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Why Teams Fail -- and What to Do About It

To unleash the creative potential of teams, HR leaders must help set a solid foundation, provide insights so team members can successfully cope with differences and coach team leaders on positive ways to approach the collaboration so the team will be high-performing,

Tuesday, November 1, 2011
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We've all been there -- a problem comes up in the organization and a team is formed to address it. Unfortunately, about 60 percent of the time, not only will the team fail to accomplish its goal, but there will be lingering hard feelings among team members. Sometimes, it is better to have no collaboration than bad collaboration.

It doesn't have to be that way.

The reality is that people are social beings and have been collaborating successfully since the beginning of time. The need to work together is built into us as a survival tool. Still, that doesn't mean people are necessarily skilled at working together in teams.

Human resource executives can help their organizations use teams more effectively by providing resources for team leaders to deal with friction, dissension and dissatisfaction head on. When this happens, teams not only produce outstanding results but also unleash the creativity of team members and build commitment to the organization and its goals.

What are some barriers that get in the way of becoming a high-performing team? Blanchard research has identified the 10 most common reasons teams fail.

* Lack of planning. Teams are often formed with little planning or forethought. When people come together on a team, they have questions that must be addressed: Why are we together? What are the goals? What role will each of us play? What is expected of me?

 

* Lack of support for a team culture. This shows up in various ways, all of which are damaging. For example, management "empowers" the team, but still demands that everything be cleared through senior leadership, or management refuses to decrease other responsibilities for people participating on the team.

* Lack of resources. People need a budget, training and time to do the job right.

* Lack of clarity. Team members need to know each person's role and responsibility. People need agreement on how team members are expected to behave toward one another.

* Lack of mutual accountability. This means holding people accountable to agreements. Not confronting a broken agreement can lead to poor results, lack of commitment and lack of trust.

* Lack of effective or shared leadership. A high-performing team is one in which leadership is shared, and each and every member is responsible for team functioning. The goal of the team is to be self-managing.

* Lack of focus on creativity and excellence. This lack of focus negatively impacts the quality of team interaction and the quality of the final product.

* Inability to deal with conflict. Conflict can blow a team apart, causing it to get stuck or dismantle -- especially conflict that is caused by personal, political or power issues and agendas.

* Lack of training. This applies not only to the leader but to all members. For example, just knowing that teams go through predictable stages -- including conflict -- can depersonalize and diffuse some of the natural tensions that are felt in a group.

* Poor use of teams. Not all organizational challenges require a team; some are better handled by individuals. A team is appropriate when multiple skills and perspectives are needed to accomplish the goal.

All of these are barriers to high performance -- but there is hope. Here are three ways that human resource executives can help team leaders manage their teams more effectively:

* Set a solid foundation.

* Deal with differences.

* Approach team leadership from a servant leader mind-set.

Setting a Solid Foundation

Many teams are brought together with no more thought than a general idea of "we need a team to do this." As a result, these teams get formed sloppily with no clear purpose or goal.

When people first join a team, even though they may be eager to be there, they also have concerns such as: Who are these people? What is going to be demanded of me? How much time will this take? Do I have the skills? They may keep these thoughts under the surface as they try to assess the overall situation.

The most powerful intervention you can do with a team is to answer a number of these concerns by setting a solid foundation on which they can build and perform. This is best accomplished through a team charter. The charter is a set of agreements that states:

* What the team is to accomplish,

* Why it is important, and

* How they will accomplish it.

Encouraging team leaders to take the time up-front to create a charter will pay off in the long run with the team performing in a more focused and cohesive manner. Then, if pressure builds and difficulties arise, the charter serves as a reminder to keep the team focused on its agreements and on the end result.

There are five elements to a good charter.

Purpose. This is the most central piece. What is the work of the team? Why is it important and whom does it serve? This provides a guide for assigning goals, roles and strategies. It's the glue that holds the team together and makes the team members mutually accountable. The purpose should be an overarching, motivating goal focused on meeting the customer's needs.

For example, from a learning and development team: "Our purpose is to provide training, development and guidance for all our leaders in order to enhance the productivity and self-esteem of all employees."

Or, from a medical records department: "Our purpose is to improve patient care by providing effective and efficient patient information for healthcare providers."

Crafting a purpose statement moves people beyond personal agendas to a greater goal that requires all team members working together to accomplish. People collaborate when there is a unifying goal to which they all can aspire.

Values and Norms. Values are the enduring beliefs that guide team actions. Values define what is fundamentally right and important. They will not be compromised for short-term gains. It is easier to take pride in the results when the team is proud of the means as well as the end product.

For example, at the Office of the Future at The Ken Blanchard Cos., we focus on studying trends and doing research that will inform clients. One of the team's values is ethical behavior. This means the team agrees to never use someone else's work without permission and that the team members will be honest and objective in their writings. Another value is integrity -- being honest and forthright in all communication with clients and co-workers.

Norms are ground rules for the behaviors for which team members hold each other accountable. This can be as simple as describing a procedure for notifying people if you are going to be late for a meeting, or as serious as agreements regarding confidentiality.

Team Initiatives are broad areas of focus derived from the team's purpose. They include specific goals (measurable outcomes) with timelines and roles that define individual responsibilities.

Team Practices. This component includes the ways and how often communication takes place, how decisions are made and by whom, and how team members hold each other accountable.

Resources. These are things the team needs such as people, training, a budget and time.

Even a team that is together for only a brief period of time needs a mini charter that sets a foundation that answers the inevitable questions that will arise and reduces the friction caused by ambiguity or disagreement on direction and processes.

Dealing with Differences

Another way that HR leaders can help a team perform better is to provide training and guidance for effectively dealing with differences. This includes reminding the team that differences are inevitable when passionate people work together. It's important that teams view friction and disagreement as a healthy stage of team development instead of something to avoid.

Human resource professionals can facilitate this understanding by explaining that after any new team gets some experience under its belt, members typically come to the realization that working together to accomplish a common goal is a tough job.

This occurs in what is called the "dissatisfaction" stage of development. It's when the team realizes the discrepancy between what they expected and reality. It is not a pleasant stage. The group is struggling as a unit. Conflict occurs and it may look like war, apathy or boredom; or it may be disguised with humor. Subgroups form and "meetings after the meetings" start to occur.

For human resource executives, the challenge at this stage is to provide support but still allow the team to work through the conflict themselves. This means avoiding the temptation to swoop in and fix things. It's important for leaders to hang in there and deal with this time of transition, which is also a time of great potential for creativity and innovation.

Of course it depends on the kind of conflict that is occurring. Conflict over personality, power or individual agendas can be devastating to a team; however, conflict over ideas, opinions and strategies can improve effectiveness, open discussions, generate solutions, enhance creativity, build cohesion and increase trust.

As an HR professional, the main goal at this stage is to remind team leaders that people want to be heard and to build an environment that allows that. Here are four typical examples of what leaders could face in their groups and the type of advice that HR executives could provide to help the leader respond effectively.

Differing positions, strategies or opinions. If two or three strong, but differing, positions are being argued in the group and the discussion is getting nowhere, suggest that the leader stop the group and ask each member to take a turn talking with no interruption or debate.

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The others are to listen and try to understand where each person is coming from and why he or she is proposing that particular solution. It may go something like this:

Leader: Let's stop for a minute. I want each of you state what is underneath your argument. What is your desire, your concern, your goal, your fear or your need that leads you to that conclusion?

In this way, the leader is making sure that everyone is heard. When the exercise is completed, the leader should look for shared concerns or goals. Once these are uncovered, the leader can then build on these shared interests. In most cases, this becomes the new focus and the mood switches from conflict to problem solving.

Mistrust or uneven communication. If some people on the team are dominating the conversation while others sit silent or appear to have dropped out, a leader might stop the process and ask each person what he or she needs from others to feel effective in the group.

Another simple practice is to recommend that the team create a rotating process-observer role so team members can take turns focusing on how the team is interacting. If the team gets out of kilter -- perhaps tempers are rising or communication is not flowing -- the process-observer is allowed to call time-out and point out his or her observations.

For example: "In the last five minutes we have interrupted the speaker 10 times", or "We keep talking over each other."

Just realizing these things are happening can alter the team's interaction. Soon, the team will catch itself. It's more difficult to misbehave once you know the impact of your own behavior.

A third practice HR executives can recommend is for teams to allocate 10 or 15 minutes at the end of a team meeting to process the experience. What did we do well? What did we not do well? What did we learn? The team will learn about itself and be more aware the next time.

Personality clashes, power issues and personal agendas. If personal styles are very different and causing angst among team members, an HR leader might consider administering the DISC, MBTI or other behavioral-assessment tool to help people understand each other and learn to work together.

In addition to helping people understand and legitimize themselves, these tools also help people better understand what others need. They provide a common language for dealing with individual differences.

If the conflict involves power issues or strong personal agendas, it must be dealt with. The reality is that some people just do not fit on a team and a leader needs to be willing to remove them or offer them another role.

This doesn't happen often, but occasionally it is needed. It should be an option only when other attempts to work with the person have failed. The good news is that once this type of conflict is dealt with, the team usually takes a leap forward.

Approaching team leadership from a servant leader mind-set. In the same way that a human resource executive serves as a resource to teams within the organization, they also need to help team leaders see themselves in that same light.

A team is a living, breathing entity. A team leader needs to see himself or herself as a servant and a guide for the group, not as the hub or ultimate decision maker. You will never have a truly high-performing team unless leadership is shared, so that everyone on the team -- and the team as a whole -- develops.

This is one of the biggest mistakes inexperienced team leaders make. In the interest of keeping the group moving toward a goal, these leaders stunt the group's opportunity to learn and grow.

A common example is when disruption is caused by one individual and that person is taken aside and spoken to separately. The group is deprived of the history and learning. The inability to diagnose the team as a system is the primary reason otherwise successful people struggle with leading a team. It is not just a series of one-to-one interactions -- it is much more complex.

Human resource executives can help define the role of team leadership by helping leaders see their role as guiding the group through the development stages and bringing out the best that each member has to offer. This means sharing the importance of what the group accomplishes as well as how it gets there.

The journey to high performance is rough, but it is worth it. Approach it with the belief that despite it all, people want to be magnificent and they want to collaborate. Done right, team collaborations are rewarding experiences that generate better results with greater overall satisfaction than anyone can achieve alone.

Eunice Parisi-Carew is a founding associate of The Ken Blanchard Cos. She has more than 25 years of experience working with teams in various capacities, and is co-author of two best-selling team books, The One Minute Manager Builds High Performing Teams, and High Five! She is also a co-author of Leading at a Higher Level. Currently, she is senior researcher for the Office of the Future at The Ken Blanchard Cos., whose role is to examine trends three to five years ahead, and their potential impact on business. Parisi-Carew received her doctorate in behavioral sciences from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is a member of the NTL Institute, a licensed psychologist and a certified organizational consultant.

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