Features of effective teams
What characterizes effective teams?
Frank LaFasto and Carl Larson have written extensively about working in teams. In their book, When Teams Work Best, they survey 15,000 team members about what effective teamwork looks like. This reading, taken from their book considers ‘What Makes a Good Team Member?’ They look at four key personal qualities that underpin high-performing teams:
- Action - orientation
- Positive personal style.
Nature shows how teamwork and collaboration leads to success.
Activity 1: What makes a good team member?
- Use the Jigsaw a document or book protocol to read this think piece as a leadership group. Split your team into four with each group studying one of the four personal qualities that underpin high-performing teams.
- Consider teams in your school as you read the following think piece.
- Each group should report back to the whole team on the section of the think piece they have been exploring. In each case highlight those messages that resonated most with you? Share them in your group.
Four features of highly effective teams
As much as team members value experience and problem solving ability, they recognise that social competencies are essential for effective teamwork. More specifically, there are four ‘teamwork factors’ that determine whether or not an otherwise competent and knowledgeable group of individuals will be successful in working together to achieve their common goal: openness, supportiveness, an action orientation, and a positive personal style.
1. Openness: The basic ingredient for team success
“Be less defensive and more open to input from others."
When team members describe those teammates who contribute most to attaining the team’s goal, the characteristic that shows up most frequently is a pattern of behavior we call ‘openness’. Team members who are open are willing to deal with problems, surface issues that need to be discussed, help create an environment where people are free to say what’s on their minds, and promote an open exchange of ideas. These team members tend to be effective communicators, helping to create a climate in which communication flourishes and is used effectively to resolve whatever problems the team confronts, to improve the team’s performance.
The observations made by team members regarding the openness of their teammates focus on the ability to raise issues, offer a point of view, and be open to new ways of thinking.
Conversely, those team members who are not seen as open make it difficult to talk about the issues.
People who are closed need:
It may seem obvious that members of a team need to be able to talk with each other about how the team is functioning, how well the team is performing, who needs help, who sees problems coming that need to be addressed, and what they can do to improve their performance. Yet, whereas openness is the single most important feature of successful teamwork and collaboration, the very simplicity of the idea makes it easy to overlook or dismiss.
So what’s the problem?
For high-quality, lasting relationships, communication is important. For people to work well with each other on teams, they need to be able to talk things over. So what’s the problem? Don’t teams, in general, do a pretty good job of talking things over? The answer is absolutely not.
One of our databases provided responses from more than 5,000 team members to this question: “If you could discuss one issue in an open way, involving the team in discussion, what would that issue be?” The overwhelming response from team members involved was the team’s communication. Team members didn’t trust each other to disclose the kind of information that was needed to solve the team’s problems. In some cases, individuals were pursuing their own agendas rather than the team’s goal – but no one was willing to deal with the problem. In other cases, the team leader’s behavior was so degrading and alienating that the members of the team had become incapable of action. In still other cases, there was a performance problem with someone on the team and everyone knew it – but the leader wasn’t doing anything about it and no one wanted to deal with the problem.
Problems of openness take thousands of different forms, but responses from team members point to some common themes. Here are the six categories of responses that occurred most frequently when team members were asked to identify one issue that they wished their team could discuss in an open way.
1.The communication climate
When we consult with or coach a team, one of the first things we assess is the team’s communication climate. If people are inhibited, afraid to say what’s on their minds, guarded, or generally apprehensive about talking openly with each other, then the team is likely to function at a level below its capability. Even worse, the team probably does not have the kinds of internal processes and emotional energy that will ultimately allow it to meet and overcome serious obstacles. Often fuelled by low trust levels, the team is insecure or fearful about talking openly. Critical problems don’t get discussed. People are inhibited about saying what’s on their minds. Personal agendas fragment the team. Team meetings usually turn into fault-finding sessions.
Team members are concerned about the quality of the product or outcome they are producing. Or they are unsure about what is happening with the outcomes, how their products are working, or what is being accomplished. Early warning signals are being ignored. The team’s effort is being diluted by too many priorities.
3. Policies and bureaucracy
Organizational structure or politics are seen as deterrents to effective teamwork. Too many decision-making levels prohibit quick responses to problems. Territorial battles eat up time and energy. ‘We versus they’ attitudes interfere with key relationships between the team and other groups. Organisational politics become higher priorities than the team’s performance objectives.
Priorities are unclear or constantly changing. Goal setting and designing strategies to meet goals don’t happen. The team is reactive rather than proactive. Forward-looking plans to meet problems, budgets,or scheduling are rare. Information is not shared in a timely manner.
Who does what? What is my role? What roles do other team members play? The lack of clarity appears in roles of self, of others, and often of the entire team as it relates to a broader objective. How the roles fit together and who deals with what kinds of problems are other issues in this category
Someone is not performing well or is keeping the team from succeeding. Or people are denying their individual responsibility or accountability. Often the problem is seen clearly by everyone, including the team leader, but no one is dealing with it. Sometimes the problem involves the entire team’s performance, but it is not talked about openly.
The passive conspiracy
Often, teams engage in a passive conspiracy to avoid confronting the root cause of their dysfunction. By ‘conspiracy’ we do not mean to imply that something overtly heinous is going on. Instead, an implicit and unspoken agreement emerges as a norm for the group. The implicit agreement may be to accept a condition as it is rather than to talk about it openly and address it directly. Even if the condition is one that affects the team’s performance in a major way, ways are found around the problem.
There is some research that suggests that problems in organizations are seldom approached in a problem-solving or collaborative manner. Other ways of handling the problem predominate. People ignore the problem. Or they create activities and structures that maintain the illusion that the problem is being addressed. Or they accommodate by simply giving in to the conditions and avoiding them whenever possible. Or they use the problem as a justification for adopting forcing strategies, attempting to impose some principle of power or position on each other.
We are amazed at the number of times we have encountered teams that operate under oppressive or stifling communication climates. Even more disturbing is the fact that when we’ve asked team members how long these conditions have been present, the response often translates roughly into “a very long time.” The adjustments have been made, accommodations have been reached.The passive conspiracy is in place.
The conspiracy is not an intellectual one. Once, when working with a space exploration team that included some of the most competent scientists in the world, we were compelled to comment, “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that there’s a problem here we need to talk about.” Well, these were rocket scientists. Confronted by a science or engineering problem, they exhibited impressive abilities to identify the nature and dimensions of the problem; to locate sources of information to resolve critical issues associated with the problem; to identify people in the group who have had experience dealing with similar problems; to outline a variety of potential approaches for dealing with the problem; and so on. But if the problem involved humans rather than hardware, they were lost. As one team member commented: “He is less comfortable dealing with people issues than with technical issues.”
Most problems that impair the performance of teams do not require superior or even above-average intelligence to solve.It’s noteworthy that not once in our entire database is intelligence mentioned as a barrier to team success. The most complex problems besetting teams are rarely problems of intellect. Rather, they are problems involving emotions, attitudes, values, personal styles, and preferences.
For these reasons and many more that we will explore later, the basic ingredient for team success is openness. Individuals who are capable of managing their egos, surfacing problems, and creating a safe environment in which these problems can be addressed and solved give teams the basic competence they need to succeed. If, in addition to openness, the team also has members who exhibit the other three framework factors – supportiveness, action orientation, and positive personal style – then the team has the resources it needs to achieve unusual outcomes.
The second teamwork factor that people see in effective team members is one that we have labeled ‘supportiveness’. Although supportiveness can take many forms, at the core is a desire and willingness to help others succeed. Sometimes this means encouraging someone whose confidence is wavering. Sometimes it means placing a charitable interpretation on people’s difficulties when they are trying but struggling. Sometimes it means figuring out how to help someone overcome an obstacle rather than taking advantage of a momentary failure. Sometimes it means defending someone who is being attacked. It always means putting the team’s goal above any individual agenda, being easy to work with, and demonstrating a willingness to help others achieve. Whatever the specific behaviors, people who are seen as supportive are clearly interested in doing what needs to be done, in making whatever contributions they can so that the team succeeds. Team members characterize this strength in a variety of ways.
By way of contrast, the non-supportive team member is seen as focusing on ‘me’ versus ‘we’, often achieving objectives at the expense of others and usually appearing disinterested or insensitive to the concerns of other team members.
It is important here to be clear about what supportiveness does not mean. Being a supportive team member is not about being a passive player who keeps his or her mouth shut, doesn’t rock the boat, doesn’t embarrass others by disagreeing with them, and doesn’t make the team uncomfortable by suggesting that it could do better than it is presently doing. In short, the conventional notion of ‘team player’ is not what we are talking about.
Supportiveness implies a much more active approach to the team in what it is trying to accomplish. Estimates vary, but we tend to agree with scholars who have argued or demonstrated that most of the significant work of a group is done by about a third of its members. Many people recruited onto teams are ‘social loafers’, relatively passive members who let others do the heavy lifting. So the concept of team player often conjures up an unobtrusive person who goes along with whatever the majority wants. This notion of team player is not even close to what team members tell us is the behaviour of team members who contribute most to the team’s success.
Supportiveness on the team also implies some degree of warmth or caring for each other.Warmth, affection, liking, and friendship are properties that are much more likely to be found in good teams than in poor ones.There is some recent evidence that old- fashioned notions about keeping friendship out of the workplace are ill-informed and extremely misguided. In fact, friendships tend to move working relationships in the direction of higher quality and more productivity in work outcomes.
Supportiveness and openness together
Combining supportiveness with openness produces a cumulative effect that characterizes the most successful teams. The combination is key, because openness can go in either of two basic directions. We can use openness as an excuse for being caustic, insulting, psychologically cold and distant. In the name of honesty we can verbally slap each other around. We can obtain revenge for real or imagined past grievances. We can get even. So one way of being open is: “You want a little openness? I hope you can handle it. Are you ready? Here it comes”. This combination – open and cold – can be destructive. The principle of openness implies that it is better to talk things over. The principle of supportiveness implies that it makes a great deal of difference how you talk things over.
The combination of openness and supportiveness takes the team in an entirely different direction. If team members can surface and discuss issues, that means things are likely to get better. And if the climate within which these discussions occur is a supportive one, then the positive attitudes and the emotional energies required to sustain the collaborative effort through periods of frustration will be available to the team when it needs them. When we observe a team that is both open and supportive, we are very optimistic about the team’s ability to handle any problems that come along.
3. Action orientation
The third teamwork factor that characterises team members who are seen as contributing to their team’s success is an action orientation. Not surprisingly, Bennis and Nanus found the same characteristic in their research on successful leaders. Being action orientated means having a tendency to act, to do something. It also means encouraging others to take action. It means being willing to prod, to suggest courses of action, to be willing to experiment, to try something different.
Team members describe a distinct difference between an action orientation – a deliberate effort to make something happen – and a passive approach that favours waiting and hoping that others will do something about the problem or opportunity at hand.
This is not routine action we are talking about. This is not the everyday, taking care of business kind of behaviour. An action orientation falls more in the category of leadership, whether provided by a formally designated leader, or by a member of the team. This is action that overcomes obstacles, breaks through barriers, and deals effectively with nagging problems.
Effective teams take action
A couple of examples might help to illustrate the kind of action orientation that promotes team success. The first involves a ‘helpless’ team in a tradition-driven, conservative financial organisation. By ‘helpless’ we mean a team that believes there is nothing it can do to significantly affect the condition under which it is operating. Team members believe this is the way it is; it’s always been this way; it’s always going to be this way; and there is nothing they can do about it. Whatever the problem is that’s keeping them from functioning more effectively, it’s outside of their range of control. When this happens to a team that is responsible for modifying and updating the entire product line for a financial services corporation, the future success of the company is seriously threatened.
This particular team was immobilised even further by the lack of a leader. Six weeks earlier their leader was moved to another position in the organisation, and they were still without formal leadership. The team performed a very important function for the organisation, and the importance of the team had contributed to the delay in designating a new leader.
In a very short time we saw this team turn around simply by ‘doing something’.Team members identified the leadership roles that would be required for the team to succeed.They assigned individuals to these leadership functions. They wrote a job description for the team leader’s position. They created a set of criteria to be employed in deciding who should fill the team leader position. They created a slate of candidates for the position. And they took everything to top management. Top management loved it. The moral is that the question with a helpless team is never “Are we doing the right thing?” The question is “Are we doing anything at all?”
The second example involves an ‘entrenched’ team – a completely different animal. An entrenched team is one that usually performs well, even significantly above average. It’s likely to have fairly confident people on it, often professionals or technically skilled people. Members of the team recognise that it’s an above average team. They begin attributing special status to the team and to themselves. They are good and they know it. They develop special relationships with each other, usually extending outside of the workplace. The down side is that their special relationships make them very close-knit, and they begin turning inward, ultimately isolating themselves from other teams or units in the same organisation. They spend a lot of time complaining about the other individuals and units with which they connect. They start attributing blame for whatever difficulties they encounter to people outside the team.
We encountered an entrenched team whose relationships with other teams and units in the organisation had completely eroded. Even some important relationships between the organisation and its clients, and its relationship with other important organisations, had suffered to the point where the effectiveness of the organisation, and its success, were jeopardised. We saw this team, led by a small core of its members, raise the problem constructively; develop a collective understanding of what happened and how it happened; and create a systematic program for acknowledging their own failures and for constructively re-building the team’s relationships with other groups and teams.Of course, this kind of change will not occur unless someone surfaces the problem.Someone has to be willing to say “I see something happening that I think is keeping us from being as good as we can be.” Once the situation is described, the team must develop a shared understanding of the situation, including how serious it is, and then decide what to do about it.
4. Positive personal style
The fourth teamwork factor that characterizes effective team members is a positive personal style. As social scientists have known for a long time, there is a fundamental difference among people in terms of whether they convey a positive or negative attitude. Team members, too, are quick to notice that some people are energetic, optimistic, engaging, confident, and fun to work with.
Others are cynical, defensive, hard- to-work-with whiners, who throw cold water on the noblest and most worthwhile of human impulses. It doesn’t take more than one or two people with negative styles to seriously depress the emotional energy of a group or team. Cynicism, like a disease, constantly spreads, seeking new receptive hosts. The attitude and the behaviour associated with it are contagious.
People with negative styles need to:
Almost all the social sciences have recognized that behavior is contagious. This principle operates by different names in different disciplines. It has been called ‘the interpersonal reflex’, the ‘dyadic effect’,the ‘norm of reciprocity’, and ‘the lock-in effect’, to name just a few. Although not always true, it is far more likely than not that people will treat you the same way you treat them.Smiles beget smiles; complaints provoke complaints; personal disclosures lead to further disclosure; and cynicism spreads faster than a cold.
How optimistic or cynical the climate of the team is greatly affects the first three behaviors of effective group members – openness, supportiveness, and action orientation.And that climate can be shaped and sustained by a very small minority of members.
The problems posed by differences in the personal styles of the team members are complex and difficult. The issue involves what is often called ‘differentiation’ versus ‘integration’. Basically, the dilemma posed is whether we should celebrate individuals’ differences so that everyone can feel comfortable with themselves the way they are, or whether we should pressure or require people to behave in ways more likely to promote collective success.
The fundamental choice goes back to the team’s objective. If the team’s objective is relatively trivial and the consequences associated with success or failure are relatively minor, then differentiation is certainly the way to go. Let everybody behave the way they want to behave, because people are pretty good at protecting themselves if the process becomes unduly painful. However, if the objective is vital and there are important consequences associated with success or failure, then some degree of integration is usually necessary. In particular, if cynical attitudes are draining off the emotional energy of the team, they must be dealt with.Abridged extract from LaFasto, F & Larson, C, by NCSL
Activity 2: Reflection on our teams
When you have read the whole think piece as a group reflect on the following questions:
- Which of the four qualities are particularly strong in teams in your school? Why?
- Which of the qualities would, if developed, help to improve the effectiveness of your own leadership team, and teams within your school?
- If you wish to access an overview of 'When Teams Work Best' click here.