Friday, July 10, 2009

Eight Tips For Building High Performing Teams

When I was in high school, I was on the softball team. We weren't very good; in fact, we only won a couple games a season. But we had a great time, encouraged each other, and were supportive. There was definitely a sense of positivity on the team. However, we also had a goal of winning games, and that wasn't happening.

Teams exist to produce results. Having a positive team environment without results isn't productive. Likewise, a team that is results driven but at the expense of positivity won't be optimally effective. Positivity doesn't mean everyone agrees and gets along all the time. There needs to be constructive conflict.

But the most effective relationships have more positivity than negativity. Teams that have an absence of trust, fear of conflict, and lack of commitment usually don't produce the best results. High-performing teams are both productive and positive.

This article provides eight tips for building positivity in teams. My work with teams in organizations has revealed that even the most dysfunctional teams can develop into a high-performing team with the right commitment and with team coaching.

How many of you have been on a high-performing team? I bet most of us can remember the negative team experiences before the good ones. And it may be because high-performing teams are not as common. In his research, John Gottman has identified four toxic communication styles in relationships and teams that corrode the team over time:

* Blame and/or Criticism: attacking the person rather than the behavior.
* Defensiveness: reacting negatively when being challenged.
* Stonewalling: includes cutting off communication, silent treatment, refusal to engage, withdrawal.
* Contempt: includes sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, name calling, and hostile humor.

The steady use of these toxins day in and day out is destructive to teams and relationships. These toxins can destroy a team and the individual relationships on them. These toxins are very overt; and if present they eat away at the team. But there are also less overt ways that teams are ineffective. Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas.

Think about the teams you are on in your organization. Is there a feeling of openness, where everyone can share ideas or perspectives without being criticized? Is there an elephant in the room that no one is acknowledging? Or maybe everyone goes along with the boss out of fear? Building a high-performance team does not happen overnight, but there are some strategies that can have an immediate impact.

Below are eight tips for promoting positivity in teams:

1. Understand the inspiring vision. Many teams aren't clear what their purpose is as a team. Taking time to understand and articulate this will ensure everyone is on the same page. For an executive team, this may be articulating what their role is in carrying out the organization's vision and mission.

2. Design a team contract. Coming up with operating principles allows the team to get the dialogue going about the culture they want on the team. What will make the team flourish? How will the team members be together when it gets difficult? What specific behaviors are encouraged? What behaviors will not be tolerated? Having this dialogue sets the stage for honesty and constructive conflict in teams. If the team agrees to listen to different perspectives around issues, individuals will be more likely to speak up.

3. Define roles and responsibilities. Define what each team member is responsible for. Often conflict or confusion on teams is a result of the individuals not knowing what is expected of them on the team. What is the purpose of the team? What is each team member responsible for? Another technique is to assign specific roles such as "devil's advocate" to team members. This ensures the team is looking at different perspectives and sets the stage for constructive debate.

4. Personal history exercise. Develop a set of personal questions that can be asked of each team member. The questions don't need to be too sensitive, but geared more toward getting to know each other. For example, "what's one of your favorite activities?" or "what was your first job?". These questions allow you to get to know each other on a more personal level. I know a team that starts off each executive meeting by asking one question like this.

5. Hold an off-site retreat. We often get so caught up in the day to day business that teams don't set aside time to set clear goals or to simply build the foundation of the team. Schedule a one or two day offsite retreat to focus on building the relationships on the team. This might be with team exercises or personality inventories like Myers-Briggs.

6. Real time permission. Author Patrick Lencioni suggests that in the process of constructive conflict, that team members coach each other to not retreat from healthy debate. When the people engaged in conflict are becoming uncomfortable with the level of discord, interrupt them to remind them what they are doing is necessary. This encourages healthy debate.

7. Build individual relationships. Encourage team members to build their relationships outside of the team setting. Schedule lunches or coffee meetings to get to know each other and share experiences.

8. Define an accountability structure. At the end of each meeting, review what decisions have been made and assign clear deadlines for milestones. Have one person publish the agreed upon actions and send it out to the team members. Check in at the beginning of each meeting for progress. This sets the tone for accountability and increases the chance of goals being met.

By Laurie Maddalena

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