space for both types of people to contribute in ways that maximize their strengths. To do that, however, we must know one another’s strengths.

You can imagine the many factors that need to be taken into account with this. Teams are made up of a diverse array of individuals. For example, there are...

...thinkers and feelers
...those who are intuitive and those who are more concrete
...those who thrive in the midst of routine and those who need lots of variety
...those who “work smarter” and those who “work harder”
...those who influence people to change direction and those who are good at just being “with” people right where they are.

With such complexity, the work of “knowing” one another is never finished.

So…healthy teams need a unified vision and healthy teams know one another’s strengths well. But a third ingredient is still needed. A commitment to some “high ground” practices that govern the way team members relate to each other week-in, week-out.

This third arena of healthy teaming concerns questions such as:

How will we handle interpersonal conflict when it arises?
What interpersonal communication skills should we practice to prevent needless conflict?
What structures will be in place to provide safe space for ideological conflict?
What role will everyone on the team play?
What values will govern the way we relate to each other day-in, day-out?
What habits will we encourage to nurture health in team meetings?

Of course, there are many more questions to consider than these but this gives you an idea of the large scope of issues concerned.

In my experience, many conflicts arise as a result of “small things”. For example, something is said that rubs someone the wrong way, yet the person offended feels that the something is “not that big of a deal” (and they don’t want to risk seeming petty) so they just “let it go” and don’t address the offense. Over time, lots of these little “somethings” begin to pile up, and they form One Big Something. The offended party begins to make connections and they begin to see a “pattern”. Before you know it, they assign passive-aggressive intentions where none may exist and they begin to demonize the other.

Conflicts are further exacerbated by the fact that the team has established no rhythm in which time for collaborative innovation is regularly juxtaposed by periods of implementation. Teams tend to get stuck in one side of the pair. On the one hand, some teams never stop “innovating”—to the extent that nothing ever actually gets done. Sufficient time is not given to work out a plan, the team grows restless and thinks up a whole new idea (usually as a way to “escape” the “failure” of the old idea).

Or, some teams get stuck with “what works” so they fail to take time to think of new pathways for growth and change. They spend all their time maintaining what “has been” so they forget to consider the future (or they simply think of the future as a clone of the present—more of the same). After a while, the project begins to stagnate.

If parameters are set to establish time-frames and rhythms for each of these creative arcs (innovation and implementation) the team will thrive. When these rhythms are established those who prefer one side of the creative arc over the other side can be at ease.  For example, when a project is in the “implementation phase”, innovators can be patient and wait for the right time to think of fresh approaches. On the other hand, when a project is in a phase where they are brainstorming new ideas, those who are “maintainers” can rest at ease knowing the team will devise effective means of seeing the idea through to fulfillment. Such patterns help establish deeper bonds of trust in one another.

This relationship between innovation and implementation stays on the “high ground” when concrete structures are created to govern the cycle. Most teams don’t put forethought into the rhythm and realize too late that one or the other is lacking. The creating of the structural space for each side of the creative cycle represents this kind of “as-you-go” teaming that marks healthy teams. It is something that never stops. It creates a context for invigorating challenge as well as stabilizing praxis.

But there are other “as-you-go” kinds of practices needed. Believe it or not, in my team building work, I even walk teams through exercises designed to help them relate to one another when they are in their weekly meetings. Small things like being good listeners, minimizing the distractions of technology in meetings and agreeing to be punctual to meetings come into play in nurturing an environment where people feel safe and secure.

Teamwork requires common vision, an understanding of one another, and a commitment to working together in healthy ways day-in, day-out. When all those ingredients come together, it’s exciting to see what a diverse group of people can accomplish. The result is greater than the sum of its parts.


PlayFull offers interactive, fun team building experiences! Write Troy Cady to discover how PlayFull can help your team thrive. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I like Annie Murphy Paul's articles, too. I believe she gives a very optimistic slant to learning we all could use