I had a miserable experience recently, when working as part of a delivery team on a client’s Leadership Development programme. My working relationship with a colleague broke down, and this really got me reflecting usefully on the subject of team engagement. I felt as though I started the week being part of a ‘dream team’ but ended up being part of a ‘team from hell’. It was a rare and salutary experience…
Afterwards, I recalled a very provocative conversation from years ago, with Tudor Rickards – Professor of Creativity and Organisational Change at Manchester University Business School. He was challenging my thinking at the time about team functioning. According to Rickards, Standard Teams don’t get past the corporate culture barrier – they are so well integrated that they are invisible and while what they do is OK enough to get by, it is often also not quite enough… Teams from Hell never overcome the human dynamics barriers – their work approach is so far from relational that misery results for everyone who comes in to contact with them. On the other hand, Dream Teams outperform through creatively questioning orthodoxies. In doing so, they have the potential to outperform everyone’s expectations and even to innovate.
So what does it take to transform a Team from Hell in to a Dream Team?
Well, according to Rickards, there seem to be 7 Sins of Teams from Hell:
- A poor platform of shared understanding
- No shared vision of success
- Poor creativity climate
- No ownership of ideas
- Scapegoating and being fatalistic about setbacks
- Poor networking skills
- Don’t learn from experience
As leaders and Organisational Change professionals, we already know that there’s no single solution that encourages teams to engage. Everyone is different, and different teams face unique communication challenges. Consistent team engagement happens when several factors are in place –the 7 Secrets of Dream Teams:
- Psychological safety is high – people really trust and respect one another
- The team works to foster a creative climate where there is interdependence
- The whole team is committed to the same goal and there is ownership of ideas
- Team members have the interpersonal skills and contextual support necessarily to discuss things openly with each other
- Resilience to setbacks is high
- Team members value each other’s contributions and offer positive feedback
- Team members are committed to and accountable for their contribution to the project
As a leader, there’s no way you can constantly control all these factors to maximize engagement. But there are steps you can take to encourage your team to develop these attributes organically. One new possibility is Bias Training…
Bias Training surfaces and sensitises us to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Interestingly, our implicit biases are not accessible through reflection and introspection – the fish cannot see the water it swims in!
Psychological safety is a key to team engagement. If members fear marginalization or discrimination from their peers (or from you), group cohesion is impossible. That’s where bias training comes in. It helps everyone identify underlying thoughts they never realized were discriminatory. Big companies like Microsoft and Google have been offering bias training for years now, and it’s quickly becoming essential for any major business to create harmony in the workplace. You can run your own annual workshops, or outsource the training. Many use Harvard’s Project Implicit survey to help employees and leaders identify their own implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other topics. You can take it yourself here.
While there are scores of team development activities in the market, and no-one disputes the importance of taking time occasionally to invest in building team spirit, leaders also need to participate in the engagement process as well as set standards for both team engagement and goal achievement. But my greatest learning from my experience of part of a ‘Team from Hell’ is how important it is for everyone to feel valued – and how difficult it is to achieve this without shared intent.