The fine line between high performing and dysfunctional teams
It was one of the best team experiences of my career and I knew it. I was in my sweet spot. I was getting to play to my strengths. We were doing important work that was sought out. The team was high performing, challenged one another and genuinely liked each other. We had inside jokes, celebrated life’s milestones together and even cooked dinner for one another. We were family, if you could choose your family. Despite living geographically dispersed, we had been to one another’s homes, met spouses and families and were a part of one another’s lives.
We made each other better and knew it. The work we were doing was disruptive and we had to continually convince our stakeholders why it should move forward. We practiced for these conversations on each other. We would rather face our toughest challenger in our conference room instead of in a meeting with a stakeholder. We challenged constructively and had healthy tension. We had diverse perspectives. We told each other what we valued in one another and were aligned to the vision of the team.
After months of climbing up the mountain, we started to build momentum. We had more pull from stakeholders than the original push required. We started to get external recognition, individual attention and accolades. This increased the overall excitement of everyone on the team as we started to believe we would be able to pull off the project.
What we didn’t realize at the time was that small fractures were forming in the team. It was like a rock band creating top ten hits at the same time as individuals in the band being contacted for solo acts. In the excitement and momentum, we stopped focusing on the team. As individual attention and recognition was received, people applied positive intent to their own actions, but didn’t towards each other and resentment slowly crept in. Constructive challenging slowed and people didn’t speak up about the things that bothered them. A few voices started to dominate conversations and the team got quiet. We missed recognizing that we had crossed the fine line from being a high performing team into a dysfunctional one…all because we forgot one very important point: teaming is never over. It is something you need to actively work at, cultivate and nurture to maintain healthy and high performance.
Leaders are good at establishing healthy team behaviors at the onset of projects. Roles and responsibilities are defined, operating rhythms, meeting schedules and communications are implemented, and decision-making processes, empowerment and accountability are discussed. The problem is, it is difficult to define how you will address conflict at the beginning of a project when you don’t have any. By the time it arrives, many will shy away from it, not address it and create further issues. A high performing team is one that build health checks into its regular operating rhythm. These include:
Engaging in open discussion from each person on what is working well on the team and what they would like to change
Being vulnerable and creating a learning environment to share lessons learned, mistakes, failures and best practices with one another
Aligning on overall team priorities and vision. Sometimes they shift over time and sometimes team members need to be reinvigorated on the overall purpose and their individual role and contributions
Celebrating team milestones acknowledging progress and the impacts of the team
Revisiting the team operating rhythm to identify necessary changes
Defining what non-value add work should be stopped
Discussing observations of fellow team members at their best, what to continue doing, and what to consider doing differently going forward
Watching for when it gets quiet. Teams that are most in danger of dysfunction are not those arguing the most. They are the ones who are silent. Silence is a sign of giving up, not wanting to engage or feeling like engaging won’t result in anything because their perspective isn’t valued. When leaders notice this, they need to engage each person individually to surface the issues.
As for the high performing team, we learned the hard way. The fractures grew into some significant breaks. We faltered with our stakeholders and had to regroup. Some people voluntarily moved off the team and it allowed for the opportunity to regroup. As a part of that, the team had to have an honest and raw discussion of what went wrong with a facilitator outside the team who guided and coached the discussions. It took time for people to feel comfortable challenging behaviors of other members and discussing what fell apart. It was a difficult series of conversations, but the group felt enough trust to be vulnerable and share things in the spirit of making improvements. A new team was formed, gained traction and resolved issues with stakeholders. The team moved forward and achieved their priorities while defining new habits. While focused on new priorities, the team now holds quarterly health check-ups on how they are progressing and what adjustments are needed, well before any fractures take hold.
How do you build and maintain your high performing teams?