We’re great friends but a terrible team! How do we change that dynamic?

“I work with a great group of people, however, as a team we suck! We just can’t seem to work well together, something which is out of sync with our individual drives to succeed.”

Being part of a team can be a joyful experience or a painful one, our experiences are rarely neutral. We are thrown together, told to play nice and perform well often without the team skills and agreements to do so.

We are fortunate to live in an age where researchers have studied teams extensively over many decades and found consistency in what makes a team successful and what makes a team a disaster. This provides insight, learning and opportunity to leverage our own teams’ success from the findings.

In Managing Teams by the Harvard Management Update Collection Judith A. Ross says ‘the key is how teams are managed and what support the organisation they work for provide’. The article also stresses the importance of teams being trained in team skills; listening, communicating with different types of people and staying focused on the tasks.

When we look at teams traditionally the focus is often on the individuals who make up the team, diagnostics are run on individuals, the information is then collated to provide an insight into who we have in the team and how that influences the team.

When I work with teams who strive to be high performing we look at competencies that will have them operate as a ‘high/high’ team (high performing/high positivity). I ask the team to shift their focus from the individuals in the team on to the team as a system in its own right; to focus on what the system (team) needs to succeed.

For example, often in a team process conflict may unfold between two individuals, often in these situations facilitators will draw out the issues. For example, ‘Harry/Georgia there appears to be an issue here, what’s that about?’

In a team process where the team is viewed as a system we have a different approach. ‘Harry/Georgia, can you pause for a moment. Team, what impact is this dynamic having on the team?’

When this happens, the two individuals receive feedback from the team about the impact their conflict is having on the team. Feedback often includes: loss of focus at meetings, derailing meetings, discomfort at feeling they have to take sides, annoyance on the part of peers, silos created, etc.

I then go back to Harry and Georgia and say: “I can see that there is an important conversation that you both need to have, can the team rely on you to resolve this, and if you are struggling to do this, then please come back to me and I will help.”

The message we are giving them is that their personal issues with each other doesn’t belong in the team space, it is impacting the team productivity and culture and they are responsible (and the team will hold them accountable) for resolving this. However, we acknowledge that there is an issue and if they are not able to resolve it (which they usually do) there is support available to do so.

Another way I explain this is:

A couple were experiencing conflict in their relationship due to each feeling that the other was not supporting them. They each held firmly to their position and views on the situation and were fighting their corner; with lots of ‘you did this, you didn’t do this’, which was not helpful or moving them forward. They were focused on their grievances and how the other had wronged them in their eyes. The couple were directed to a relationship coaching model where they were not the clients, the relationship was. When the question was asked, what does the relationship need? They both blurted: sleep and tolerance.

Whilst tolerance felt like a stretch in that moment, just knowing it was needed and acknowledged resulted in making them more tolerant towards each other. To address the sleep issue, one of the pair offered to do a roster for sleep, which was helpful and provided the structure and agreement needed.

They were able to move forward. Within a few days harmony was restored.

This is the same philosophy in the team process. Focus on what the team needs. It removes blame, firmly puts the focus on what the team needs to move forward and shifts the focus away from individual conflicts.

You mention that you work with great individuals, connect with what makes them great? Where are you aligned? And what are the strengths you all bring?

Now shift your focus as a team to what the team needs. What gets in the way for this team that stops you working well together?

How well do you function as a team with regards to:

  • Accountability
  • Decision-making
  • Alignment
  • Communication
  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Constructive interaction

I use the TCI team diagnostic assessment tool when beginning a team process with a team to measure both productivity and positivity.

It’s important to measure where a team is at, so you have a baseline to measure success and can create a roadmap of where you want to get to. This also highlights areas that the team need support in. For example, if the team is struggling to make decisions or to have constructive interaction, a skills training session on these specific areas will assist the team to build both competence and confidence in these areas.

Follow-up team coaching embeds this skill into the day-to-day operating of the team and provides an opportunity to discuss where the team is moving forward and improving and where they are getting stuck. This helps to create sustainable results for the team.

In the same way a business owner needs to step back from day-to-day work and work on strategy, a team benefits hugely from stepping back and taking time to work on the team rather than in the team.

In a nutshell, teams benefit from support and training in teamwork and by having an independent and trusted advisor observing how it operates.

Ask someone in your business who does not work in the team to sit in on a few of your team meetings and provide honest and direct feedback about how you operate as a team. This will give you tangible areas to begin an honest conversation about what’s needed to move forward and to identify areas of skills training.

Make working on the team a part of your team’s priorities so that no matter what comes your way you will be team fit to deal with it.

Pollyanna Lenkic is the founder of Perspectives Coaching, an Australian-based coaching and training company.

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