Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions, explores how to create and hold onto good teamwork
Good teamwork is one of the foundations upon which successful organisations rest and thrive. But virtually all of us will experience the discomfort of being part of a dysfunctional team at some stage during our working lives.
It is far more common than it should be. We’ve worked with hundreds of professional teams across dozens of sectors over the last 10 years, and seen every variation in dynamics from open, honest and productive to tense, dictatorial or obstructive.
Last year saw a whole series of organisations and whole sectors come under fire for their ‘toxic’ working environments. Westminster, the NHS, and the legal, tech, hospitality, finance and charity sectors have all been lambasted for poor working cultures.
Where teams do not work well together, this has a knock-on effect on staff wellbeing, performance and efficiency and therefore ultimately on their organisation’s success. It is in the interests of all business leaders and senior managers to ensure they are fostering a team environment in which their staff can thrive.
Dissatisfaction, stress and other negative emotions in a workplace can quickly become contagious, impacting the way colleagues treat one another and leading to very poor decision making – issues need tackling as early as possible.
How to recognise a ‘dysfunctional’ team
For a team to function well, everyone needs to feel welcome, supported and valued, and able to openly share their views. They need a clear set of shared goals, agreed measures and mutual accountability.
When this is the case, we tend to see a friendly relaxed atmosphere in which everyone contributes and is listened to.
There are many reasons why a team might fail to function well, but these usually include five key problems: an absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and/or inattention to results, as identified by Patrick Lencioni in his 2002 work The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
These five problems might be expressed in different ways:
- One individual dominating all conversation and hijacking other people’s attempts to speak
- All team talk remaining at a very superficial level, never addressing more serious issues
- Everyone acceding to one person’s opinions without challenge or discussion
- Team members ganging up on one colleague
- Teams in which some people appear relaxed and chatty while others are tense and silent
Why is this so damaging to staff and business performance?
Decades of research have shown that, for humans to fulfil their potential, they need to first ensure their more basic needs are met.
According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943), these start with rudimentary physiological survival needs, such as food and water, a need for safety and belonging, followed by self-esteem, and thereafter self-actualisation.
This makes sense. If people are busy trying to survive, they cannot focus on less immediate challenges higher up the ladder. If someone threatens our sense of belonging, or our self-esteem, we feel unsafe, and this will inhibit our performance.
Situations that might trigger our “survival and safety alarm responses” include a colleague or manager being verbally aggressive, our job security being threatened, someone excluding us from our ‘in-group’ or victimising us.
Such behaviour will spark emotional responses such as irritation, anger and anxiety and physical symptoms such as tension, stomach-ache, nausea, headaches, etc. These can in turn prompt conflict behaviours – sharp retorts, raised voices, snide remarks, whispering, avoidance, silence, failure to meet commitments. The situation can quickly escalate.
Trust in particular is a key issue in dysfunctional teams. Fear of conflict means the issues that lead to a lack of trust are not addressed or not addressed effectively.
How to rebuild a happy team
We need to understand what we mean by a ‘healthy team’, so, to borrow from Katzenbach and Smith in The Wisdom of Teams:
“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”
So, the first step to creating a happy functioning team is to find a common shared purpose. Everyone needs to believe in and be invested in this if they are to commit themselves to it.
This can be achieved in a series of small steps, first bringing everyone together, ideally away from their day-to-day workspace, and asking a simple open question:
“What would you each/all like to achieve together?” – ideally adding a time frame.
It is important to reach a consensus.
We would invite everyone to think about great teams they have been part of in the past and what made them work. This helps to define what we should all aim for.
It is also important to consider negative experiences of teams, to clarify what we want to avoid. During this process, stressors and tension points might emerge – often in veiled terms.
It is therefore vital that such discussions are aided and guided by a good impartial facilitator, who can make sure everyone feels supported and gets a fair opportunity to speak.
Where things have gone wrong within a team, our starting point must always be that ‘all behaviour makes sense’, and to seek to understand. We need to find ways to create a safe space for everyone to open up, to share their personal truths.
Of course, this is not a one-stop quick fix. Such a discussion or workshop is the first step in a healing process. And, where there are issues, such a healing process takes time.
The key is to encourage the participation and re-engagement of all staff, at all levels. This will help to build and agree on shared goals, values and processes that will create a happier, more productive workplace for everyone.
By Sylvia Sage, programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions
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