Collaboration within teams

Written by Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay on 1 February 2013 in Features
Features

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay set out the four pillars of collaborative teamwork

Reading time: 11m 30s.

What is the recipe for great team performance? In this article, we look at the characteristics of high performing teams and examine the practicalities of how to attain and maintain a collaborative team climate, one which will deliver consistent results. Collaboration is one essential pillar of the kind of teamwork, which supports and sustains cohesive and productive teams. But there are other pillars, too: we have labelled these contribution, communication and commitment.

This article looks at these four pillars and also the role of L&D in helping teams to reach and sustain high performance.

In the sporting world, there are many examples of high performing teams: recently, Team GB surpassed expectations at the London 2012 Olympics. Yet in a business and organisational setting, team performance seems much more complex, with less clear cut indicators and, therefore, no definite prescriptions on what role HR and L&D professionals should take in the process of team development.

Let's start by looking at the characteristics of a high performing work team through a definition. In their best-selling book The Wisdom of Teams (Harper Business Books 1994), Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith define a team as "a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, a set of performance goals and an approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable".

Four pillars of effective teamwork

Using the insights from Katzenbach and Smith and others, and combining it with our experience of team development, we believe that a high performance team requires attention to four important areas. We see these as pillars that support great team performance:

Commitment

  • How committed is the team to achieving its goals?
  • Does the team share common objectives?

Commitment encompasses the creation of, and commitment to, common goals for the team and a willingness to achieve them. High performing teams have a well-defined, mutually agreed and shared set of goals for which they hold themselves accountable. Whether a team is sending a space shuttle to Mars, is a medical team in an operating theatre or is a dispersed sales group, those that are effective share a commitment to a common sense of purpose.

Team commitment requires understanding of direction, so that organisational and team goals are understood by everybody. Important aspects of this commitment are likely to be how much all the team members take responsibility for achieving their tasks in line with this, and the degree to which they share understanding of their organisation.

A coaching leadership style and climate will support commitment by ensuring that the team members feel their contributions are appreciated and they are supported in getting the team tasks done. Day to day, commitment is likely to be fostered by team leaders taking an interest and offering encouragement in the task - common sense tells us that nothing reduces commitment quicker than feeling that one's efforts aren't appreciated.

How L&D professionals can help to build commitment

L&D can be most useful in helping a team to clarify where they are going through team facilitation in team objectives. In addition, working with a team's leader, L&D can help identify individual learning needs that will ensure that members are competent and able to carry out their tasks.

Communication

  • Does everyone know what is going on?
  • How openly is information shared?

Communication is a vital pillar of team success, consisting of high levels of communication within the team and with other key stakeholder groups and plenty of regular contact using a variety of channels. A high performing team combines high-frequency communication with openness. Information is cascaded to, and from, the team leader, between the team members and among their key stakeholders. Also, a high-communication team does not push differences under the carpet: successful communication involves challenge and openness, and in this way conflict will help move the team forward because it is handled positively.

Communication is one of the most critical team processes, and you can demonstrate this by asking teams about the quality of their communications - you will almost always find the majority want this to be improved. To identify improvements, L&D can help the team to examine their formal and informal communication channels - what works well, what should be enhanced or changed - and then prompt members to take ownership of these improvements.

Importantly, team members must feel free to express themselves and be valued for their contribution. In a high performing team, they are likely to be honest and open with each other, with the knowledge that any information disclosed will not be held against them.

Working in physically dispersed teams poses particular communication issues. Among busy colleagues we know in one of our teams, its members have adopted social media to communicate regularly, each team member starting the day by completing online a few sentences to share on 'what are you working on today?' This has proved invaluable in keeping the team informed and promoting discussion of issues.

Implications and actions for L&D

L&D professionals must have a keen eye to understand what is going on in a team. What is more, they must have a repertoire of tools to address issues and opportunities, combined with the shrewdness to know when to deploy them.

L&D can usefully facilitate a team discussion through analysis of patterns of communication and then agree action plans on how to improve. Some of this process may involve skills development exercises, highlighting the need to check understanding and learn lessons from the way communication can get distorted.

Facilitating team meetings is another area in which L&D can usefully make a difference. The L&D professional can act as an observer of meetings to provide feedback to the team on what is working well and where communication can be improved.

Contribution

  • Does everyone 'pull their weight'?
  • Does the team work to each other's strengths?

Contribution is the degree to which work is shared across the team and where people put in discretionary effort to deliver its goals. A mature team will manage its ability to get the job done efficiently and effectively. This will include knowledge of its strengths and weaknesses, the resources within it and its structure. A team with high levels of contribution will also be able to see beyond the current task and keep an eye on the environment for any changes occurring.

Have you ever been in a team in which roles and responsibilities are not clear? There may be duplication of effort or team members' responsibilities are vague and important tasks fall into a black hole. In high performing teams, everyone knows their role and their individual responsibilities.

In high performing teams, there is recognition that everyone has diverse skills and backgrounds and that all contributions are valid. This recognition is the starting point for the optimum use of resources and is useful in being able to respond flexibly to changing demands. The development of a high degree of trust and respect for each other is another positive outcome of building effective contributions from everyone.

L&D's role in encouraging team contribution

L&D can help develop a team through analysis of the roles that its members perform to ensure there is an appropriate balance of creativity, delivery and short-term and long-term development. There are a number of helpful team psychometric instruments that can be used to generate awareness and facilitate discussion.

Collaboration

  • How well do team members share their expertise?
  • How flexibly does the team work together to adapt to changes?

Collaboration involves a high degree of support and sharing as well as healthy challenge to achieve win/win outcomes. High performing team members are co-operative rather than destructively competitive. They support one another and work towards the common goal rather than being divisive and self-centred.

Collaborative working is required to weld together sometimes disparate, perhaps even competing, individuals to achieve mutual goals. Complex reporting lines and divided loyalties may exist and collaborative working among virtual or dispersed teams requires additional effort to ensure it is effective.

One element of collaboration is how the team responds flexibly and collaboratively in the face of changing demands. This might include taking on new roles and tackling new problems, as well as more radical changes such as responding to wholly new demands. Collaboration will help handle change, for example team members may share their expertise to crack new problems. How well team members share their expertise and how effectively the team learns and develops is a significant marker of collaboration. If you ask its members, they will express a sense of belonging to the team, of being involved with its activities and respected for their contribution.

How integrated is the team? You will probably spot a shared sense of humour, a sense of fun from team interaction and possibly some social contact outside work. Team members will probably feel free to express themselves and not hold back - for this to work, it requires honesty between team members, based on assured confidentiality and knowledge that admitting personal shortcomings within the team will strengthen it and that people will not be punished for speaking up.

A collaborative environment is likely to be reinforced by team celebrations of success. Leaders are sending the message that they take the trouble to maintain morale and keep the atmosphere positive.

For a team to work together collaboratively, focusing purely on the task in hand is unlikely to lead to continuing success, yet such 'blind spots' are a common weakness in many teams.

True collaboration requires empathy. This is a learned skill essential to making collaborative teams work successfully: team members pick up on other members' feelings, share their concerns and have the skill to challenge inappropriate behaviour and give honest feedback without destroying the atmosphere.

Implications and actions for L&D

Team-based activities with appropriate feedback can start to help people to work together in solving team problems and also to make the most of the benefits of team working. L&D can play an important role in facilitating such events and also providing team development opportunities.

Skills development can usefully consist of such skills as listening and empathetic understanding, and other team behaviours such as emotional intelligence and handling conflict.

Look out for signs of ill-health

One aspect of team success is well-developed maintenance skills. It pays to be alert to signs and symptoms of ill-health in the team, for example:

  • blaming others
  • in-group fighting
  • unclear goals and priorities
  • avoiding personal responsibility
  • reliance on a few to get things done.

Too much of a good thing?

Each component of the four pillars of team performance can cause difficulties where there is unbalanced emphasis, so that one aspect can have a negative impact on the team. For example:

  • commitment Too great an emphasis on commitment without support, and undermining mental and physical robustness, can lead to individual or collective burnout
  • communication It is not just the amount of communication, but also the quality of communication, that is important - for example, too internally-focused communication can lead to internal preoccupation at the expense of the external environment
  • contribution If there is too much focus on the contribution of one individual, or a few, the benefits of combining resources into a team are diminished, resulting in members acting independently of each other or some people feeling devalued and like second-class citizens
  • collaboration Too much collaborative 'togetherness' may well mean the quality of thinking and challenging suffers, resulting in poor outcomes. This is particularly the case when conflict is buried or suppressed.

Working with teams to improve performance

Working effectively in teams is undoubtedly challenging: people are complex and groups of people compound this complexity, particularly in the context of the pressures of modern organisations. L&D and HR professionals can play a key role in helping leaders and team members identify how well they are working together and where they need to improve. They can help a team to examine the four pillars of effective teamwork and how well they work together in the context of their own organisation.

It is often valuable to employ a diagnostic checklist, such as one based on the four pillars (pictured above), to enable a facilitator to help the team stand back and assess how they are working. Guided discussion within the team and action planning can release energy and bring focus to achieve change. Over time, teams can become their own assessors, using criteria their members have drawn up. Initially, the L&D professional can play a key role in highlighting team members' awareness of their behaviour. We suggest you use the attached team performance template to facilitate a discussion:

first, ask each person to complete the sheet individually, rating the team in each of the four pillars on a scale of one being weak and ten being strong

  • ask what are the overall team strengths in each of the areas?
  • then ask what are the overall team development needs in each of the areas?

The Four Pillars of Team Performance

You can gather feedback from team members prior to an intervention about their perceptions of the commitment, communication, contribution and collaboration within the team. Hold one-to-one discussions or issue a questionnaire for all team members to complete beforehand. Next, share the findings during a team meeting or teambuilding intervention.

Another option is for a consultant to act as a coach during a team meeting or as the team is performing the task. Here, the consultant observes the team in action and provides feedback on their performance, highlighting where, for example, communication and collaboration are effective and what can be done to improve.

Get started today

  • Review all the teams that you belong to: Could they be more effective? In what ways? How can you promote discussion about this?
  • Put on the agenda of your next team meeting 'how could we be more effective?'
  • Which of the four pillars need most urgent attention organisation-wide? What can you do to promote action?

Conclusion

L&D can fulfil a valuable role in helping a team look beyond the immediate task in hand, and examine critical elements of its performance. The influences on team performance are complex; we have suggested that L&D can usefully encourage focus on four important areas. Improvement based around the four pillars can provide a valuable framework to help steer a team towards positive and sustainable team working practices.

About the author

Sarah Cook is MD of The Stairway Consultancy and author of Building a High Performance Team. She can be contacted at sarah@thestairway.co.uk

Steve Macaulay is a learning development executive at Cranfield School of Management. He can be contacted at s.macaulay@cranfield.ac.uk

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