How Do You Create Real Teamwork?

Note: Last week I presented how to systematize culture by integrating it into your strategic plan.  All well and good, but what is really needed next is the glue to make this plan stick - a high performing team. Enjoy. As always, you can find all my blog posts from 2013 to the present on my website at http://stevemarshallassociates.com/steves-blog/

The Teamwork Guru
No words or thoughts can ever be written about teamwork without referencing the person that brought it all together and placed the importance of high performing teams front and center - Patrick Lencioni. His work on establishing the underpinnings of high performing teams is a landmark in the world of organizational development. For those who don't know he is, a short and simple introduction.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Patrick Lencioni's theory is shaped as a pyramid, built upon a foundation of real trust - he calls it vulnerability based trust - not the predictive trust most of us know and think as trust. Example = "I trust that you will do a good job." I’ve been on many teams throughout my career and there’s a big difference between a team that trusts each other to take risks and speaks their mind versus a team that trusts each other in terms of predicting behavior.  Having experienced both, I know that vulnerability-based trust is a better model and that comes from shared experience over time and through the right behaviors. An absence of real trust skews everything that follows in the wrong direction for high performance in the workplace. When done correctly, trust trumps everything. And everything flows from trust — learning, credibility, accountability, a sense of purpose, and a mission that makes ‘work’ bigger than oneself.

How do You Build a Team that Really Trusts Each Other?
The simple answer is to establish vulnerability-based trust. This makes it make it possible for the team to engage in passionate and sometimes emotional conflict, knowing that they will not be punished for saying something that might otherwise be interpreted as destructive or critical. A quote from Patrick Lencioni says it best, “In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group.  In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another.” Great teams and vulnerability- based trust go hand-in-hand.  When you know your team members have your back, you can go out on a limb.  You can stretch more.  You can reach beyond a personal best to achieve a new one.

Achieving Vulnerability-Based Trust
When it comes to building vulnerability-based trust, it takes parking your ego, and focusing on collaboration over competition with your peers.  You give up needing to be right, to focus on learning, growth, and improvement. Again, from Mr. Lencioni's bestseller, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable: “Achieving vulnerability-based trust is difficult because in the course of career-advancement and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations. It is a challenge for them to turn those instances off for the good of a team, but that is exactly what is required.”

The Costs of Failure are Great
When there’s no vulnerability-based trust, everyone spends their energy protecting their own backs.  It’s a drain on everyone, and robs energy from giving your best where you have your best to give. The costs of failing to do this are great.  Teams that lack trust waste inordinate amounts of time and energy managing their behaviors and interactions within the group.  They tend to dread team meetings, and are reluctant to take risks in asking for or offering assistance to others.  As a result, morale on distrusting teams is usually quite low, and unwanted turnover is high.

How to Build Vulnerability-Based Trust
Unfortunately, vulnerability-based trust cannot be achieved overnight.  It requires shared experiences over time, multiple instances of follow-through and credibility, and an in-depth understanding of the unique attributes of team members.  However, by taking a focused approach, a team can dramatically accelerate the process and achieve trust in relatively short order. Fortunately, for all of us, Mr. Lencioni has created some tools and an offsite agenda to help you build real trust and a high performing team:

  1. Personal histories exercise.  Humanize the relationships by sharing your life stories and backgrounds.
  2. Team effectiveness exercise.  Identify the single most important contribution that each of their peers makes to the team, as well as one area that they must improve upon or eliminate for the good of the team.  Focus on one person at a time, starting with the team leader.
  3. Personality and behavior preference profiles.  Some of the most effective and lasting tools for building trust on a team are profiles of team member’s behavioral preferences and personality styles.  These help break down barriers by allowing people to better understand and empathize with one another.  Lencioni recommends the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) for profiling.
  4. 360-degree feedback.  These are riskier than the other tools because they call for peers to make specific judgements and provide one another with constructive criticism.  The key is divorcing it entirely from compensation and formal performance evaluation.  It should allow employees to identify strengths and weaknesses without any repercussions, otherwise it can take on dangerous political undertones.
  5. Experiential team exercises.  This includes ropes courses and other experiential team activities.  While they don’t always translate directly to the working world, they can be valuable tools for enhancing teamwork as long as they are layered upon more fundamental and relevant processes.

Things to Remember from this Post

  • Who’s got your back? One of my colleagues used this as a gut check.  It’s amazing how simple, but revealing this simple question can be.  Ask yourself, on your own team, who’s got your back?  Who’s back do you have?  In your org, who’s got your back? … etc.  Worse, who doesn’t have your back?
  • Focus on a supportive, learning environment.  Make it safe for the team to spread their wings.  I’m a fan of learning and growing.  It’s tough to grow if you can’t take chances.  I find that pairing on the team and using mentors helps a lot.
  • Encourage open and respectful communication.  I think this is critical for the team leader to set the stage for this one.  Asking the right questions and encouraging ideas is the key.
  • The leader has to set the example. By setting the example yourself, you help mold the culture. On example is open, trusting communication. Asking for honest feedback from employees, and then acting on it is another. Examples that run counter: Playing employees off of each other, competition in which the loser gets penalized in some way, public humiliation – as a supposed joke, penalty for honest failure, failure to extend trust – not trusting employees to take initiative and do things right on their own.

Closing Thoughts
Certainly one of the most important things to remember is that leadership always sets the tone for the level of trust in any organized situation. Recently, I found myself in an untenable situation with a client that forced me to excuse myself from the engagement. Upon finding out what his team thought about him as a leader through my interview process with them, his first reaction was to (1) find out who said what about him, and (2) to root out the problem by going on a witch hunt to track down and confront the perpetrators. My reaction was (1) refuse to identify anyone, and (2) advise him that any such "hunt" would only reinforce what they thought of him anyway. He was already on his horse, saber drawn, and charging out the door before I had finished my recommendations.

I opened this post with Patrick Lencioni and I will close with some more sage advice from him, especially since it relates so strongly to the above example: “The only way for the leader of a team to create a safe environment for his team members to be vulnerable is by stepping up and doing something that feels unsafe and uncomfortable first. By getting naked before anyone else, by taking the risk of making himself vulnerable with no guarantee that other members of the team will respond in kind, a leader demonstrates an extraordinary level of selflessness and dedication to the team. And that gives him the right, and the confidence, to ask others to do the same.”

Next week: How Do You Fire a Client?