SEPTEMBER 13, 2010

To go fast, go alone…..To go far, go together.

African proverb

Let me start by stating the obvious. No one person can operate a business alone. It takes people. It takes teamwork.

And knowing that we need each other makes TEAMING so much easier, right?

Not so fast. In fact, sometimes not fast at all. There are times when working in a team does nothing but slow things down, complicate the process and cause a lot of irritation. And if you’re leading the bumbling team or initiative who gets the blame? You.

On the flip side, a strong team that works well together can achieve results that far exceed a project’s initial objectives. And it can be incredibly rewarding and yes, even fun, to be on or contribute to a great team.

Minimally, then, working through others is a way to get MORE done…but excellence at the TEAMING is really about BETTER:

  • Reaching BETTER (smarter, broader) goals that can ONLY be accomplished by working with and through others
  • Achieving goals in BETTER ways (i.e., that are ultimately and sustainably smarter, cheaper, faster for the system and not just that one moment of execution)
  • All the while, providing an uplifting and positive experience that makes individuals and the group BETTER through the process

All this “better” isn’t easy. In fact, it’s pretty hard. I know this because smart people with solid skills and good intentions have been calling me for years to help start, fix, or level up their teams.

Here’s what I see as the two biggest things that make teaming hard (at work, as well as home):

1. People are different

2. We want to go fast

Let me say something (quickly of course) about each. Conceptually, most of us LOVE difference—variety is the spice of life and all that. And it can be so fulfilling to get through a difficult business conversation with key stakeholders and see a room of smiling, nodding heads looking back. But under more stressful conditions, difference can be inconvenient and annoying. For example, how does it feel when you finish your spiel and look out at the sea of faces and observe: eyes rolling; people tapping on their Blackberry’s; concerns being raised about the logo on page 1. ‘Ugh’ would describe my reaction. Simply put, when ‘different’ people agree quickly or easily with us, that’s ideal. But more typically, achieving common ground through a veritable forest of different ideas, communication styles, priorities, languages etc—that’s where the skill and commitment to teaming comes into play.

And then there’s the speed thing. Let me say it this way: In a 21st century business, we need to go both FAR and FAST (ish). There is no foreseeable time in the future of the global marketplace that ‘fast’ will become irrelevant to consumers or to the organizations that serve them. Speed, along with quality and cost-effectiveness, is here to stay. So while very few things in business are instantaneous, none can be ‘slow’ for either the consumer or as compared to the competition.

Therefore, these two challenges to teaming represent ETERNAL TRUTHS (i.e. not temporary conditions). But despair not. There is wisdom and guidance to share. Both of the above facts (people are different and the speed thing) are manageable and “leverage-able” depending on how smart we become about teaming.

Here are my teaming recommendations for leaders:

1. Develop and demonstrate a “teamwork” mindset

2. Know and leverage tools and routines that set you (and your teams) up for success

3. Know when to “go slower” to “become faster”

4. Get help when a team is stalled, stuck, or derailing

Let’s spend some time talking about each.

Recommendation #1: Develop and Demonstrate a Teamwork Mindset

There may be no “I” in “team,” but the journey to becoming a better team leader or member starts with you – more specifically, in your own head. Think of teaming as a decision/commitment that we have to make and remake. It is not an optional style of working, conditional upon the ‘other person’ being nice or easy to convince. There are certainly right times to work alone or limit inclusion. But I see many more under-leveraged opportunities to work together better for greater outcomes, with and without formal team responsibilities.

First step then: Take individual responsibility for developing and demonstrating the right mindset. A good place to start is understanding what great teamwork is NOT:

  • It’s not asking for input (while doing what we want to do anyway)
  • It’s not telling people what they need or have to do (but oh, so nicely)
  • It’s not the mere fact that you work for me (and thus you’re on my team and increasing my productivity)

Teamwork requires caring about (and investing smartly in) the possibilities of the team over one person (ie, the leader’s) individual agenda or needs. Here are some recommended actions associated with TEAMING that all represent individual choices across varying work conditions, independent of the actions and attitudes of others.

For example:

  • Consistently involving others (versus when there’s an extra hour in my day or as a device to lower resistance to change while planning to do what I want anyway)
  • Proactively sharing ‘inside information’ (well before I’m required or asked)
  • Inviting/building upon the diverse ideas (rather than leaping on the first pause in the conversation to explain in great detail how my way is better)

Be sure you can envision for yourself what exceptional results and great teaming should look like in real terms relative to your current roles, projects or upcoming interactions. Take a moment to identify the types of behaviors you want to exhibit more of – or less of – to help realize that vision.

Recommendation #2: Know and Leverage Structures/Tools/ Routines that Set You (and Your Teams) Up for Success

Even with the right mindset, strong teams or teaming won’t just happen. They have to be built, managed and sustained. The good news is that there are known practices that can help us lead and leverage each other better, faster, cheaper. You just have to find what works for you. It’s a fairly simple process: Learn (about a tool or practice)… test (one thing at a time)… evaluate (what happened)… improve (skill, execution, consistency)… repeat (the same cycle with another tool or practice).

At a minimum, and I am unwavering on this recommendation, every team needs a framework for strategizing and executing ‘people’ interactions. By ‘framework’, I mean a shared language for how people approach work and communicate differently independent of culture,ethnicity, tenure, role priorities. (The INSIGHTS DISCOVERY PROFILE is my favorite but there are others, such as Myers Briggs, etc.) By taking your team through one of these processes early on, you can help people understand the style differences (versus substance or strategy disagreements) at the root of many of the issues that arise for teams – or at least provide a shared language with which to understand, surface, discuss, and leverage work style differences. (We NEED differences in ideas; but we don’t’ want the inevitable differences in individual/leadership/group styles to stifle great ideas being fostered, shared or heard…. ever)

In addition to this shared language, teams require common goals, processes and structures to enable interaction and communication. Below are some key structure areas that should be addressed by any team and some questions to consider for each:

Recommendation #3: Know When to “Go Slower” to “Become Faster”

I said before that one of the biggest reasons we find teaming hard is because we want to go fast. And in many cases, the steps needed to create and sustain a strong team don’t “feel” fast – for example, taking the time to create a team charter or using processes like INSIGHTS to develop a shared language. This kind of activity can feel incredibly slow when all you want to do is take action that will create results. But without these steps, confusion, misunderstanding and conflict can create patterns of dysfunction if bring the project to a screeching halt.

Another time when “going slower” to “become faster” makes sense is when issues and conflict arise. Here’s a newsflash: Human beings are not merely logical, rational entities. We are also emotional beings. In fact, there are many instances when people who work together behave more emotionally than logically. As an example, people don’t always share their honest opinions with each other, even when asked. But they might tell a slew of uninvolved people who didn’t even ask or who don’t have a direct investment in that information. Like at dinner later.

On the face of it, this behavior makes no logical sense because it would be more effective and efficient for professional adults to surface and resolve problems with the parties directly involved as soon as possible. As we all know in business, time is money. But suppressing issues that trouble us or opting to tell those not involved with the problem is a frequent phenomenon in organizational life.

Why does this happen? First, we bring varying levels of emotional “intelligence” or maturity to our work tasks. Some of us are more comfortable and skilled in having potentially difficult conversations because we learned how to do that early in our lives and have been successfully reinforced to continue with those practices.

Second, environmental stressors (e.g. deadlines) are at play and can trigger unplanned behavior or outcomes that are more emotionally fueled than logically defensible. For example, when workload increases, many people struggle more to prioritize. They gravitate towards easier, but lower priority tasks, like answering voicemail or email versus saying “no” to small requests or disappointing non-priority customers versus concentrating only on key commitments that carry the most organizational significance. Engaging in less important activities under pressure is more an emotional coping response to the pressure, not a logical, pre-planned strategy.

The most successful posture all adults can assume at work is the following: Take 100% responsibility for your 50% of the relationship. Regardless of how easy or hard the other parties make teaming, you (and the work) will be best served if you:

  • Say what you really think and feel (directly and respectfully)
  • Call out the hard choices and tradeoffs when you see them
  • Provide the same levels of reliability, mutuality and predictability you want from others
  • Whenever possible, help people learn/get something beyond what they asked for

Recommendation #4: Get Help with a Team if Stalled, Stuck or Derailing

One of the hardest things you will ever do as a leader is to ask for help. But it is also a critical component of excellence at this competency. How do you know when it’s time to get help? There’s no single team disease or list of universal symptoms to disclose, but here are some signs to look for:

  • Low trust among members or with the leader
  • Unproductive, non-existent, or misdirected conflict
  • Repeatedly ambiguous or conflicting accountabilities
  • Painfully boring or poorly attended meetings
  • Ineffectively excessive or minimal communication
  • Growing client dissatisfaction
  • Low or decreasing business impact

No need for despair if and when any of this happens. In most instances, there are ways to turn the situation around and time to do it. The following are types of business interventions that can help:

  • Reaching out for a new lens on the situation. Engage an “outside” advisor (i.e., someone who can be objective about the situation. He/she could be from outside the team/ function/department, if not the company. Find someone who has a track record of helping teams improve and stay improved.
  • Collecting data on the situation from multiple perspectives. No one person sees a “whole” picture. The advisor should collect information from the team’s leaders, members, partners and/or clients to see and understand the current opportunities.
  • Committing to a diagnosis as to where is the biggest “broke” or the one most relevant to actual business and relational commitments. Few elements of a team (like a family) are ever perfect, so figuring out where to focus for the greatest return is key. As I often say, “if it’s everything, it’s nothing.”
  • Agreeing on what we will all do differently (the team prescription). Collective behavior, not just intentions, must change if the team is to function better. “If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got.” Note that deciding what’s not good enough (diagnosis) and then what to do about it (prescription) are separate steps but they both require alignment with the logic and the decisions. Everyone should be adjusting something in pre-determined and mutually supported ways. Although it sometimes feels this way, the problem is never one person or project, but rather a team dynamic that can be altered. Don’t give up until the sub-optimal patterns of behavior are revealed and re-invented. Team issues are not the same as individual performance issues.
  • Hitting the reset button, together. A designated team-building session can be a very productive way to launch new commitments and thus, a new and better team chapter. Watch out, though, for the tendency to focus more on where to have the group dinner as opposed to how the targeted changes in behavior will be sustained when it gets hard…and it will get hard. Most team challenges result from good people behaving less than effectively (aka, badly) under real or perceived pressures – and as we know, pressures are part of the job.

The Bottom Line: To excel in today’s business world, we must be more than great individual contributors. We must be good at TEAMING which means we know how to produce better results by smartly, constructively, and efficiently leveraging others (and not just when it’s easy or required). Teaming takes the right mindset, the right structures and the right actions when things are going well, even if it means asking for help.


Laurie Anderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience as an executive coach to leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies to the World Bank. Visit or call 1-708-524-2444 for more information on Laurie’s services for individuals, groups, and organizations.

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