Jean CooperAs a team leader it is important to understand what it is your team needs to optimise its performance. If you can read and understand these needs, you will be better able to respond and help your team to the next level.

But let’s be honest: no two teams are similar. Just as individuals are unique, teams are unique. Your team has a unique configuration of individuals, it operates in a unique environment and has a unique history and future. How then, if your team has a unique story, is it possible for you to know what to look out for in terms of your team’s development? And, if no blue-print of your specific team exists, how can you know that responding in a certain way will have a definite desired effect?

Yes, understanding and leading teams are complex. That is why we often feel ourselves ill-equipped to intervene if we sense something’s holding our team back. The natural thing to do then is to turn towards a team building expert to sort your team out. The problem is that many team building experts have set team building programmes that they use for all teams. A generic model and sequence and workbook with discussion questions that touch on all the essential dynamics of the generic team. But yours is not the generic team.

Although having an external facilitator could be valuable every now and then, you can never abscond the responsibility for your team’s development to the facilitator. Your team is your responsibility. And the responsibility of each team member. The facilitator will come and go and you’ll still sit with your team. Also, even though a facilitator that is professionally trained in organisational psychology might understand the dynamics that make teams work, you are still the expert of YOUR team. The external professional might understand the process of team development, but you understand your context. It is therefore crucial that, on those occasions that you do get an external facilitator, you collaborate with that person. Sharing your understanding of your team. Educating the facilitator in your context. Taking shared responsibility of the team building process. Because the more effort you put into this, the more the facilitator will understand what to focus on and the more you will learn about your team and the team building process. The more you will be able to, on an ongoing basis, read and understand and respond to the needs of your team.

The purpose of this article is to give you certain guidelines in terms of what to take cognisance of when trying to read the dynamics in your team. We have clustered all the teams that we have worked with around the common pains that they expressed towards us. We then went back to what we did with each team to help them address these pains. What we came up with is a list of ten different clusters of main team needs. In what follows we describe each of these common team pains as well as what to focus on to address these. As you read through this you will discover that none of these fit your team 100%. You will find that there are a combination of what is listed here that apply to your team. You are right. Remember your team is unique and there will always be a combination of complex factors working in on your team. Also, we have not grouped these team needs according to functional team settings like production teams, project teams, financial teams, middle management teams, sales teams, HRD teams etc. Still these functional team settings do play a huge role in the team dynamics.

So, as you read this, keep your team’s unique context in mind. Even though your team will not perfectly match any of the scenarios below, it will still give you a good idea of some of the dynamics that are at play in your team and how you could respond to it.

1. Newly established teams
These are teams that have just been established. You want to fast-track the team’s development so that it can perform at optimal productivity quicker. You need to help team members to know and understand each other in terms of abilities, backgrounds and ambitions. You also need to help the team to create a clear team identity and to understand the team’s positioning and purpose within the broader organisation. Teams that go through this process are clear about where each team member fits in, shared values in the team and norms regarding issues such as communication, leadership, conflict and work quality.

2. Teams hit by waves of change
These are teams that have been hit by change upon change upon change or at least one major transition. Examples are teams who recently went through mergers or restructurings, changed leaders, parted with team members or were joined by new team members. You need to replace the uncertainty and anxiety that normally accompany major change with a sense of security. Team members should be helped to stop worrying about issues of insecurity and to re-focus on production and team outputs. This can be done by working on inter-personal relationships between team members, clarifying expectations of the team and of individual members and strengthening the team’s external boundary and sense of security. Teams that go through this process feel safe to focus on the task at hand. Team members feel safer to share ideas and take risks.

3. Increasing team performance
This is if your team has been together for quite some time and wants to increase its performance. Examples are teams who feel as if they’ve lost the magic they had sometime in the past, teams who are experiencing a fall in production/outputs as well as teams who are doing well, but think that they can do better. Team members need to be made aware of the “invisible” processes/climate/culture in the team that might be hampering their performance. You should also help the team to replace these habits with more effective ones. Teams thus become aware of their habitual ways of communication, problem solving, leadership and handling of conflict. You need to help the team to identify these habits and to work out a strategy and plan for sustainably changing these habits. Teams experience quite a few aha-moments during this process as they re-discover and re-invent themselves. If you do this your team will experience a renewed sense of inter-personal trust, hope for the future and will have a plan according to which they will implement their decisions and to which they can hold themselves accountable.

4. Diverse teams
Although most teams have different kinds of diversities in the team, some teams really struggle to overcome the “gaps” between people who are different. This could be (amongst others) cultural, language, gender, generational or professional diversity. You need to help team members understand themselves and each other better so that productive work-relationships can develop between team members. The team should be assisted to re-focus the energy it spent on suspicion, distrust and misunderstanding towards production/outputs. Team members that went through this process realised that it is OK to be who they are and that it is OK to see things differently than others. The team then discovers values that they do share as a team and a team culture is developed that is unique to the team. Teams are also helped to discover how to practically harness their diversity as a team asset/competitive advantage.

5. Teams with clicks
These are teams that experience problems with sub-groupings within the team. Although most teams have functional sub-groups that could be very effective, some teams struggle with sub-groups that undermine the team’s functioning and outputs. You need to get all individuals and groups in the team to re-focus and re-align their energies with the vision of the team. In order to accomplish this, you can help team members to become aware of the sub-group’s impact on the team. You can assist the team in establishing relationships between members of sub-groups, thus making the sub-group boundaries more permeable. Teams that went through this process are relieved and proud that they could sort out a difficult situation themselves. Follow-up sessions with these teams are crucial to strengthen the new team boundaries and firm up on the decisions made during the session.

6. Interdependance between teams
No team operates in isolation. Sometimes organisations have difficulties with teams that remain in silos and don’t interact effectively to the greater benefit of the organisation. You need to optimise the interaction of different teams in one organisation or department. You can do this by analysing the existing social networks between teams in order to make the inter-team connections (or lack of) visible to the team. You can then help individuals foster relationships accross team boundaries in order to make these boundaries more permeable. Teams that undergo this process know that their success depends on other teams’ successes. Groups leave this programme with a clearly mapped out overall vision that binds sub-teams together, as well as a plan according to which they continually develop their inter-team effectiveness

7. Increasing ownership, accountability and responsibility in your team
There are teams where members show a lack of ownership, accountability and responsibility. You need to help the team foster a culture of high quality output where team members are proud of their contributions to the team. You can assist team members (and leaders) to answer “yes!” to the following questions: Am I allowed to take ownership? Will I be held accountable in the end? Is it safe to take responsibility? In order to answer these questions, issues such as capacity, role allocation, support, recognition, critique and trust are often addressed. Teams that work through this process feel empowered to sustain and grow a new culture of ownership, accountability and responsibility.

8. Improving team innovation
These are teams that want to develop their ability to innovate. You need to help teams foster a team culture receptive to and supportive of innovative ideas and actions. You can look at how safe team members feel to fail and we help the team to increase team members’ sense of security in the team. You can also help the team to harness the diversity in the team in generating ideas and concepts. On a personal level team members can be taken through a process to understand and improve their individual responses to criticism, failure and success. Teams that go through this process experience innovation as an inspiring team culture as they have minimised the obstacles that hampered innovation and strengthened the factors that supports innovation in the team.

9. Sustaining team performance
All teams need to stop and take stock of how they are and where they are going every once in a while. The inter-personal and output-driven dynamics of a team can never be completely separated from each other. Still, when teams do their annual strategic planning, they seldom also stop to think about how they are as a team. The purpose of this is to facilitate a “team stock take” on both an inter-personal and an output level. On an output level you can help the team through an entire strategic planning process that looks at different future scenarios, team vision and objectives broken down into measurable roles, responsibilities and actions. You can also help the team to honestly evaluate their outputs over the past year and to put measurement criteria in place for them to continually measure their performance during the year to come. On an inter-personal level you can assist the team to honestly evaluate how they are as a team and as individuals. Where do they stand with each other? Are there inter-personal dynamics and processes like trust, communication, handling of conflict and leadership that they could improve in order to help them achieve their envisioned results for the future? Teams that undergo this process usually find it extremely valuable and stimulating as it holistically integrates all the aspects of the team’s functioning in an honest and positive manner.

These are not hard and fast rules on how to work with team. It is merely a list of examples of how we have helped teams help themselves. The fact of the matter is still that you need to take ownership of your team’s development and that you need to train yourself to be able to read and interpret the team dynamics in each team.

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