Whether it is in sports or in business, it’s commonly accepted that a “star team” will outperform a “team of stars”. How competent people work together to accomplish the tasks at hand accounts for as much, if not more, than the sum of their individual talents. The dilemma in organizations is that many working groups never succeed in tapping this higher level of synergy because they get embroiled in day-to-day work pressures and conflicting priorities.
Working with teams in trouble, we find that the real source of problems is rarely technical in nature even when signs seem to indicate that it is. The source of problems usually reveals itself after just a couple of hours, when project members clamor for better communication; problems invariably stem from people dynamics.
It is well documented that optimal team performance requires a high level of team engagement. (On this subject I highly recommend the excellent book by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, The Wisdom of Teams.) However, what we have repeatedly seen is that higher team engagement only occurs when certain conditions are in place, that: 1) satisfy both the emotional and cognitive needs of the individuals on the team, and 2) foster a culture integrating both collegiality and accountability in the team interactions.
In my view, there are four specific prerequisites to optimal team performance are: safety, clarity, trust, and responsibility, as illustrated on the chart below. These conditions are at the intersection of individual emotional and cognitive needs (plotted on the vertical axis) with the requirements for a sound team culture (on the horizontal axis).
Higher engagement and performance can occur only when all conditions have been met.
I have also found that these conditions cannot to be fulfilled at random. They require a certain sequence to be followed. Just as Maslow identified there is a hierarchy of needs in human experience, the prerequisites for team performance discussed here build on each other. For example, the conditions for responsibility cannot be fulfilled if the conditions for safety are not first established. (See chart below: the yellow arrows indicate the needed progression.)
Safety: This is the basic condition; people need to feel safe in order to speak openly among themselves and in front of their boss. They need to feel free from fear of put-downs, ridicule, aggressive confrontations, and reprimands. Without that, individuals refrain from expressing their opinions, and information is withheld. Furthermore, if people are in fear, they do not have full access to their intellectual abilities. They are therefore more engaged in self-protection than in understanding and contributing.
As individuals feel safe to speak openly, asking questions and voicing their concerns, they take the risk of revealing their own vulnerabilities. Most importantly, as they do so others perceive them to be more genuine, and therefore more trustworthy. This is turn encourages everyone on the team to open up to what they really care and worry about. As people speak authentically, people begin to trust each other and to hold more complete conversations.
Clarity: Such open conversations boost the ability to clear areas of confusion, starting with what the team is really intending to accomplish. Once individuals are able to discuss the various aspects of their work together in ways that everybody understands, they can move towards a common reality. As a result of being on the same page, individuals gain a better grasp of how they fit in, what is expected of them, and what their personal contribution can be.
Trust: With open and authentic conversations, and increased clarity, individuals gradually trust that no one will take advantage of them. As they increasingly believe that others will do what they have promised to do, they are more confident making their own commitments. Individuals experience a greater sense of fairness.
Responsibility: When the conditions of safety, clarity and trust are satisfied, individuals move easily into responsibility, both individual and collective. Most individuals want to do a good job and feel a sense of accomplishment for their contributions. At this stage individuals spark off of each other and the team displays greater innovation and increased ability to respond positively to change.
High Performing Team
A highly engaged team is more likely to self-organize effectively and produce the outcomes they have identified as desirable. These teams are able to deliver higher levels of quality work, respond to changes in client requests, and find ongoing improvements. By the same token, leaders, freed from troubleshooting and crisis management, can dedicate more time to strategic thinking and supporting their teams by clearing obstacles that may arise — thereby moving from fixing what went wrong to anticipating and resolving issues that could hinder progress.
Highly engaged teams have higher spirits, greater camaraderie, and a sense of collective ambition, wanting to get the job done well. Creating the four “soft” conditions described above will significantly increase the likelihood of higher performance and success on any project or team initiative.
(For more information on the topic, please see our article Collegiality and Accountability in the Workplace.)