Teams have become critical to workplace success — they are everywhere in business today. Teams offer many advantages, including improved problem-solving capabilities with complex challenges, expanded creativity and synergies resulting in greater overall performance. While the benefits of high-performing workplace teams are well known, leading them effectively remains a tremendous challenge for many managers.
Working in a team environment can bring out the best — and the worst — in people. Individuals often struggle working cooperatively with each other and adapting to the variety of personalities, interpretations, opinions and varying skills of other team members. Many employees may have specific expertise or technical skills but can lack the “people” skills required to be an effective contributor in a team environment. Throw in competing agendas, office politics, limited resources and time pressures, and teams can be a recipe for trouble. It can be enough to make even the most seasoned manager cry out for help.
There is an art to effectively leading teams. It requires a specific skill set and a high level of emotional intelligence. Yet many managers have never been taught the necessary leadership, emotional intelligence, interpersonal and facilitation skills required to successfully lead a team. In a recent survey from the Center for Creative Leadership, marketplace leaders identified the ability to build effective teams and being collaborative as the top skills required for managers to be successful. Alarmingly, this same survey reflected that only 30 percent of respondents believed their leaders were currently skilled collaborators.
Succeeding at leading teams in a way that maximizes the performance potential of the individuals (often with competing interests and different approaches to conflict and problem solving) is a fundamental leadership challenge.
This is one of the reasons that high-performing teams tend to be the exception versus the rule. Successful companies almost always have them, whereas failing companies do not. Many managers are painfully aware that simply throwing a group of people together doesn’t mean they will necessarily jell as a team. Most teams fail to achieve their potential due to a variety of reasons, including:
- Lack of clarity around team goals and objectives — and accountability to each other to meet those responsibilities (who will do what by when).
- Ineffective decision-making and/or conflict resolution — either conflict is avoided or dealt with in a way that harms team performance.
- Lack of trust between members.
- Lack of emotional intelligence among members.
Facing these kinds of challenges is difficult, though certainly doable with the right help. Typical off-the-shelf team building solutions rarely address the heart of what’s wrong nor give individuals the skills they need (including the team leader) to fare well on their own. They may provide temporary cheerleading relief but rarely address the long-term issues.
Teams need effective leadership to get to a high-performance stage. It’s a team leader’s job to create the conditions for teams to be successful. These include:
- Establishing structure — clear direction, objectives, decision-making, meeting processes and team member roles.
- Establishing effective team norms (how we will solve problems, communicate openly, honestly and constructively with each other).
- Setting a team emotional tone and environment to maximize collaboration and creativity and to ensure the team benefits from the talents of each member.
Team leaders need skills to work with (not against) competing interests, approaches and varying individual motivations. The most effective team leaders balance their time and attention between a) the task demands of the team and b) facilitating team processes (making continuous adjustments) to work better together (enhancing trust and camaraderie).
The best team leaders pay close attention to what is going on interpersonally and emotionally in their teams. They clarify for team members how their behaviors are affecting others (helping them to increase self-awareness) and support them in minimizing unproductive habits that hinder team performance. For example, if Joe has been interrupting Sharon repeatedly during meetings, the leader may note this and remind Joe that the rest of the team might benefit from hearing Sharon’s idea.
If you are a frustrated team leader, it may be time to call in expert help. There are resources to a) grow your skills in leading teams effectively and b) provide facilitation and coaching expertise to lead team sessions more productively and collaboratively.