'All teams should take a long hard look at their communication and decision-making processes'

Management competencies are a bit like fashion: last year’s ‘must have’ accessory can suddenly feel dated and out of touch. Yet some items of clothing weather the storms of fashion well – often referred to as the ‘classic look’ – and the same is true of competencies.

There are some classics, which are not bound by time or place, that are still regarded as critical enablers for organisations everywhere. A good example is teamworking. I have yet to come across any organisation that does not rank teamwork in its top 10 competency requirements. The simple fact is that organisations are only as good as the people they employ, and people need to collaborate in order to get things done. Arguably, as the pace of change accelerates, and organisations become even more complex, the ability to operate effectively in teams is becoming more important. So what steps should you take in order to create a high-performing team?

Be clear about the purpose of the team and its key objectives. A common mistake is to assume that all work groups are teams and must be treated as such. It is perfectly acceptable for individuals to work alongside each other, but if they are solely focused on individual goals, they are a work group, not a team. Teamwork requires people to work collaboratively on common goals where the challenge is bigger than one individual can achieve alone.

The ability to relate well and interact with others is the heart of effective teamwork. Many teams perform well at the technical level, but are dysfunctional at the behavioural level. It is worth investing time establishing a few simple behavioural ground rules. These should define acceptable and unacceptable behaviour within the team and establish clear boundaries within which members can give each other constructive feedback and hold themself and others to account.

Pressing questions

A high-performing team works smarter, not harder. All teams should take a long hard look at their communication and decision-making processes. A good starting point is to ask yourselves a simple question: ‘what do you actually need to communicate to each other?’ It is surprising how many teams launch into the being busy mode without addressing this fundamental question. In general, teams need more formal communication structures than groups because the need for exchanging information, group decision-making and building relationships is usually higher. Whatever the team construct, the overarching principles for communication should be simplicity and effectiveness.

As individuals, members must be clear on their role within the team. This often works on two levels: the technical contribution (skills and knowledge) and the process contribution (such as planning, co-ordinating or innovating) that each team member makes. Role allocation can be fraught with challenges, not least of which is getting the right balance between team needs and individual skills and aspirations.

Successful teams strike the right balance between the two. A key role of the team leader is to ensure that roles are complementary, and to resolve any tensions and conflicts when they arise. There are a number of team role diagnostic instruments on the market to help teams think through the issues. The most widely used research-based tools include Myers-Briggs, Belbin and the TMS Team Wheel.

Give yourselves regular time out to review team performance. This should include work processes as well as team goals. Also, make opportunities to learn together. Training and development at team level is often more impactful on team performance than a more individualised approach. There is a spin-benefit to all this: it is no coincidence that teams that spend quality time together are likely to have higher levels of trust and openness and a greater clarity of purpose. A word of caution, however: teams should not over focus on their own group maintenance needs. An insular and inward-looking team creates silo thinking, which detracts from building collaborative relationships with stakeholders and other teams.