By Megan Meredith

Do you recognise any of these in your team?

  • A group of talented individuals just can’t seem to perform as a team?
  • Even if incentivised to collaborate, people still seem to do their own thing?
  • One or two people are singled out as the especially difficult or talented ones?
  • Despite team building efforts, the necessary trust just doesn’t seem to be there?

Do you often find yourself saying (or at least thinking) ‘Why don’t they just get on with it?’  This is a frustrating, but very common feeling in the managers and leaders we work with.  There is a lot of guidance out there (Googling the first question at the top of this article turned up 80 million results in less than half a second) – but something often feels missing.

At Tavistock Consulting we have worked with teams and individuals for over 20 years using a psychodynamic approach.  This means that we work both above and below the surface with clients, and why we think we have something very different to offer managers wanting to create high-performing teams.  Much of the advice we feel addresses what’s necessary in a great team at a rational level.  These are very good ‘basics’ and the team can’t function at all without them, but the real breakthroughs come when a team gets good at understanding the team dynamics – what’s going on beneath the surface – and how these help them perform well (or constrain them).

In this piece we will examine what you need to have in place to create a high-performing team – at both levels, the basics you need and what else the team needs to understand and work with.

High-performing teams (1) – the basics

To start with, all teams need the following:

  1. Agreed values and purpose

This is not asking everybody to think the same, but if there are profound differences in values and purpose then it is difficult for a team to perform effectively.  Jane struggles because she thinks the team’s purpose is innovation and creative thinking in their field; Bob thinks it’s core purpose is to maximise income – team efforts become very fragmented.

  1. Agreed task

This should be informed by the values and purpose of the team.  Again if there are big differences you won’t get the results you need.  Sometimes there may be explicit agreement about the task – “we’re here to develop new products in new markets”, yet behaviour in practice by the South East Region may actually promote existing products in existing areas.  High-performance is impossible.

  1. Authority

The team needs to be given authority to work within the organisation with a leader who is supported from above and below and given freedom to lead.  If teams are in fact Malcolm’s ‘pet project’ or have no real resources then they cannot be high-performing – in fact they will be set up to fail.

  1. Clear and agreed roles, including leadership

If there is confusion or disagreement about who is doing what, or Susan as an informal leader constantly undermines Mita the formal one, then it’s difficult for the team to perform well at all.  The roles also need to be right for the task that the team has to do (rather than what may suit individuals).

  1. Clear boundaries of responsibility (including objectives and financial boundaries) and a process for review

If clear boundaries and objectives are in place then the team cannot really know what it needs to do and the resources it has available to perform, and whether or not it has succeeded.  Everyone feels insecure and performance is impossible.

But what about the dynamics?

If the basics are right, the next step to becoming a high-performing team is to understand the unconscious dynamics that are at play in any team, which can limit or enhance performance.

Teams are people, but they are so much more than a collection of individuals – they have a life of their own.  Because of this they can be some of the most rewarding places to work, but they are also difficult places.  Teams force people to be together, dynamics come into play as a result and these often make people emotionally uncomfortable.  People then engage in defensive behaviour, which then profoundly affects the performance level the team can expect to reach.  If a team can understand some of these dynamics, accept them as normal, talk about them and work with them, then creativity and transformation is possible.

High-Performing Teams (2) – understanding dynamics at play

There are five central issues for any team – that have to be managed and not pushed under the surface for it to be high-performing.

  1. In or Out?

In any team people can feel at times like they ‘fit’ (an insider, special) and at times like they don’t (an outsider, rejected, without an identity or home).  We all experience one or both of these in different teams and can be more comfortable with one role more than another (eg Pete is very happy in a troubleshooting role, staying on the outside).  To ensure a high-performing team you need to regularly ask yourselves:
a. Who feels in and who feels out?
b. Are they happy in that role?  Do they feel they can move to another role?
c. What do you notice about who is in and who is out?

  1. Same or different?

Sameness or difference, conformity or diversity – these are always central issues in teams, whatever the size or makeup.  We know that difference is essential in high-performing teams to encourage creativity and innovation – yet it feels more difficult to manage, so conformity is often encouraged. Ask yourselves:
a. Does the team allow people to be different (by gender, race, social class), to occupy different positions and to hold different points of view?
b. What happens if Claire begins to reject the ethos or values of the group? Is she seen as creative – a breath of fresh air?  Or is she – explicitly or implicitly – drummed out?

  1. Competition or collaboration?

Many teams say they are not competitive, but only collaborative, and this tension exists in all teams.  High-performing teams tend not to deny competition – they recognise that competition in itself is not a bad thing and in fact is a necessary fuel for growth and creativity.  But what they do is make sure that it is channelled in a way that supports performance.  Ask yourselves:
a. How do we experience competitiveness and rivalry in the team?  How do we deal with it?
b. Is it ‘healthy’, open and not judgemental, or is it destructive?
c. Can competition be thought about or is it only evident in underhand comments?  Or is it so overt that it is open warfare?

  1. Safe or dangerous?

Groups don’t often feel safe spaces for people – yet to be high-performing we have to become intimate in a team and make relationships with colleagues.  This is often anxiety inducing – will I be accepted, will I have something to say?  Will I say something I will regret?  Will I reveal too much?  Of course we do not all go into every new meeting with these thoughts uppermost in our minds every time.  But the point is that these anxieties are going to be there at some level for all of us.  In high-performing teams people need to be able to feel safe enough to express them.  Ask yourselves:
a. What does it feel like to be in this team?
b. How do members relate to each other?
c. Whose responsibility is it to ensure the team feels safe?
d. How safe do people feel?
e. Do people feel able to be vulnerable?

  1. Me or the team?

Often people get put in roles by the team in order to serve a function for the group rather than the person.  People become known as ‘the difficult one’, the ‘vulnerable one’, the ‘critical one’.  Kim can often be heard referring to how things used to be.  Perhaps he is the custodians of the team’s history and by holding this role he allows others to be future focussed?  Although individuals may choose those roles, the problem can be that one person then holds feelings that may belong to the rest of the group – and need to be owned by them.  Otherwise individuals can get burdened with a role, which means neither they nor the team can perform at their best.  Ask yourselves:
a. What informal roles are being taken up?  Who by? What are they expressing on behalf of the group?
b. What feelings need to be shared by all members, owned and addressed so the team can move on?

So… what next?

It can be both frightening and liberating for a team to recognise that before anyone speaks or the meeting starts, all of this unconscious activity is going on.  The key message is that this is normal for a team.  Where performance gets stuck is when the under the surface dynamics can’t be talked about and end up blocking all best efforts and strategies.

If you have a team with significant challenges or who work in a very demanding environment, you may need external help.  Many teams can make a shift to high-performance through doing one simple thing – having a system not only to review process, but HOW the team is working together.

You can look at the basics and also look at the dynamics in these sessions.  Make sure you have enough time at a regular slot, ensure everyone is there, ensure you are in a safe space, and start asking some of the questions we have outlined above – both above and below the surface.  Just valuing the space to do this often means a huge amount for team members – you may be surprised at the change in your team in a relatively short time.  They may start to ‘Just Get On With It’.

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