Organizations accomplish what they do because of teamwork. Whether you are in business, sport, education, the church and even marriage – teamwork is what paves the way to success. What a leader can do with a great team far surpasses anything they can accomplish alone. As a leader learns how to unite the right people around a shared vision, their influence truly begins to take off.
According to Dr. John C. Maxwell in his book, The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork, the 1st Law of Teamwork is The Law of Significance:
One is too small a number to achieve greatness. Leaders who fail to promote teamwork undermine their own potential and erode the best efforts of the people with whom they work. To accomplish anything significant, leaders must learn to link up with others.
Recently I began working with a very successful businessman. In our first session he proudly informed me that he was a “self-made man”. He was rather taken aback when I appeared unimpressed. After all, this man is successful and rich. I responded, “That’s too bad. Imagine just how much you could have achieved with a great team.”
The reality of course, is that no-one is truly self-made. We may not have been gifted our businesses by our parents but they have played a part in making you. Your education may have been cut short or even, not especially good, but your teachers did impart something. For a few of my clients what they perceive as being negative in their lives is actually the turning point for their success.
A leader’s job is to develop the team so that the team is effective.
But what is an effective team?
There are probably as many definitions of an effective team as there are teams. But there does seem to be commonality and this, I believe, distils to:
An effective team has unity of cohesion and effort towards a common goal.
The Five components of an effective team
These five components stem from research undertaken largely by the US Military (in particular, post-Gulf War I, when the number of “friendly fire” incidents became unacceptable).
Only when all five components are present in a team is there the potential for true unity of cohesion and effort. (Figure 1)
Shared values define the team. Without common values, everyone on the team has a different opinion about what’s important. Values put people on the same page. Just as personal values influence and guide an individual’s behaviour, organizational values set the standard for a team’s performance.
Too often, the values of a team are prepared by a marketing consultant, discussed and pasted on walls. Yet these are not the underlying true values of the individual’s within the team. Rarely does one see a team’s values statement include payment for their contribution, nor do we often see values pertaining to providing a safe and secure home for our families.
When we ask our clients why they work, the number 1 response is unsurprisingly, money. Joint second is providing for a family home and education for children, third is God.
I liken shared values to the image of an iceberg. The 10% above the water is what we see of the values that a person or the team holds – it represents the behaviours that are manifest.
The 90% below the water is the character of the individual or team – which is defined by the values that the team members hold.
It’s the 90% below the surface that sinks the ship.
The leader who neglects the real shared values of the team may find that the team:
- Stagnates or fails to grow
- Avoids obstacles
- Loses achievement-oriented employees
- Encourages team members to focus on their own careers and individual goals
- Is easily distracted
Clear Command Instruction
Clear command instruction gives team members direction and confidence. If you lead your team, then you are responsible for identifying a worthy and compelling vision and articulating it to the team. People continually need to be shown the team’s compass clearly and creatively so that their actions align and they stay motivated by a captivating picture of the future.
Each team member should be able to make decisions readily and rapidly based on the clarity of the command instruction.
Clarity is critical. Often we see the use of delightful, yet nebulous words used to describe the goal and provide the direction. The word excellence (or excellent) is one example. Like values statements, the intentions are good, but what does excellence mean? We each have our own definition, all perfectly valid, of what excellence means.
In “Made to Stick”, the Heath Brothers refer to this as ‘Commanders Intent’ and recommend that leaders strip down the goal to the core message. The Combat Maneuver Training Centre, the unit in charge of military simulations in the US recommends that officers arrive at the Commander’s Intent by asking themselves two questions:
- If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission we must __________________.
- The single most important thing that we do tomorrow is __________________.
In this way, any team member who faces a decision can make that decision in line with the command instruction.
Establishing this takes time. Sometimes it is easy – when there are specific standards laid down by an industry body such as a Ministry of Health, the Inland Revenue or a professional body – then the goal of achieving those standards makes command instruction comparatively straightforward:
Achieve these standards.
But what happens once those standards are achieved? The leader then needs to create the new standards and articulate these to the team. And like any goal you want to achieve it has to be SMART, sensory and compelling, and of course, it must satisfy the values.
Leaders who are unable to articulate clarity of command instruction often find that the team fails to commit and:
- This creates ambiguity among the team about direction and priorities
- Team member’s watch windows of opportunity close due to excessive analysis and unnecessary delay
- It also breeds lack of confidence and fear of failure
- Team’s revisit discussions and decisions again and again
- And also encourages second-guessing among team members
Having clarity of direction that will satisfy shared values is only the beginning of effectiveness for the team. Shared experienced is the ‘how the team will do this’. What skills and knowledge are needed to achieve this?
Teams are of course, filled with individuals. And each individual brings with them their own set of skills, knowledge and abilities. And all players in a team have a place where they add the most value. Winning teams require more than the right people. You may have a group of talented individuals, but if each person is out of position, then the team won’t reach its potential.
Leading a successful team involves putting people in spots where they can excel.
The leader can think of team members as resources and fill the spots like playing checkers, or the leader can recognize the particular strengths and abilities of each individual. Using their strengths work together as a team – like a chess player.
When the leader fails to use the right strengths and abilities…
- This creates resentment among team members who have different standards of performance
- Encourages mediocrity
- The team misses deadlines and key deliverables
- And places an undue burden on the team leader as the sole source of discipline
Shared Situational Awareness
The most neglected component of developing effective teams is shared situational awareness.
Shared Situational Awareness is when all team members’ continuous perceptions of themselves and their peers in relation to the dynamic environment of business, competition, goals and the ability to predict, and then execute based on shared perception.
This is often neglected because it is so difficult to pin down. And the moment that you do pin down that you are fully aware of the current situation, the situation has already changed. Further, in circumstances where an individual’s situational awareness is well developed, much of the processing is unconscious.
Take, for example, driving a vehicle:
When you first learned to drive you were acutely aware of the very many things that required your attention. All of which had an impact or potential impact on your response. You have to steer, change gear, accelerate, break, and watch what is behind you, beside you, in front of you. You have to predict the behaviour of every other road user and make decisions based on a common set of rules. All on the basis of trust. Trust that the other road users will obey the rules, trust that the brake pedal will work, and trust in your own judgment call about what each other road user will or will not do.
Now imagine attempting to instruct another person remotely how to do that, in real time.
You would need to know that person’s knowledge and experience, where they were, what vehicle they were driving and all the other information. Impossible.
To enable this to work, the leader and each team member needs to be sure that every team member will perform their role effectively and how each will respond to given, known (and unknown) situations (following the command instruction based on known shared values using their known abilities and experience). It also means that team members look out for each other in the interests of the team.
When shared situational awareness is poor, teams:
- Conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another
- Hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback
- Hesitate to offer help outside their own areas of responsibility
- Jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify them
- Fail to recognize and tap into one another’s skills and experiences
- Waste time and energy managing their behaviours for effect
- Hold grudges
- Dread meetings and find reasons to avoid spending time together
The fifth component of an effective team is in their communications. Communication brings to light disagreements so that teammates can hammer out their differences and move forward in unison. Communication also spreads information, which eliminates redundancies and prevents teammates from working at cross‐purposes.
Communication within the team must continuously reinforce and support each of the other four components. Openly and candidly.
And critically, communication is the response you get. If a team member does not understand what their teammate is saying, the teammate is responsible for getting their message across.
The culture within the team is created, reinforced or undermined by the communication within the team. Consider communication as a family virus. The virus spreads rapidly and easily because the family stays close together and has members who are similar. The more virulent the virus, the quicker it spreads… and for communication, nothing spreads faster than gossip, cynicism and untruths. A wise leader ensures that they inoculate every team member with their chosen contagion that supports the desired team culture and prevents the spread of any malicious or damaging chatter.
Teams that have poor communication:
- Have boring meetings
- Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive
- Ignore controversial topics that are critical to team success
- Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team members
- Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management
Team dysfunctions and issues
In our work with hundreds of work teams, we have found that the lack of Shared Situational Awareness is always the number one cause of
issues in teams. Even in teams that are high performing. It is most often manifest in the apparent lack of trust in the team. Lack of trust is the fruit of behaviours that good SSA would overcome.
The second dysfunction of teams is communication – often brought about because of a lack of shared situational awareness or, as most people think of it, trust.
Clarity of command instruction is most often the third issue teams face, though in competitive business organizations the third issue is frequently shared values.
Diagnosing the Issues in the team
In our work and research with organization teams across industries and across the globe we have identified the symptoms of team dysfunction and how frequently each occur within a team. By surveying team members we have been able to identify the frequency of dysfunction symptoms and thereby identify the key component issue.
Figure 2: Data from 582 teams, showing number of symptoms in each team for each component
What does the leader need to do?
Law 4 in John Maxwell’s 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork is the Law of Mount Everest
As the challenge escalates, the need for teamwork elevates. As the journey grows in difficulty, you can no longer cruise along with ordinary talent and average cooperation. To climb past the obstacles to your dream, you need to have a team of peak performers working in unison and clicking on all cylinders.
If your team is facing challenges or you want it to perform better, then the first task is to recognize that it is your responsibility as the leader. It is not the team members’ responsibility nor is it an external consultant’s responsibility to “fix” the team. It starts with you.
In each area, there are common key symptoms. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, just an overview of the top and most frequently uncovered issues in our work with teams:
Observe the symptoms of dysfunction that may be present and raise each issue with the whole team. Now is the time you can ask the team to help you fix the issues.
Knowing your goals, having the right experience and resources and working together towards satisfying shared values are well known to be important in effective team performance. Shared Situational Awareness and clear communication though is the glue for teams: How you understand my context and situation and we adapt to each new situation as it arises – collaborating to gain those synergies everyone promises. And the key to SSA is open and candid communication. It’s the leader’s job to inoculate all team members with the positive communication virus.
About the author Dr John Kenworthy
Leadership is the difference maker and the deal breaker. It’s how we grow organizations. It’s how we impact lives. But, as you also know, leadership cannot be an idea we simply talk about. Leadership is the action we must live out.
As a Certified Leadership Coach, Trainer and Speaker, I can offer you workshops, seminars, keynote speaking, and coaching, aiding your personal and professional growth through study and practical application of John’s proven leadership methods. Working together, I will move you and/or your team or organization in the desired direction to reach your goals.