“There’s no ‘I’ in team.” We’ve all heard it. Many of us have probably said it, perhaps even in jest. But this brief adage, cliché as it may sound, packs a lot of truth—and not just for sports teams.
Today’s organizations comprise ever-more-complex layers of teams. In addition to departmental teams, we also have project teams, cross-functional teams, virtual teams, and the list goes on. And teamwork is consistently on the rise: In the last 20+ years, time spent working collaboratively has increased by at least 50 percent.1
Combined with today’s constantly evolving global workplace, the need for teams to efficiently reach innovative solutions is at an all-time high. With 55 percent of executives citing collaboration as the top priority for learning and development programs, this need is clearly being recognized.2
So, what can you do to make sure your teams can keep up? Let’s look at three very different kinds of teams that found success using a common approach.
Struggling Teams: “Riding the sea of culture”
Steve King, founder of the SDK Group and an adjunct faculty member in the Executive Education Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been helping teams and organizations identify and implement pragmatic solutions for change for more than 30 years. His framework for successful teams has been applied across various types of workgroups, including one team struggling to combine members’ efforts for a common goal.
To help the group begin working better together, Steve focused on the three-part framework he uses when working with teams:
- Alignment. Team members must agree on the overall goal of their work and understand what role they will each play in achieving the outcome.
- Process. For the team to be successful, they need to have or develop good decision-making processes. If they’re unable to collaborate using an effective decision-making process, it will be difficult (or even impossible) for the team to reach optimum consensus decisions.3
- Relationships. Working as a team becomes much more difficult if members don’t have positive working relationships. Lack of trust in each other, for example, can prompt micromanaging in team leaders and lead to loss of confidence on the part of members.
“What I’ve learned over the years is that in order for the framework to work well, you have to address team culture issues,” Steve says. He describes it as “riding on a sea of culture: When the seas are rocky, it’s hard to deal with them; when they’re calm, it’s easy.”
Putting the spotlight on behaviors
To quiet the waves, Steve utilizes a team assessment to put behaviors front and center. He uses the Group Styles Inventory™ (GSI) because it’s “perfect” for the intact teams with whom he often works.4 It also provides a consistent way to measure and talk about behaviors using a circumplex model, which can be applied at different levels throughout the organization.
“I always woo them toward talking about behaviors,” Steve comments. “Telling you to be constructive isn’t good enough—I need you to see it.”
“Telling you to be constructive isn’t good enough—I need you to see it.”
Helping members see their behaviors revealed perceptions of how the team worked together—and not all the perceptions matched. Some team members experienced an aggressive culture, with competition, conflict, and a focus on the good of the individual at the expense of the team. Others perceived the team’s culture as passive, with members avoiding decisions and trying to “play it safe.”
“It opened their eyes,” says Steve. “If they didn’t start addressing those issues, it would be hard to get relationship issues and even process issues right.”
The assessment results also provided data the team could act on to improve their performance. They could see the behaviors that were interfering with their effectiveness and, with Steve’s help, use these insights to change their approach. In addition to bottom-line results, “there was a higher level of engagement and satisfaction associated with being on the team. I always tell people that’s the byproduct you want to get—satisfied people are better at what they do and more productive.”
Leadership Teams: “Keep it simple”
Steve starts with the same Alignment-Process-Relationships framework when working with leadership teams. In fact, he finds this “keep it simple” approach works particularly well with leaders and managers, who are “inundated with a lot of complexity and various ways to do things.” Using a simple, consistent approach across the team allows members to focus on collaboration without the distraction of worrying about whose process is superior or “right.”
With this example, the leadership team had the first step down and were firmly aligned around their shared goal, but “processes and clarity about decision rights were not present.” It was unclear who was “making the call,” leaving some members feeling like they could do whatever they wanted while others felt that they couldn’t do anything at all.
Upon completing the GSI, Steve found himself working with another group with varying experiences of the team culture: “When we did GSI with that group, what became clear is that different people on the team received the dynamics of the team quite differently. Some more Competitive or Oppositional types saw the team as a ‘free-for-all.’ The more Approval or Conventional types sat waiting for decisions to be made on their behalf. There was a dramatic difference in the view of the team itself through that lens. They needed the aggressive people to be more collaborative and the passive people to be more advocating.”
The culture of the leadership team also trickled down through the organization to impact the overall culture. Those who worked under the leadership team were confused as to which leader’s orders to obey. At the next level down, people didn’t know who to follow because of different opinions and marching orders from superiors. Everyone was working toward the same goal but taking different—and sometimes conflicting—routes.
Creating swim lanes
With a clear need to align the leadership team’s processes, Steve began working with them to create what he calls “swim lanes.”
“We needed to create ‘swim lanes’ for decisions so we knew who had the decision in this swim lane versus that swim lane, which required them to behave differently,” Steve explains. “They needed to take over their lane without stepping on anyone else.”
This behavioral shift had a huge impact on the team’s interactions. The more passive members had a “safe” way to express how the culture was affecting them and were able to advocate for themselves. The more aggressive members could see how their behaviors were impacting the team’s culture and gained clarity on their swim lanes. And this time, the trickle-down effect was a positive one, with less confusion and more alignment throughout the organization.
Steve concludes, “Whether it’s the GSI or something else, you need a way to assess the culture of the team. When a team is really focused on improving, they should do some kind of validated assessment of the team culture, and GSI is my choice. It’s the right bat in the hand for me.”
Training Teams: “Big ‘aha’ moments”
While the previous two cases focused on intact teams, a behavior-based approach can also boost performance in teams working together for specialized training.
Rina Sinha is a Senior Associate with Niwaki, who focus on organizational transformation with a people centric lean systems approach around the globe. Their work includes conducting onsite transformation projects as well as leadership development workshops in which teams gain a deep understanding of Lean techniques, combining simulations, exercises, and concepts to accomplish training goals and integrating challenges being faced by the client company into the program.
Rina and her colleagues at Niwaki use the GSI in these events to “bring to life and visualize behaviors so that improvements can be made.” The strategies and approaches they learn impact their effectiveness even if they don’t continue to work with the same team after the workshop is over.
She shared the story of one team who took part in a three-week event with Niwaki. The team displayed very defensive interaction styles, as confirmed by the assessment. They found themselves consistently falling behind in their work and struggled to collaborate effectively.
As part of the workshop, the team completed a GSI each week. Rina observes that, because it can be aligned with Lean values and principles, the GSI “brings them [the Lean principles] to life in the workshops and is an invaluable tool in the workplace.”
Upon completing the GSI, the team is led through a debrief process, developed by Niwaki, to help them reflect on their results. First, the team receives a blank GSI Circumplex, on which they create their own group profile. Then, they follow a five-step process to help them break down their results:
- Identify dominant behavioral styles and discuss specific behaviors displayed by the team that relate to those styles.
- Review the Team Effectiveness Scores provided in the GSI results.
- Reflect on the team’s effectiveness and, using the group profile, discuss what factors prevented the team from being more effective.
- Choose two behaviors (one Constructive to increase and one Defensive to decrease) to focus on for the remainder of the workshop.5
- Implement accountability strategies to help team members stay mindful of their behaviors and keep each other on track.
It’s a simple process, but one that delivers great results. “We find that almost every single team has a big ‘aha’ moment around why they were getting stuck, why they were behind compared to the other teams, or why they’re frustrated,” explains Rina. “We see almost immediately that they’ve put really good processes in place to hold themselves accountable to the behaviors they committed to.”
One example of an accountability process Niwaki uses is the identification of a “code word” that any team member can use when they see other members exhibiting ineffective behaviors they identified in their review of their GSI results. It’s amazing how the use of a simple rule or code word can help get a team back on track when they see team members “just going along with things” without raising alternative ideas, taking the team off course discussing irrelevant details, or otherwise behaving in ways that hamper the team’s effectiveness.
The debrief also gives team members a safe environment and shared language for discussing their behaviors and processes: “Without fail, in workshops, teams report excellent, open and honest conversations during the debrief, and we have consistent reports of more effective performance after adjusting behavior according to plans developed during debrief,” says Rina. “It creates a really good space because we can use red/blue/green (circumplex colors) versus words that may seem more threatening.”6
And in longer events like this three-week format, the team’s progress can be tracked as they continue through the workshop—and beyond. “Over time, we generally see them consistently becoming more Constructive, and if they stick with their teams [after the workshop], they’ll keep working on the actions and techniques.”
Visualizing the invisible
In this case, the team’s effectiveness began to improve dramatically by the third week, when they decided, without any prompting, to create a team charter and series of processes to hold themselves accountable to behavior changes. They stuck to it, and when they took the GSI again, their profile was significantly more Constructive. When asked if the third week felt different than the first two, they said, “Yes, the team is gelling much better, and we’re actually ahead as opposed to always being behind.”
“It’s very difficult to solve a problem if you can’t see it. Tools like the GSI make visual things that are generally hard to visualize like behavior, culture, and impact.”
At the end of the day, as Rina says, “It’s very difficult to solve a problem if you can’t see it. Tools like the GSI make visual things that are generally hard to visualize like behavior, culture, and impact,” helping team members recognize the gap between their current behaviors and those that would allow them to work better together to achieve higher-quality outcomes. “It provides a way to take a ‘pulse check’ in real time within teams, so they can become more aware of their and their teammates’ experiences of the group and adjust very quickly to be more effective and productive.”
How to optimize team performance
The three cases discussed above cover three very different teams with very different challenges, but all made great gains through a common approach: focusing on behaviors. While team development programs can (and should) be customized for the unique needs of the team, these four steps are a great place to start.
- Define the goal. Before beginning work, ensure that everyone on the team agrees on what they hope to accomplish and their desired outcomes.
- Assess team behaviors. Use a validated assessment to help team members “see” their behaviors and how they are contributing to (or detracting from) their team’s effectiveness.
- Build an action plan. Work with the team to identify how they can shift to more effective interaction styles. Be specific and make sure there are processes in place to keep all team members accountable.
- Re-assess regularly. Seeing data that quantify improved results can help teams stay motivated and feel like their hard work is paying off, and re-measuring over time keeps them on track in case they begin to slip back into less-effective behaviors.
As Steve says, “Most leaders acknowledge that poorly functioning teams are like an unclean engine: it’s not optimized for performance.” Are your teams running smoothly?
For more information on using the GSI to improve team performance, keep an eye out for Steve King’s upcoming book, “Alignment, Process, Relationships. A Simple Guide to Team Management.”
Experience the Group Styles Inventory
The GSI, developed by Robert A. Cooke on the basis of J. Clayton Lafferty’s Circumplex, measures the way in which members interact with one another and approach problems when working together as a team. The Inventory is included in Group Dynamics programs designed to facilitate, monitor and reinforce improvements in individual and group problem-solving effectiveness to enhance innovation, collaboration and business decisions. Onsite Group Development Sessions help you build innovative, high-performing teams with hands-on facilitation from our expert consultants and specialists like Steve King and Rina Sinha. Contact them or us to learn more about bringing a session to your organization.
The GSI is also now available with real-time feedback. It can be completed by group members on almost any digital device following a problem-solving activity or any of Human Synergistics’ simulations. Learn more about the GSI.
1 Cross, R., Rebele, R., Grant, A. (Jan-Feb 2016). Collaboration Overload Is a Symptom of a Deeper Organizational Problem. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload
2 LinkedIn (2019). 2018 Workplace Learning Report. The Rise and Responsibility of Talent Development in the New Labor Market. Retrieved from https://learning.linkedin.com/resources/workplace-learning-report-2018
3 UMass Dartmouth Publication (2019). 7 Steps To Effective Decision-Making. Retrieved from https://www.umassd.edu/fycm/decision-making/process/
4 Cooke, R.A. & Lafferty, J. C. (1989). Group Styles Inventory®. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.
5, 6 The terminology is from Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. and J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., Organizational Culture Inventory® and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®, Human Synergistics International, Plymouth, MI. Copyright © 1987-2007. All rights reserved. Used by permission.