Time for a rethink on effective teams

When employees work together to
achieve tasks, attention must be paid to developing strengths at a collective
level rather than on an individual basis, says Tim Mills

Organisations encourage
teamworking because of the belief that certain benefits can be gained.
Associated benefits include improved productivity, greater employee
satisfaction, and better organisational behaviour, such as reduced absenteeism.

However, these benefits are derived
from effective teamworking, not teamworking per se. Thus, business teams must
attend to those team factors that directly contribute to the benefits.

Team development can take many
forms. Often team members are individually described in terms of their
preferred roles. This approach enables ideal team profiles to be developed. The
best teams have a balance of individuals bringing particular abilities to the
group.

Team development can help because
understanding individual strengths and weaknesses facilitates more effective
organisation of tasks.

A similar approach is to define the
individual personality types. A greater shared understanding of members’
personalities and how they define preferred ways of working improves their
ability to integrate.

Such development becomes most
effective when it enhances teamwork at the collective level. Until recently,
team competencies have tended to be considered at the individual rather than
collective level.

The research partnership of Penna
Change Consulting and Cranfield School of Management has set out to define the
collective knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviours that teams from
different contexts need to enhance their performance.

Challenging questions

The research initially focused on
teams from a variety of environments, such as sport, the arts, and business.
Observation of non-work teams raises challenging questions for business: why,
for example, do we accept the need for football teams to plan set moves and
jazz groups to rehearse, and yet expect project teams at work to perform from
day one?

From this research, a generic model
of collective competence was developed and then explored further through a
survey of almost 100 teams, and over 500 team members, from many different
business environments. The research suggested that at least 16 distinct
collective competencies have a significant impact on performance.

These competencies include
maintaining an effective psychological environment, managing important task
processes, sharing particular types of knowledge, and encouraging motivational
competence.

Can we be sure that all competencies
are relevant to all teams? Different teams operate in vastly different
environments. Some are brought together for one-off projects, others last for
years. Some might carry out formal and predefined tasks, while others face
broad goals that can be achieved in any number of ways.

Teams are made up of different
individuals. They might be predominantly introverts or extroverts, all women or
all men. These factors are likely to affect teamworking and therefore might
determine which competencies are important.

The survey stage of the research has
started to illuminate some of these issues. For example, let us consider the
need for flexibility. This is a competence that seems to be important to enable
teams collectively to adjust to changing task demands.

Teams in a fairly defined
environment, facing structured and predetermined tasks, are perhaps less likely
to require such competence. Our survey supports this, indicating that
flexibility is more predictive of good performance in teams facing unstructured
task environments.

Communication

However, many of the competencies in
the framework appear to be relevant to all teams. Certain core competencies,
such as communication, universally predict the performance measures. Thus effective
communication must be achieved in all teams to facilitate success.

The issue for development here is
not whether effective communication should be developed but how it should be
developed. It is to address this question that the team context must be
considered.

Teams sharing office space might be
affected by regular informal meetings; international virtual teams might
require formal communication protocols.

The survey has also informed our
understanding of the relevance of emotional empathy and cohesion. The data
indicates that people achieve more satisfaction from being part of a team if it
exhibits high levels of these competencies. This is important because it is
through increased levels of employee-satisfaction that improved organisational
behaviours and attitudes are achieved.

Team members who work in better
psychological environments are less likely to be absent and more likely to stay
with the organisation.

The research has resulted in the
development of a collective competency instrument. This enables teams to assess
their own strengths and weaknesses and decide what training would benefit them
most.

Teams taking part in the research
received feedback that indicates their strengths and weaknesses. Using these
profiles, they, alongside a facilitator, can plan development within the
constraints of their team and their environment.

Competence development requires
trainers to address the process issues specific to the team. The question is
then not simply to use prescribed methods to achieve competence, but to
discover the processes by which they can develop and maintain such collective
competence.

This model has been developed from
many different teams. Too often team research focuses on top management teams
to the exclusion of those in “less prestigious” areas of the organisation.
Wherever employees work together to achieve collective goals, attention should
be paid to the development of the competencies that will bring about success.

Tim Mills is a research
fellow at Cranfield School of Management

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