Fostering teamwork in tough times

Oct 01, 2009 9:30 PM  By

Whatever your biggest worry — whether you’ll keep your job, how to manage your bills, or the drastic change in your 401(K) — many other people now share the same concerns. Members of your team are probably carrying these worries to the meetings they have with you.

What’s more, some of the members of your original work team may not even be on the team anymore. The temperature of meetings and the way work gets done may have shifted — and not always for the better.

What to do about this? Focus on how the work group will operate as a team, not just as a collection of needs or temperaments thrown together. Team effectiveness is even more critical if part of the mandate is to provide leadership to others.

Work through processes and structures that reset cultural norms and re-establish the values and expectations of the team. Two different benefits will accrue: delivering the best possible results for the entire organization and feeling decent while doing it.

Here are four steps to foster team cohesion and work effectively even in these challenging times.

  • Establish safety and credibility for all team members

    In the most effective teams, all members feel safe enough to express their considerations about work content openly and candidly. When both the leader and the team members are credible in supporting what’s best for the team — and for one another as members of the team — it becomes safe to share the truth about current conditions and concerns.

    Unfortunately, most people are frightened or, at the least, put off by visible disagreement. So they often go for a kind of pleasant, surface amity instead of working deeply to understand and resolve issues of content, process and style.

    Listening well and speaking kindly and with respect are the bedrocks of team safety. The group must figure out together what interaction behaviors are acceptable.

    Team members must learn to disagree candidly but respectfully, not using disagreement as a weapon to warn others off topics, but as a tool to get all points and sides of an issue considered. Then the team has the potential to get to the next step.

  • Put everything on the table

    It’s crucial to express all the real issues under consideration so that everyone can deal with them in the open. A truly thorough review will sometimes require disagreeing even to the point of conflict. But if safety has been established, it’s a managed conflict; when the rules of interaction are well understood and followed, the fighting feels “fair” and will not reduce group or individual safety.

    Complete understanding of the ramifications of an issue may require digging down to a finer level of detail than many work groups typically do. Specificity about next steps, detailed responsibilities, and how all decisions will be communicated will help flush out any lack of clarity.

    If ambiguity remains, members may feel resentment that others didn’t recognize what they had to confront or suffer. This engenders future resistance to mutual satisfaction, and erodes the safe environment.

  • Aligning around goals and processes

    When the team acknowledges the costs of a particular decision for each member, there can be greater acceptance of an eventual balanced outcome. It’s always better to come to a true understanding inside the group, rather than in disjointed bits and pieces around the water cooler.

    After the intentional fighting ends, the group can coalesce around a full agreement of what needs to be accomplished and how to go about it. Team members must be able to return to their constituencies and report, “We agreed to support Outcome X because it’s best overall, and here’s why.”

    Once everyone is aligned, you have some assurance that, when action is taken, it will be both the right action and executed well.

  • Evaluate results

    To keep progressing toward team coherence and effectiveness, the team needs to evaluate its results promptly and consistently. This evaluation must ensure accountability for both behaviors and outcomes; and with candor and sensitivity, it must identify any member actions or communications that are contrary to the purpose or commitments of the group.

True teamwork, which encompasses the possibility of shared growth and enhanced creativity, is not intuitive or easy. If it were, we’d see a lot more of it!

But what better and more necessary time could there be to rally both physical and emotional resources, and get to work?

Liz Kislik (lizk@lizkislik.com) is president of consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.