Teamwork ain’t easy

One of the most important tasks facing a leader is building an effective team, but there are many stumbling blocks that can affect a team’s productivity. What are they, and how can you overcome them?

For sports fans there’s an allure to the “dream team” concept — a collection of top-tier players at their respective positions, dominating the competition.

Of course, what sounds great in principle often doesn’t work in practice. You can get a group of all-stars to play together effectively for a game, but an entire season? Minutes have to be managed, egos massaged, and suddenly you’re worrying more about keeping individual players happy than team cohesion, all while the losses suddenly — inexplicably, for all the talent you’re assembled — start to mount.

As great as “just hire the best people” sounds, building an effective workplace team is often just as complicated as putting together an athletic team.

Dr. Patrick Jackson, program director for Leadership and Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies

“When I look at teams, teams bond and are most effective when they’re given a clear, achievable goal and challenge; when they’re given the resources and authority to be successful; and when the performance of individuals in the team is managed well,” notes Dr. Patrick Jackson, program director for Leadership and Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies. “What I find is that many teams fail and fall apart when the organization itself does not attend to those three areas.”

At the next IB Seminar, Wednesday, Aug. 30, from 9–11 a.m. at the Alliant Energy Center, Jackson will share strategies to facilitate team building within your organization and cultivate a results-driven collaborative environment.

Jackson explains that one of the most important tasks facing a leader is building an effective team that can propel the organization toward its goals. However, teamwork isn’t easy and there are a myriad of stumbling blocks that can affect a team’s productivity.

“You want to make sure, at a minimum, all the necessary technical skills are there,” Jackson says. “You have to make sure everyone is at least capable of doing the job and contributing equitably to the team. Once you get past that particular piece, I think it often comes down to interpersonal skills. For example, do you have communication skills — communication meaning not just your ability to present your idea and be persuasive, but also the ability to listen to others and to pick up on things that are not just verbal. Those are the types of things when you’re dealing with individuals on a daily basis that you need to pay attention to.”

Jackson says another trait that’s vital for effective teams is the ability to sometimes collaborate and sometimes cooperate. “I think a lot of times many organizations just need people to cooperate with one another but instead they tell them they need to collaborate, which I think are two very different things. You have to at least have the skills and abilities to do both if a team is going to work well together.”

It’s a fine line, Jackson acknowledges. The two skills are very similar, but what it comes down to is collaboration is a true marriage of ideas and actions between two or more people working toward a common goal, whereas cooperation is more often just assisting others with work that needs to get done but not exchanging ideas along the way.

“Another trait that I think is necessary on teams is trust,” continues Jackson. “A team that has high trust is going to be able to collaborate and cooperate a lot easier, as well as be able to move forward and make decisions a lot easier than a team that doesn’t have trust in one another.”

The last trait Jackson says is vital for an effective team is fighting fair.

“You kind of want teams to be harmonious in the sense that everyone gets along with one another, but a harmonious team doesn’t always equal the most innovative and efficient team. Sometimes harmony means not bringing up things that need to be addressed. Teams that can provide constructive criticism, or disagree in a way that’s not going to permanently damage the cohesiveness of the team, are what I mean by fighting fair.”

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Steering clear of team-building pitfalls

Having team members with the right traits still doesn’t guarantee the team will gel. There are a few pitfalls that Jackson notes can sink even the best teams.

“One of the first ones is going back to that trust piece,” Jackson explains. “When you bring a new team together, they have a very short amount of time where they’re getting to know one another. If they don’t come out of it knowing how to trust one another, that’s going to continue throughout the lifespan of the team. You’ll have all kinds of blanketly sabotaging characteristics or behaviors that are going to prevent the team from moving forward.”

Another pitfall rests squarely on the shoulders of the team manager of leader — a lack of recognition. The more you can recognize your teams for the things that they’re doing well and the challenges that they’re addressing, the likelier you are for the team to stay happy and effective. That almost goes without saying, but Jackson says it’s in the execution of this idea where many companies go wrong.

“A lot of times people think recognition has to be that monetary piece but having had a background in compensation design, I will tell you that money is typically not the biggest driver of performance and keeping people motivated,” notes Jackson. “It’s more whether you feel that your supervisors and managers understand what you’re doing and they’re paying attention to you and value what you’re contributing. That doesn’t have to be expressed monetarily.”

Lastly, Jackson highlights a common mistake many new team leaders make — dictating to the team.

“My personal perspective on teams is that each person should have an equal ability to contribute and an equal weight in their vote and their ability to influence the direction of the team. That’s the point of bringing a team together, to have different perspectives to try to come out with something that’s more effective, something that you could only achieve at such a high level from a team perspective.

“However, when someone comes in as the new team leader, or is promoted from within the team, and is very insistent on ‘it’s my way because I’m the leader of the team,’ I’ve seen highly effective teams just completely turn south. That shuts the team down immediately.”

Jackson says leaders have to be very mindful of his or her ego. “The more you can not make it about yourself as a leader, the more you’re going to get the cooperation, collaboration, trust, and all those other pieces. You might have your own thoughts on where you can go with the team but I wouldn’t take it as your first step to put your stamp on the team.

“There’s a way of coming into a team and empowering the team members,” Jackson continues. “Ask the team members some strategic questions — what’s going well? What would you do differently? Here’s an opportunity to change some processes or change the way the team is oriented, and you want to let the team direct that. Theoretically the team has been there longer, they’ve been doing those jobs, and they have insight. Allow them to draw those pieces out and as a leader, instead of trying to put your stamp on it, take the role of supporting the team in implementing their changes and proving they can be successful.”

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