How Do You Stack Up? The Basic Skills to Lead or Manage Successful Teams

Business colleagues having a discussion in the hallway

When I ask business leaders and IT professionals about their experience of teamwork effectiveness — and I’ve asked thousands in 20+ years as a consultant and speaker — I get a consistent “so-so” response.

So what will it take to create consistently more effective teamwork across the board?

First, it requires a hard look at what doesn’t work.

Then it requires everyone to take greater ownership for their own teamwork.

This can happen only when we equip business leaders and team members with the often neglected basic skills to lead or work on a team.

Professionals – be aware that teamwork is an individual skill

What doesn’t work: Waiting for someone else to make your team experience a good one

Though this is changing in some sectors, we don’t yet expect individuals in the workforce to take ownership for the quality and productivity of their relationships at work. Yet we expect them to work successfully in teams — pods of shared responsibility, where each member’s accomplishment and paycheck depend on how the whole group performs.

We expect to hold individuals accountable for a work product within their area of expertise, yet we buy into their blame and justification when their excuse for poor performance is that they were assigned to a bad team over which they had no direct control.

What doesn’t work: Focusing on the parts and expecting a whole to emerge

We manage organizations by taking big jobs, breaking them up, assigning the pieces to people, and then — hopefully — integrating the pieces into wholes. But in our educational system and career paths, we create highly educated specialists and we micro-focus them on bounded pieces of work rather than on end-user value. This creates huge gaps between these well-bounded roles. Thus the need for integration.

Problems between the gaps hold the greatest opportunity to add value

As a society and as managers, we have low expectations of smart people’s abilities to work well together. As reasons we cite

  • specialization
  • ego
  • competitiveness
  • sensitivity
  • aggressiveness
  • conflict avoidance and
  • (choose your favorite instrument) personality style differences.

What else doesn’t work: Low expectations (faith in people) by leaders

When we adopt humane beliefs and expectations about people’s abilities to build responsible and productive relationships at work, they do build those relationships.

We need to develop faith in smart people’s abilities to learn a new way of relating at work, and recognize teamwork as an individual skill — with identifiable principles and communication skills that anyone with an elementary school education can learn and master. This also means that smart, highly educated professionals are no longer let off the hook because of the advanced nature of their specializations and personal accomplishments.

Education and self-awareness supports successful teamwork

Along with raising our expectations, professionals can practice some basic principles and skills that support effective teamwork. As a society, we have thousands of years of experience with working in hierarchies, yet we have just a few decades’ worth of models, metaphors, and language about working in teams.

In my experience, smart, highly educated professionals don’t understand the basic concepts and skills to work in, lead, or manage teams. And our efforts to teach those principles and skills have fallen way short, often perpetuating a team-building mythology that just doesn’t work.

The critical path to creating more consistently effective teams starts with leaders taking ownership for perpetuating a society, a workforce, and a workplace where smart, highly educated and highly paid professionals are expected to acquire, practice, and master integrative skills.

To be successful in a shared-responsibility environment, master these concepts

“Tall” versus “flat” relationship structures — successful participation simultaneously in hierarchies and teams.

Shared responsibility — accomplishing tasks with others over whom you hold no direct control yet on whose effort your performance relies.

Simultaneous cooperation and competition — consciously choosing cooperation over petty competitiveness as your default relationship strategy and knowing when and how to choose competitiveness when a truly critical value or belief is at stake.

The principle of the least-invested coworker — motivating peers and dealing effectively with perceived freeloaders and other difficult team members.

We would do well to reexamine our fundamental assumptions about what bright people can and cannot learn. And we must modify our beliefs about leading, managing, and working in team-based environments. Most of all, more consistently effective teams starts with an examination of your own contributions to the problem and your responsibility to learn, correct, and improve.

There is an “I” in “team,” and you are it.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide. Master leadership or build a responsible team with The Leadership Gift Program for Leaders.

Posted in Leadership, Responsibility, Teamwork on 12/21/2010 01:00 am
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