Resolving Problems with High Performance Teams

“By union the smallest states thrive. By discord the greatest are destroyed.” Sallust
High performance teams

High Performance Teams (HPT’s) can generate superior results because of the levels of creativity and collaboration they generate, but they are not easy things to build or maintain.

Personal wins and team losses

For a group of people to perform as a cohesive team, they must:

  • Have a clear goal (and a real desire to achieve that goal)
  • Appreciate what the respective roles of the team members are
  • Possess a level of trust in one another, based on ‘buying into’ certain norms for how to work together e.g. how information should be shared
  • Be competent (i.e. each person must have the ‘skills set’ needed to be able to contribute to the work of the team)t

In many organisations, however, there is a focus on individual reward systems (e.g. personal goals in the annual appraisal) that not only fail to support team wins but actively encourage acting against the ‘greater good’ in favour of individual successes. Hence there is a conflict between holding an individual to account, and getting the best team performance.

Similarly it is common for individually motivated senior leaders in an organisation to set the tone that their people will follow, i.e. recognition comes from individual merit and individual achievement not collaboration.

Culture clashes and personal conflicts

Conflict within groups is to be expected as different personality types or different views on priorities cause tension between people. Also top performers are typically very competitive and that competition also applies to relationships inside, as well as outside the team. HPT’s find ways to manage these tensions creatively and constructively e.g. by accepting conflict as a way of testing ideas and concepts. However very often team conflict is ignored, unacknowledged or suppressed; resulting in lack of information sharing and poor coordination of efforts.

Professor Lindred Greer of Stanford University describes four types of conflict that commonly occur within teams…

  1. Task Conflict – what the goals should be, e.g. should we pursue option X or option Y. This is often the most useful type of conflict as it can help to clarify the issues and expose ‘problem areas’
  2. Process Conflict – about how the team will work together, e.g. when to meet, what the roles should be etc.
  3. Relationship Conflict – personality clashes, lack of chemistry
  4. Status Conflict – about each person’s place in the hierarchy, or level of authority (this type of conflict is often difficult to address because people typically don’t declare their issues openly, but more often than not use a ‘process complaint’ as a surrogate for what is really concerning them e.g. they don’t feel they are getting the level of respect they deserve so they argue about where to meet.)

These effects can be compounded by cultural differences and by the extra strain generated by remote or virtual team working. Left unaddressed they can cause high levels of stress, poor performance and even lead to the team dissolving.

Defusing conflicts

The warning signs for problems within an HPT, aside from the obvious of the work not getting done, include strong displays of negative emotions (as opposed to rational discussion) e.g. people getting angry. Also when team members bicker about small things that don’t really seem important and/or form obvious sub groups that constantly challenge one another, then the team is likely to be in trouble. Handling these issues involves (i) being clear about what the disagreement is about i.e. task, process, relationships or status, (ii) checking if the real issue is the subject of the disagreement or if something else is being used as a proxy e.g. is there a ‘hidden agenda?’ and (iii) understanding the emotional state of the people involved; just how agitated are the participants? Then it’s a question of getting the issues out into the open for explicit discussion and negotiation. This may well involve some type of team building activity, personality inventories, and the use of an external facilitator (and sometimes, in severe cases, a mediator.)

Transitory teams and permanent team building

Teams are typically fleeting things because in most companies staff is always turning over, so for a group of (say) six people to stay together more than 6-12 months in an organisation is rare. What this means is that teams are continually going through the ‘storming, forming, norming’ and (if you are lucky) the ‘performing ’ group development cycle first proposed by Tuckman in 1965. What also typically happens is that those who have been around longer create a team within a team – an ‘inner circle’ – which is very apparent to those not in it, and so tensions can easily arise. Unless the leader expects these sorts of things to be the norm and takes actions to counter them, then the ‘HPT’ will be a very temporary thing. Hence there is the need for ‘team building’ activities, of various kinds, to be an on-going process and not a one-off event.

Team size and ‘social loafing’

Another factor affecting team performance is known as the Ringelmann Effect, or social loafing. Ringelmann (1913) found that having more people work together on a task (pulling a rope) actually results in significantly less effort than when individual members are acting alone. Eight people, he found, didn’t even pull as hard as four individuals. Ringelmann thought that this loss of effort was due to lack of coordination but in the 1970’s a researcher from the University of Massachusetts (Ingam) found that the effect was actually due to people in the larger group feeling less responsibility for the end result. Of course the real world of work is more complex than the simple experiment of pulling on a rope, but Ingams’ research suggests that, all things being equal, smaller teams are generally more productive than larger ones. Counter balancing measures to reduce ‘social loafing’ include defining individual responsibilities that precisely measure each person’s contribution and/or making individual performance public so that each team member knows exactly how the others are doing.

The Physical Environment & Encouraging Teamwork

The physical space that a team operates in can also have a major impact on their performance. In Better Teamwork Through Workplace Design the writer Anat Lechner suggests that companies ‘design in’ spaces into the physical office environment to help promote collaboration. For example:

  • Vary the types of workspaces
    Employees need group spaces for co-creation, but there should also be areas for concentrated work (unassigned individual workstations), emergent social exchange (free-flowing hallways), and learning (rooms equipped with technology and tools).
  • Provide the right tools
    Make sure meeting rooms include tools like whiteboards that allow employees to record ideas and create a visual, side-by-side review of alternative solutions.
  • Give project teams a dedicated space
    Returning to the same workspace each day, keeping meeting notes on the board, and leaving work on tables between meetings can help team-mates maintain a shared mind-set, sharpening their focus and speeding up the collaborative process.

So what’s next???

    • Reflect on how accountable people are for their actions (or lack of them.) Does more need to be done to highlight the ‘value added’ work that each person does for the team?
    • Read: ‘Building Conflict Competent Teams’ by Rundle and Flanagan
    • Watch: Mark de Rond, professor at Cambridge’s Judge Business School talk about conflict and teams

And to end with a quote from a US polymath, Benjamin Franklin, on the pressing need for effective teamwork.

“We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately”