The Eight Signs Your Team isn't a Team - Michelle Gibbings

A red and white boat, on it's side in the middle of a body of water

If there’s a show about dancing, then it’s always on my ‘watch’ list, so I was excited when Dance Life was released.

It chronicles the real-life experiences of dancers going through their final year at Sydney’s Brent Street dance school. The sheer talent of the dancers is breathtaking, but what impresses me is the teamwork.

They rely on each other to do well – both individually and collectively. They practise hard. Support and encourage each other. Focus on their role and doing it to their absolute best. They also place complete trust in each other – throwing themselves off staircases and doing routines where they are at serious risk of injury if their dance partners don’t play their roles.

But it’s more than that. The dancers are genuinely happy when their dance friends do well, even though they know their friend is likely vying for the same spot on a routine or to be noticed by an agent or choreographer.

Watching the show made me think about corporations and organisations that spend a lot of time discussing teams and teamwork but don’t come close to emulating the type of teamwork demonstrated on this show.

Instead, it’s a faux style of teamwork. It’s a team in name only. There might be posters on the wall extolling the team’s values, but no one lives up to them. There’s a lack of care, connection and interest. It feels competitive and draining.

When a team is humming, connecting and working well, it’s visceral. You can feel it. You can see it, too, in terms of the outcomes and results. But most of all, you feel it. It feels so good.

I’ve worked in teams like that, and it is the ultimate working environment. I’ve also worked in teams where the teamwork was surface-level only, and it was hard and exhausting.

As John Katzenbach defines in this article, teams are a “…small group of people with complementary skills who are committed to a shared purpose, who succeed or fail together, and who hold one another accountable”.

When you think about ineffective teams and what makes them inadequate, the usual suspects will appear. For example:

  • An inadequate leader who doesn’t care about the team
  • Inconsistent communication or a lack of communication
  • Low trust where the challenging issues aren’t discussed because there’s a fear of conflict or reprisals
  • An avoidance of accountability and a lack of direction

Yet, there are often issues that are lurking in the background that are equally, if not more, detrimental to the team’s functioning.

Here are eight warning signs to consider.

Success is individual
It’s easy to say that the team matters. What matters more are your actions to demonstrate that the people in the team matter to you. It’s about where you focus your energy and time, and how you prioritise. In doing that, it’s about whether those efforts are focused on individual needs or collective good, and individual success or team success.

Consider:

  • Do you genuinely care about the success of the team?
  • Do you reward success and achievement jointly or individually?
  • Do you play favourites and pick stars in the team?

Resources are hoarded
Resources can be tight in organisations, particularly when economic times become tougher. More resources can be seen as a status symbol and a pathway to progress.

Effective teams know how to carefully and skillfully share resources and are happy to do so. With a focus on what the team is collectively setting out to achieve, they can step out of the weeds and assess the bigger picture of what’s most needed.

Consider:

  • Do your team members understand what they are individually and collectively accountable for?
  • Do they have joint goals?
  • Are you (or your team members) willing to give up a resource to help the team achieve, even to the detriment of individual achievement?

Information is noisy
In organisations today, there is a lot of ‘noisy’ information. Information that doesn’t add value to the working day but distracts and diverts attention.

Effective teams know what and how to share information. They don’t obscure needed information from the view of others, and similarly, they don’t flood their colleagues with information that unnecessarily consumes oxygen.

Consider:

  • Does your team have effective channels to share information?
  • Are there clear and agreed guidelines on how and when to share?
  • Are there effective open forums for conversation and challenge?

Dynamics are placed on set and forget
A team is a group, which means everything we know about group dynamics and how groups function plays a role.

Teams will often spend time working out and agreeing on their ways of working. They might agree on a values statement or team charter. However, once it’s completed at the annual team day, it is cemented in place.

This approach fails to appreciate that the team’s dynamics shift every time a person leaves or enters the team. Consequently, every time there is a change, you need to re-assess the team’s dynamics and again discuss and agree on the principles as to how you work together. Sure, this takes time, but it’s the most effective way of ensuring buy-in and agreement on your team’s ways of working.

You want everyone working from the same base of understanding so they know the standard and can hold each other to account.

Consider:

  • Do you assume that the team’s ways of working are locked in place?
  • Do you ‘induct’ new team members into ways of working rather than inviting them to contribute to the process of how you work together?

Rinse and repeat
Having led many teams, when you move into a new team environment, you assume that what has worked before will work in this environment.

Context matters. Individuals matter. You are leading a team that is made up of unique personalities with different experiences and expectations.

Leading teams is not ‘one size fits all’. You need to contextualise how you lead and be acutely aware of the system in which you are working.

Consider:

  • When you lead a team, do you genuinely seek to understand the uniqueness of each of its members?
  • Are you acutely interested in what each of them brings and how you can help elevate their best each day?
  • Do you understand the system and context in which you are leading (and working) and the impact it has on you and your team?

Meetings waste time
A team is only a team if its members spend time with each other. However, many teams dread spending time with each other.

Why? Because it feels like (or is) a waste of time. The meetings lack a clear purpose. Team members are chronically and repeatedly late, missing, or unprepared. People don’t respect each other’s time.

Consider:

  • Is there a transparent process for meetings and expectations around how they run? (i.e. agendas, timeliness, preparation and outcomes)
  • Are team members held accountable for how they turn up to meetings?
  • Is there an optimal balance in informational, discussion-based and decision-based meetings?

The team overcomplicates things
There’s an old saying, ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’, which aptly applies to teams. Being a team doesn’t mean everyone is involved with everything. When everyone wants a seat at every table or to have an opinion on every idea, it can over-complicate processes, lead to ineffective decision making, and slow down progress.

You want to be clear on who is doing what and when, who has decision rights, and who is accountable. The RACI model, which I used in my project management days, is very helpful in this regard. If this is your first time using it, this article will help.

Consider:

  • Are people getting out of each other’s way so people can make regular and steady progress?
  • Are the right people in the team informed, consulted, responsible and accountable at the right time?
  • Do team members trust each other to the extent that they know they don’t need a seat at the table because their team member will accurately and effectively represent their views at that meeting?

You accept mediocrity
The standard that you step over as the leader is the standard you are saying to your team is ‘A-okay’.

If you accept sub-standard work, then your team members will too. If you accept poor behaviours, your team members will see that behaviour and ethics don’t matter.

You want your team to hold themselves and each other to high standards and then have courageous conversations when things go off track.

Consider:

  • Does each team member hold themselves and each other to account?
  • Is the team willing to step into those hard conversations?
  • Are you – the leader – role modelling the way?

Succeeding in creating a thriving, dynamic and awesome team environment takes work. Work that is well worth the effort.

In thinking about this, really, what’s the alternative? Spending your day patching up issues and constantly feeling like you are working at half-speed in an exhausting team environment. No thanks!

It’s not enough to claim that you are a team. You must want to be a team and be prepared to apply continuous effort, self-reflection, and group reflection. You want every team member committed to making the environment one where everyone can be themselves, be respected and contribute their best.

To do this, you must step up and lead.



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