Is mine a high-performing team?

Some time ago, a client of ours excitedly commented that she thought what we did felt like team-building with intellect.  Even eight years ago, there was something in the comment that betrayed a disdain and fatigue for team-building exercises that are fun and engaging, but lead to nothing of real substance back in the day-to-day life of the workplace.  While the purpose of the work we did was not around team-building, the way that we weave sociometry and relationship building into everything we do means that one major spin-off from the work is closer working relationships.  When considering taking a group of people at work through some kind of team-building process, it is important to keep the purpose of this process clear in our heads.  What kind of relationships are required in order to do the job?  What is the context in which the relationships will sit and how can we optimise the links around the common purpose?  How much mutual accountability is actually necessary?

To expand a little on my previous article, I’d like to say a little more about teams in the workplace.  In that article, I suggest that the dynamics of a group will impact on its ability to work effectively.  I realise that I may have been a little relaxed about using the words “group” and “team” interchangeably, however there is an important distinction to be made between the two.  I fear the word “team” has been so over-used in the workplace that this distinction has been lost and assumptions made about the necessity for team-building.  In my last blogpost, I referred to the work of Wilfred Bion and set out his observations of what happens in groups of humans when unconscious process gets in the way of group effectiveness.  As I wrote, humans gather together in groups for a purpose and when the dynamics of the group kick in, they can undermine this purpose and throw the group off course.  My assertion was that it is important for anyone who manages a group of people, often called a “team” in our workplaces, to be aware of some of these hidden dynamics so that they can develop greater resilience to keep going with grace and humility.  One point of clarification here is that every team is a group, and therefore subject to these hidden dynamics; not every group, however, is a team.  Nor, necessarily, should they be.

When I hear someone talking about taking their crew on a team-building day, my heart sinks, as, I suspect, do the hearts of many of those folks in the team who will be subjected to a day of fun, laughs and throwing a cush-ball at each other.  I’ve spoken to many people who’ve been on these events and there is a theme that runs through their comments: “What does that have to do with my work?”  Certainly, creating an environment where people can get to know each other better while enjoying themselves will create some bonds, but there are some assumptions behind these away-days.  The complaint that these events have little to do with the day-to-day requirements of work is valid.  Often, there is little attention to the transfer of learning back to the workplace, but this is partly to do with the structure of team-building events; reflection and meaning-making should always be built in to any kind of activity where learning is the aim.  It is not enough to assume that just because people have successfully built a raft together, they will transfer their efforts back to the office.  I’m not saying that all such events lack this transfer, but many folks I know were left wondering what the point of it all was.

One of the biggest assumptions that needs to be addressed, however, is the one that people who work together should perforce invest themselves in developing a true, high-performing team.  In most workplaces, what people call “team” is, in fact, a “working group” and this may be sufficient for the requirements of the people and the organisation.  It requires a mighty investment of time, energy and commitment to develop the close-knit structure that Katzenbach and Smith would call a “high-performing team”.  While organisations may aspire to be peopled by high-performing teams, the reality is that for many of these businesses, the cost involved in getting there may be prohibitive, both in terms of time and financial resources.  It also requires an act of will on the part of the members of these high-performing teams.

I will illustrate with some personal experience.  In my own lifetime, I have been fortunate enough to have worked in a high-performing team, as observed by Katzenbach and Smith, and I will describe in more detail below what you would have seen if you were a fly on the wall in my workplace.  My second example took place some years ago.  We were called in to work with a group of people in a large organisation whose manager said they needed some team-building and that he aspired after them to be in the high-performing category.  But then, what manager wouldn’t say that?

The first example has left an imprint on me that will last my lifetime.  Many years ago, I worked for a community therapy agency which engaged in some of the most difficult therapeutic work around.  It required a high level of professional knowledge and skill, as we were working in the area of trauma and abuse, as well as a high level of personal development in order to deal with the effects of vicarious traumatisation.  The work was systemic, and therefore multi-disciplinary, in nature, in other words, it involved the person’s wider system including family and extended family, school and/or workplace, recreational activities, government agencies and other health providers.  This was not work done in silos.  We were a diverse and cross-functional team and cases were handled collaboratively at weekly meetings.  Because of what was required of us in order to do the work effectively, there was a strong need to attend to our own team development.  Apart from the actual work we did, we also devoted a significant amount of time to building and nurturing our team.  In a working month, I would guess that we would have spent at least eight hours together purely on maintaining team “hygiene”.  We reflected on our relationships with each other and the impact of those on our abilities to work well.

Katzenbach and Smith came up with a simple and clear definition of team: “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”  Many groups in the workplace might say that they fit these criteria, however I’m not so sure that they are in the high-performing category.  Beyond this definition, I believe, there is a spirit or essence which identifies groups as high-performing (HP) teams.  An HP team will be leader-full; various members will, at times, take up leadership.  Each person will, in different moments, bring forward their specialist expertise around particular topics or issues or take the lead in facilitating some decision-making or drive the team to grapple with something they feel is significant.  HP teams work have a deep commitment to the vision of their organisation and strive towards objectives they set themselves and that are in line with this bigger picture, rather than simply achieve work outputs mandated by the hierarchy.  HP teams are characterised by open discussions and collaborative problem-solving; working groups attend efficient meetings.  HP teams have robust, honest discussions and have highly developed interpersonal skills to manage through these sticky times.  HP teams are genuinely mutually accountable whereas working groups take individual accountability; in an HP, everyone (and I mean everyone) takes an active interest in the achievement of the team’s objectives and behaves in a way which demonstrates their inextricable connectedness.  All of these were true in the team I belonged to, however, the one thing that really identified my team as an HP team to me was this: everyone looked forward to coming to work so that we could be with each other and, together, meet the challenges of the work.  In the many working groups I’ve belonged to, while there were some really enjoyable working relationships, they were based more on personal affinity and we all came to work because we had to.

The second example I described above would sit in the category of my professional blunders.  I learnt so much from that work, one of the main things being that not all working groups need or want to invest what it takes to become a genuine team.  It is a never-ending piece of work that the team unanimously needs to sign up to.  In hindsight, what that manager who contracted us was looking to achieve was some closer working relationship, as it was a relatively new team, however their work did not actually require them to be more than an efficient working group.  For a team to achieve high-performing status, they will likely go through a challenging process after which they have developed a deep caring for each other and a strong collaborative ethic such that the achievement of the whole far outstrips the achievement of the individuals working separately.  It is sometimes a bumpy ride and not for the faint-hearted.  Upon reflection, the nature of the work of this team was such that they did not need to (nor wish to) invest themselves in a process whereby they would have an HP team. Their work simply required that they be a friendly and efficient working group who understood what the organisation wanted from them.

Katzenbach and Smith set out a team performance curve and identified several types of team.  The diagram below illustrates this.

Katzenbach and Smith's team performance curve

For those who are interested, I will leave explanation of these team categories to the London Management Centre, who describe them very eloquently.  In this post, I simply wish to make the point that when considering team-building, consider first the needs of the business, the readiness and willingness of the team members to engage in a journey of closer relationship and the time and money that are required to grow a truly high-performing team.  One thing I know for sure, we cannot rely on an outdoor pursuits event to be the solution to building a solid HP team.

 

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10 thoughts on “Is mine a high-performing team?

  1. Hi John,
    Great article – as always! It is so important that people think about the definition of ‘team’ and work towards the ideal ‘team’ that will work for them within their organisation.
    The only area that I would challenge is the idea that this costs money. I don’t see that – whether in small companies or large organisations.
    The ability to build a high performing Team takes time, effort, knowledge and vision. It has been my experience that the benefit for the Company is always cost savings – either in terms of higher productivity or working more effectively together.
    The benefits for the Team and Team members are huge – and that’s my motivation in life!

    1. Kate, would agree wholeheartedly with you. When I comment on the cost of investing in a team, I mostly mean time and energy and will. In the example I use about the HP team I belonged to, there was a cost of us gathering together to work on our team “hygiene”, which meant it was time not spent doing our work, if you like, even though in that context, we saw it as our work. For some organisations and leaders, until they incorporate team relationship work as part of the work, and not a discretionary add-on, they will see it as a cost to the business: “If you aren’t generating income, you aren’t working,” sort of mentality. As you say, however, the investment brings rewards greater than could be imagined by many businesses.

  2. Hi John,

    Have to admit, you’re becoming my Team Guru.

    Beautiful elaboration of the context and practices of a high performing team. I find the distinctions so useful in terms of understanding what different teams (groups) need. I think many leaders get caught on the words high performing without really thinking through the purpose as you point out.

    One interesting question is what does any group, despite purpose, need for members to feel “at ease” to share honestly, which I see missing in most work groups. There’s often a sense of holding back, which is often happening out of conscious awareness.

    You were very fortunate to have had the experience of being part of such as group. Look forward to more of your insights on working with groups.

    Best, Louise

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