The biggest difference between high-performance teams and more average teams is that the high-performance group actually acts like a team.
That statement is so obvious, I am going to let it stand on its own.
If you look at most groups, they tend to act less like teams and more like loose affiliations of individuals that are connected through a common manager. The manager is an orchestrator, maybe even a facilitator at times, but that doesn’t mean the group is really a team. Rather, they are individual contributors that are linked by a common task management protocol.
Too many people make the mistake of thinking that teams are natural byproducts of a reporting structure. We should be clear: a reporting structure is useful for defining lines of communication and determining who is responsible for the administrative tasks of people management (expense reports, PTO requests, reviews, and so on). But a reporting structure has nothing at all to do with forming a team. Think of reporting structure more as a necessary evil because of the HR systems that we use.
Real teams are formed around a common purpose, not a common manager. A group of people all committed to a single end goal is a team. Who they report to is irrelevant; it’s the objective or the mission that defines the team. This is why open source projects can be effective. Even when people report into entirely different corporate entities, they are capable of working together to deliver a common objective. That is teamwork.
But what separates the good teams from the bad teams?
The best teams work in concert to accomplish something. They work in concert. This is different from the way many “teams” operate (quotes used for emphasis). Think about how a typical team works. There is some team lead who works to break the objective down into a set of tasks. These tasks are then farmed out to the team members based on their skill set or interest or seniority or whatever. The hope is that by pushing the individual activities out, people can execute against their parts in parallel, effectively speeding up the project.
The subtle point here is that the first thing the leader does is break the objective down into parts so that the team can go off and act independently. This isn’t teamwork; this is a hub-and-spoke management model. In fact, for many teams, the only time they come together as an actual team is on weekly staff or project calls designed to solicit status from each of the isolated individuals.
How do you know this isn’t teamwork? How many of us has been on one of these status calls, bored to tears because 97% of the discussion is irrelevant to us? We hate listening to people give status because we don’t actually care that much about what they are doing. It doesn’t impact us, so we find the detail irrelevant at best and absolutely maddening at worse. When someone takes time to get into the details of what they are doing, we think they are either grandstanding or rat-holing. If you ever have felt these things, you know you are not part of a team.
Real teams work together. They are engaged not just in their tasks but also more broadly in the initiative as a whole. They talk. They brainstorm. They strategize. They celebrate each other’s success. They share in each other’s setbacks. The real measure of a team is how well they collaborate.
Collaboration hinges on the free exchange of ideas. And there is no greater killer of collaboration than judgment.
Whenever people work in a group setting, they are taking on risk. The challenge of teams is that your performance is public. It is difficult to hide when everything you do is out in the open. When you perform well, it is exhilarating because everyone sees it. But when you fall short, it is terrifying because everyone sees it. And if those failures carry with them too much judgment, the person will naturally pull back until they are an individual working alongside a team.
When you give critical feedback, it is important to be specific and honest. But it is equally important to withhold judgment. You want to comment on the performance without judging the individual. You want to talk about actions, but refrain from commenting on character. When someone falls short – even if it is more frequent than it ought to be – you want to talk about the performance and not the individual. Someone might not be prepared, but that does not necessarily indicate laziness or lack of dedication. An individual might offer up a poorly thought out idea, but that does not mean the person is inferior or incapable. Talk about the idea, not the person. By keeping the discussion about the performance, you can have a very candid conversation without assailing the individual.
This is important because when people feel attacked, they either fight back or fall back. In the case where they fight back, the ensuing discussion is emotional. Neither side will be able to land points. There is nothing productive about this kind of exchange. If the person falls back, you run the risk of them withdrawing over time to the point where they don’t offer up thoughts or effort at allt. If this happens, you revert from team to collection of individuals.
As a leader, people will key off of your response. How do you treat your team’s setbacks? Do you offer up feedback along with a healthy side serving of judgment? Or do you comment on the performance and leave the individual out of it?
The answer might not be as clear as you think. It is difficult to self-diagnose because we frequently carry judgment not in our words but in our tone or facial expressions. If you are thinking it, people will be reading it, regardless of whether the words ever actually come out of your mouth.
There are ways to see how you are doing. If you ask your team about the status of something that is late, do you get a 15-second response or a 2-minute response? If the person you are querying gives you a lengthy description of everything they have done over the past week, she is justifying the lateness. That justification is because she is afraid of being judged. If this is a typical response, you might not be fostering the kind of judgment-free environment that you think. If instead, she gives a short answer about the status (“I haven’t finished yet, but I expect to finish by tomorrow.”), you are creating a safe space to talk freely.
When people can talk openly without fear of being judged, they naturally become more generous in sharing their thoughts. This makes collaboration easier. And ultimately this transforms groups of individuals into teams.[Today’s fun fact: Owls are one of the only birds who can see the color blue. Yeah, I don’t know what the other ones are either. Our PR firm only gave me half of the fact apparently.]