Building an exceptional team

Individual contributor culture, unaligned visions hold teams back
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/28/2018
While 92 per cent of leaders view teams as critical to workplace success, just 23 per cent consider them to be effective, according to a 2013 survey of 255 managers by LHH Knightsbridge. Love the wind/Shutterstock

Boosting the performance of work teams requires dedication to clarity and commitment, according to Alex Vincent, senior vice-president of leadership transformation at Lee Hecht Harrison Knightsbridge in Toronto.

In today’s world of work, teams are the engine that drive business forward — and it is critical that they operate at a high level, he said at a recent SCNetwork event in Toronto.

“All of us believe, and all of us know experientially, that teams are critical to an organization’s success,” said Vincent.

“Our theory, or proposal, is that teams who become truly accountable perform better. So, in fact, it’s by working on accountability that we actually increase team performance.”

Individual contributor culture and unaligned visions are holding teams back from maximum effectiveness, he said.

And while 92 per cent of leaders view teams as critical to workplace success, just 23 per cent consider them to be effective, according to a 2013 survey of 255 managers by LHH Knightsbridge.

“The gap is large between what we need our teams to deliver on, and what they’re actually delivering on,” said Vincent. “On top of that, our team experiences aren’t that great.”

Absolute clarity and total commitment are necessary for teams to complete their objectives, he said.

State of teams

Today’s work teams are more complex and built with the expectation of instant performance, said Vincent. Teams may be distributed across the globe, and connected via technology over different time zones.

“We need them to perform very, very quickly for them to deliver the mandate, and then move on to another project,” he said.

Many corporate cultures are stuck in individual reward and recognition models or recycled annual business plans — detrimental strategies that trickle down to team success as workers often become more concerned with their own personal performance, rather than the collective, said Vincent.

“We’ve put teams together in a non-deliberate way,” he said. “We don’t deliberately say, ‘OK, what is the team mission? What do we need a team to actually drive that’s going to help us succeed? Who are the members that need to be part of this team?’”

LHH Knightsbridge’s research reveals the vast majority of teams are viewed as mediocre or weak — often operating at 50 per cent of their potential, according to Vincent.

When determining a team’s problem points, it’s important to run a diagnostic, he said. Dysfunctional teams, for example, are very difficult to turn around.

“Too many organizations… have spent too much time trying to fix team dysfunction,” said Vincent.

High-performing companies have the most accountable teams, he said, noting both clarity and commitment are critical dimensions to their success.

“You can get a lot of the work done by making things more clear for teams and the team members.”

And by working on clarity, managers are naturally ratcheting up commitment levels, said Vincent.

“Clarity drives 65 per cent of commitment. If you want to drive commitment, work on clarity,” he said. “Team members don’t come in with full commitment; it’s not an inherent trait of people. People aren’t born fully committed or aren’t born not committed; they come in with a certain level of commitment. And then it either goes up or down based on what happens.”

Instilling clarity

Team clarity refers to the degree to which all team members are clear on the group’s mandate, said Vincent.

Clarity helps workers understand their clientele, ensures team members are clear on their collective goals and priorities, and clarifies trends and drivers affecting their specific industry, he said.

“When we put people together, it’s for them to deliver something that they couldn’t deliver on their own,” said Vincent. “If the clarity dimensions aren’t met, their commitment’s going to be low.”

When the mandate isn’t clear, workers are quick to get behind what they subjectively feel is right, rather than work towards organizational success, he said.

As workplaces change rapidly, managers should also be proactively sharing their thoughts on the unknown, said Vincent.

“Having that continuous dialogue, even when stuff changes, and just talking about the changes without knowing where it’s going, is important.”

Knowing how a team’s work aligns with a broader organizational mandate helps employees understand what “winning” looks like, which spurs them on to own their individual performance, rather than rely solely on a team leader for motivation, he said.

Improving commitment

Commitment refers to the degree to which the team members are fully committed to the group’s mandate, said Vincent.

Often, the best-performing teams are driven from within — caring deeply about colleagues, exuding passion about the future of the organization, and demonstrating resilience in the face of adversity, he said.

Leadership must offer a positive vision statement grounded in reality if they want team members to fully commit, said Vincent.

“The number 1 thing is that the organization that we are a part of has a positive future vision that they can articulate to us.”

It is also important that workers get to know one another on a personal level and pursue accountability, he said.

“I need to know that these people care about me — not just in terms of what I have to deliver as a professional — but also about me as a person.” 

In terms of workplace performance, peer feedback can be powerful, said Vincent.

“Team members need to have honest and open dialogue with each other, and not have it be always the team leader that does that.”

Breaking down organizational silos to drive greater collaboration is also key, he said.

“It’s about teams being able to help other teams, and work with other teams and collaborate more broadly, so that they can collectively drive things forward.”

Each team has to have its house in order, said Vincent.

“Each team has to be clear on their mission and their commitment so that they can contribute to other teams,” he said.

“You’ve got to make sure that your team is really solid and really clear and really committed...And then we can collaborate more effectively with teams across the organization. And they could do the same with your team.”

Teams cannot operate in isolation and need to be clear on a whole bunch of things, said Vincent.

“Being focused on a couple of things can actually move the needle pretty quickly,” he said. “And now we know which things for us to focus on, and for teams to focus on.”

Fixing clarity to strengthen commitment

Three SCNetwork members discuss Alex Vincent’s presentation on teams

Jan van der Hoop: The opening statistics grab your attention. Fully 80 per cent of teams in a wide cross-section of industries and company sizes are mediocre or weak, performing at five-tenths or less.

Over 90 per cent believe that high-performing teams are critical to an organization’s success; just over 20 per cent would say any of their teams are high performing.

But it’s not for a lack of effort; there’s a whole lot of activity going on — just not always in the right direction. My boss used a metaphor that is appropriate here — a 50-watt light bulb will light a room because that energy is diffused in every direction; a 50-watt laser will cut through things because that same amount of energy is aligned and tightly focused.

Alex Vincent’s prescription is deceptive in its apparent simplicity: It boils down to clarity and commitment (and if you fix clarity, it goes a long way to strengthening commitment).

Clarity takes a lot of work, and it’s the “slow down so you can speed up” kind of work that’s an investment in time and effort today for possible returns in the future.

Over the course of my career, that sort of investment has taken many forms, from thoughtful orientation and onboarding programs, to company events that were heavy on “context” (with competitive and market updates, evolving strategies to address them, cascading objectives with clear line-of-sight, and whole-team incentives).

I’ve been fortunate to work at organizations that did it right, but in today’s remote work environments — where project teams are thrust together from across time zones to address a problem, and then disbanded — the clarity challenges are greater than ever.

Paul Pittman: I have to say, I have always found “team performance improvement” to be one of those creative consulting solutions looking for a problem, and while Vincent did his best to dispel that notion, it was no epiphany, at least for me. Most of the presentation was spent addressing observed challenges that related to individual behaviour that should have been revealed elsewhere, and individual coaching.

A second question mark for me is about homogenizing teams because they are used for different purposes in different organizations: a systematic event for improving the next app in a tech organization, process improvement in a manufacturing context, obstacle resolution, professional development. Teams are an inherent part of the value chain in some organizations and in others unblock one-time barriers to value.

Companies will select team members accordingly, and projects of critical importance are going to attract (or demand) high-potentials who will increase the prospect of success. Process improvement is likely to be incremental, perhaps just as important but less “breakthrough.” Which would you rather work on? 

So, assessing team performance is relative and expectations must be clearly defined, and I have to say that a numeric indicator, as was constantly referred to, without context is misleading.

A good team manager will provide context, and pick skills and personalities to fulfill a mandate. Others will usually determine its success. If the team is not delivering on expectations, it will be disbanded or the manager replaced — it’s a team, so it’s temporary, not a permanent function. That’s why many organizations place important challenges in teams rather than departments.

I fail to see how inserting an external (to the company) facilitator into what is essentially an internal application, notwithstanding the cost, is going to resolve a team problem fast enough or effectively.

Team values need to align with broader organizational goals and if teams do not fundamentally embrace those goals, then that is a poor selection decision and will result in an equally poor result.

Sandi Channing: My first experience working within a team was completing projects at a school level. Sometimes, the group would just meld together and the experience would be magical — with support, commitment and equal levels of participation.

More often, the opposite would occur and team members would not get along or do what they were tasked. This led to greater frustration and less productivity. Although there was clarity around the goal, the groups underestimated the importance of effective collaboration, conflict resolution, and a strong team culture.

Fast forward to today, and many of us now have the skills to be effective team members but still 80 per cent of us are on teams providing mediocre results. According to Vincent, fixing the clarity will increase commitment, resulting in improved results. I’m not sure it’s that simple.   

Overall, his research provides a strong convincing argument, but does it go deep enough? The key building blocks he describes are important components to driving improved performance, but what’s missing for me is the importance of time and fit, which should not be underestimated or overlooked.

Team members are often expected to join together based on technical expertise required for the project at hand. Initially there is no team — just individuals. They need to get to know each other, establish roles and learn how to problem-solve jointly.  Over time, trust, respect and support develop and members spend their energy on collective goals instead of individual goals. Teams take time to develop and become effective — clarity can help but can’t replace this process.

Clarity, commitment, communication and collaboration — challenges for any team and, as Jan stated, increased for virtual teams. Where possible, consistency in team members would help overcome some of these challenges. This is not to say teams should remain static but perhaps keeping chunks of teams together for various projects and ensuring team fit for the new members would increase performance.

Research on the impact members’ tenure and meeting frequency have on team success would have been interesting.

Van der Hoop: So, are we back to the old fundamental truth again, that the potential of an organization is predetermined by the nature of its relationships and the quality of its conversations?

My sense is that’s a lesson hard-learned and even harder-applied in an ever-accelerating, increasingly transactional (tasks as well as relationships) business reality.

How to break the cycle? I don’t think it’s another gizmo, app, tool or training program. What needs to shift in order for people to trust that if they focus on the relationship and the conversation first, before the task, that the tasks actually generally get done better, with less effort and stress? Is it purely a question of leadership? What’s HR’s role?

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