How to build an extreme team for extreme times

There has never been a tougher time to lead a team says George Karseras and building trust from the start is key

What does your team have in common with ‘extreme teams’ such as an air ambulance team, an SAS unit or a Fast Net yacht crew battling 80-foot waves in the Southern oceans? Not a lot, you might think, after all in work, it is livelihoods that are at stake – not lives.  Yet as we see societal debt increase, and mental health worsening across the industrialised world, lives really are becoming increasingly at stake at work. 
The rapid pace of tech development and the accelerating rate of digitalisation means you may have to unexpectedly solve high tariff problems. You are now likely to be expected to form all sorts of collaborations with other teams, inside and outside of your organisation, to leverage the potential that tech offers you. Thanks to COVID, many of us now exist in hybrid or virtual environments so this task becomes even tougher. 
No doubt you also must contend with burgeoning regulatory pressures and the expectation that you run a compliant team whilst simultaneously behaving in a nimble manner – this paradox only intensifies the extreme conditions in which we are all now operating. 
With growing individualism, the task of building high performing teams becoming ever more complicated


And extreme circumstances don’t stop there, if you’re a progressive leader working in a progressive organisation, you will have formed a diverse rather than a homogenous team. No matter what the ethical or performance benefits of diversity may be, a more diverse team is also a more complex and demanding team to lead. Different genders, religions, ethnicities and age groups have different values and normative expectations that have to be galvanised.  More skills are required, and more skills equal more pressure. 
Finally, let’s not forget that societal individualism is also at an all-time high. Fuelled by rising GDP, social media and the whole fame agenda, we are witnessing a global shift in societal values from community and societal thinking towards Individualism. Many executive teams suffer from too many ‘wannabe heroes’ at the helm. At extremes we see levels of narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism all increasing at work, and with growing individualism, the task of building high performing teams becoming ever more complicated. 
None of these trends show any signs of abating. So, although our teams don’t strictly qualify for ‘extreme team’ status, it’s not too farfetched to say we are operating in more extreme times than at any other time in history. Extreme times often call for extreme measures, or at least, extreme learning.
What can we learn from bona fide extreme teams?
Writers such as Patrick Lenceoni and his 5 dysfunctions model, have for a long time promoted the notion we start the team building process by building vulnerability based, emotional trust by investing time getting to know each other.  Typically, we spend precious time sharing psychometrics or delving into who we are and why we exist. Yet surprisingly for today’s teams operating in more extreme environments, it’s much more beneficial to build, in the first instance, task-based cognitive trust. Research shows that cognitive trust is easier to build and then actually helps build emotional trust which in turn promotes psychological safety. This then helps the team collaborate, adapt, and innovate, all essential team skills in more extreme conditions. In other words, in extreme times, start the performance ball rolling with cognitive rather than emotional trust. 
This is exactly what extreme teams do. In fact, they already have it as they assume their teammates are competent and reasonably like-minded due to the arduous selection and intensity of training they all have to go through. Back in 1996 the researcher Meyerson termed the rapid type of trust found in extreme teams as ‘Swift Trust’. As you would expect, members of extreme teams are far less interested in empathy and vulnerability, being far more concerned about competency and like-mindedness in how they face into extreme situations.
In order to expand the concept of ‘swift trust’ to make it more applicable to workplace teams now working in extreme times, what really helps workplace teams thrive in more extreme circumstances is Same Page Trust™. Same page trust doesn’t require a costly selection or training programme nor months of time building interpersonal relationship-based trust.  It simply requires the time to form and maintain six sets of agreements.  
1. Why the goal exists (its purpose)
2. The goal outcomes (especially for shared goals)
3. The roles and responsibilities (who’s responsible for what)
4. The high-level plan (including the very next step)
5. The feedback loop (to enable you to adapt quickly) 
6. The team behaviours we want to see from each other
These agreements form the first ‘Get Set’ phase of a four-phase team development approach that has been designed for today’s teams operating in today’s extreme conditions:  Get Set – Get Safe – Get Strong – Get Success.
Many well-intentioned and talented teams are ‘busy fools’ setting off without being sufficiently ‘Set’.  Well trained, top of the game extreme yachtsmen and women on the other hand like Dee Caffari and Fast Net Champion Charlie Pitcher, rarely take this gamble. They establish whatever clarity they can in a VUCA world where clarity is hard to come by. Both spend time at the outset clarifying these ‘same pages’ and then reviewed them throughout their voyages to ensure they are also ‘Re-Set’.  
In summary, extreme times require a more extreme team mentality and to help you achieve this you need to ensure your teams rapidly build and maintain same page trust. 
George Karseras is a teaming expert, psychologist and author of Build Better Teams: creating winning teams in the digital age 


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