Teamwork Isn’t Useful. Here Are 5 Things That Are

During this difficult time, I’m getting numerous requests to talk about teamwork. In the midst of the pandemic, it can be harder to coordinate remote teams with so many people dealing with children, roommates, or home spaces that just aren’t right for video meetings, and everyone’s stress level is extra high. So, it’s only natural that many leaders are concerned about teamwork taking a hit, and they’re asking for ways to improve it.

But before you spend time or money on pep talks and presentations, it’s helpful to think about how good your organization’s teamwork was before the pandemic. And what do you mean by “teamwork” anyway? What would look different if you had it and it was wonderful?

Because it’s complex and multilayered, teamwork isn’t actually the right place to start your improvement efforts. Here are five teamwork precursors to work on first — and I specifically use the word precursors because it’s a chemical term for substances from which another substance is formed. If your precursors aren’t solid, it’s really tough to have true teamwork.

Competence: It’s not easy to work comfortably with people who mess things up, make poor decisions, or lack true understanding about the organization’s business and its mechanics. No one has to be perfect, but if you have team members who are not fully competent, start building up their skills. Otherwise, their colleagues will try to avoid them, because who wants their own work product compromised by someone who’s not good at what they do?

Respect: Any form of disrespect makes people more likely to separate from each other. Disrespect can be formal or informal, a function of corporate culture or a single individual’s personal style of behavior. It can be the result of a cultural norm of putdowns (even if they’re humorous) or individuals treating each other rudely or making fun at each other’s expense. But whatever the form and reason for the disrespect, it can cause people to form cliques and create intra-team conflicts, or else to isolate and avoid the closeness and ongoing interactions that support teamwork.

Clarity: It’s leadership’s responsibility to make sure that each employee realizes what’s expected of them in terms of responsibilities, results, and behavioral values. When there are relationship problems, interdepartmental border skirmishes, or stalled projects, it’s rarely effective to designate them as “teamwork problems” without first checking to see if everyone recognizes which pieces of the action are theirs to handle. And just making assignments is not enough. Deeper discussions will help ascertain if everyone understands and is committed to the joint effort, both in the big picture and the small details.

Accountability: Do team members keep their word? Can they be counted on to deliver what and when they say they will? Do they work for the good of the organization as well as for their own success? If these behaviors are not present and consistent, leaders need to probe to find out what coaching, correction, or structural changes are necessary.

Progress: People like to see that their work contributions eventually lead to concrete achievement and success; so, if the team is not improving or creating new successes, everything can start to feel stale and boring. But it doesn’t take a lot to improve this situation! All we need to see is the kind of ongoing progress that comes from “the power of tiny gains.” Small, cumulative gains can be much more significant than if you set a big, gauzy goal like “better teamwork” and deliver some presentations but no one changes their behavior significantly. Looking for the smallest things to experiment with reduces people’s resistance, not only because there’s less to feel defensive about, but also, frankly, there’s less overt challenge to the status quo — which is often the hardest thing to give up, even for people who say they want change.

Competence, respect, clarity, accountability, and progress are the requirements of successful teams. Think of them as table stakes: They’re as necessary for ensuring that high-quality work get done as they are for making employees feel good about the work they do.

So please don’t announce a new program in developing better teamwork or start a new training cycle. Instead, invest in the building blocks themselves and better teamwork will start to develop naturally, just like the consequence of a chemical reaction.

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Author: Liz Kislik

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