How to Build Your Team

Such important work requires patience and ongoing communication

Back Commentary Jan 19, 2017 By Tania Fowler

There is an old parable that goes like this: When people head out to the same bus stop in the morning from their various homes, they are all acting as individuals. When they gather at the stop waiting for the bus, they become a group. Once on the bus though, the vehicle hits a guardrail and hangs precariously with all their lives in the balance. Now the group becomes a team: They are interdependent and keenly focused on addressing the problem at hand, which is to get off the bus safely. Interdependence and a sense of urgency about collective results motivate a great team to achieve.

The story of the people on the bus is an extreme one to be sure, but at the heart of the tale is the lesson that an urgent situation focuses people’s attention. That’s why you don’t see firefighters arguing over who should climb into the window or hold the hose at a burning house. In the operating room, doctors and nurses don’t bicker about who will do what while the patient is passed out under the knife. Everyone knows their roles perfectly in situations where urgency drives the moment. (That is, if they have first been trained and their roles made clear.)

Some managers spend their time managing individuals, not the team as a whole. It’s like doing forest management by focusing on one tree at a time instead of the overall health of the ecosystem.

Harvard Business Review says a team is “a group of people who do collective work and are mutually committed to a common team purpose and challenging goals related to that purpose.”

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, defines a team as a manageable group of people who are interdependent and focused on achieving a collective result for the benefit of the team or organization.

Effective teams have a few notable similarities, according to Lencioni:

  • They trust one another
  • They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas
  • They commit to decisions and plans of action
  • They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans
  • They focus on the achievement of collective results
  • This sounds pretty basic, even easy to achieve, but it’s not. Creating and maintaining a strong team is very difficult.

First, most managers are put there because they have demonstrated talent in the specific area for which they were hired — but that may have nothing to do with managing people. Because they lack preparation and understanding of how to pull a team together, some managers spend their time managing individuals, not the team as a whole. It’s like doing forest management by focusing on one tree at a time instead of the overall health of the ecosystem.

Related: Do ask; Don’t Tell

The single biggest strategic advantage you have when it comes to outperforming your competitors is a highly effective team. A great team wins. Now let’s examine what teams look like when they are not working well:

They conceal their weaknesses and mistakes, and hesitate to ask for or offer help

  • They have boring meetings to revisit the same issues over and over
  • They ignore controversial subjects for fear of any kind of conflict
  • They create ambiguity
  • They watch windows of opportunities close due to paralysis of analysis
  • They miss deadlines and key deliverables
  • They are easily siloed
  • They have high turnover and lose achievement-oriented employees

Seems daunting to overcome so many compelling challenges, doesn’t it? While this is a massive challenge, it still can be done once the team’s leader determines that the most urgent focus of the business at hand is to get the team “off the bus safely,” working interdependently regardless of whether or not they are in crisis.

Once the leader decides to better develop the team, she must first understand that such work requires patient attention and lots of communication — clarifying that communication, and then clarifying yet again. Getting the bus righted involves: frequently bringing all the members of a team together for important conversations on how to work together constructively; agreeing on the internal language the team uses; creating the rules by which people work together; clarifying roles; and developing team goals. The leader also must demonstrate that engaging in and encouraging conflict-laden discussions around ideas keeps the team moving productively to better ideas and outcomes.

Every leader hires for smart, talented people, yet it is how people work together that determines success. So the leader must model the behaviors she is looking for and be transparent about them, which takes courage. It requires that she step out of her comfort zone and lead in a way that compels people to rally around the call of working together and being all-in to produce the outcomes that will make them successful.

The effectiveness of a team comes down to its leader — and the influence that leader has to help people work interdependently for a common goal.