Rallying a Healthy, Productive Team

August 6, 2013 No Comments by Zohreh Yamin

Stellar performance—that’s something all of us in leadership positions strive to achieve. But you won’t get there if you’re not working with a healthy, productive team.

Productive Team Inter-Growth

So what is that? That’s the kind of team that accomplishes the given task at a high level of performance. I described it in an earlier post, There’s No Leadership Without a Team. Members collaborate, share information, help each other out. They’re not personally competitive to the detriment of the team’s performance. They can address work-process challenges without negativity or backbiting.

When you watch a team like this at work, you can feel the positive energy! Unfortunately, it’s not always like that. Sometimes a whole different energy develops. People feel tense.

In teams like this, if you observe and question, you’ll find a lack of trust. Some members will find they’re not always included in information-sharing—not “in the loop.” Some may believe they have to watch their back, that their place is at risk, and unhealthy competitiveness will grow. Then when the inevitable snags or challenges arise, team members will (openly or not) blame each other. Individuals won’t feel respected or valued, and they’ll stop sharing their ideas in meetings.

Here’s the ultimate down side: personality conflicts take up a lot of the team’s energy. And that’s when, as a leader, you find the productivity—the performance—of your team taking a hit.

Leaders, I find, don’t talk much about this tension. I don’t go up to another leader and say, “Gosh, my team’s a wreck! Why are my efforts not working?” We can’t help thinking, “If I’m a good leader, I won’t have those experiences, or they’re going to be very short-lived. So if my team is having this challenge, this discomfort or tension with each other, what did I do wrong? How can I fix it?”

Well, there are things we can do. But first, we need to self-check our (possibly unrealistic) expectations. One of the biggest challenges to a leader, the hardest thing to accept, is how difficult—if not impossible—these tough team dynamics can be to fix yourself.

As leaders, we tend to believe we can mandate good energy. But the team members are adult professionals. And then there is organizational or even team culture at play. We can model, influence, encourage, and mentor—but we don’t get to mandate that subtle energy exchange between two adult professionals.

Still, healthy, productive teams exist! Here’s what I’ve observed that members and leaders of these teams do. They:

1. Consider all possible ideas. This requires an environment that respects and embraces diversity of thought, with everyone’s ideas welcome, so that everybody feels safe sharing them.

2. “Deal direct.” If someone feels stepped on or overlooked, if something happens that we don’t feel went well, we deal directly with each other, in a private setting. Is there a problem? We invite it in and address it. We don’t shoot the messenger. In a healthy department, when someone says, “I don’t think we’re going to meet this deliverable,” the response isn’t, “What do you mean!!?” It’s “Oh, tell me about that”— asking for more detail, for explanation.

3. Maintain respect and positive regard in the ways, both subtle and not, that people treat each other. Somebody who makes a mistake doesn’t find out in the team meeting that something’s wrong, they’ve had a heads-up. Critiquing others’ ideas isn’t a personal attack. Team members feel that the others have their back, value them, respect them—that teammates will go the extra mile to ask if they need help; that they’ll include them in a meeting so they’re not out of the loop.

4. Work on the relationship. Team leaders and members gladly invest their energy in open and direct relationships with each other.

A team with tension is like a boat with a hole in it—row all you want, but you won’t get anywhere. In fact, you might sink! A good solid boat won’t have that energy drain. Then you can figure out: OK, where are we going on this map, how do we row together, coordinate our efforts in the best way to achieve maximum performance? Because that’s where the energy focus needs to be, instead of being torn down by unhealthy team dynamics.

So, if leaders can’t mandate positive energy in team members, what strategies are available?

  • Talk openly with them about team culture. Put those core points, above, right on the table.
  • Get members’ buy-in to working in a healthy, productive way, and to defining what that looks like for them.
  • Set expectations together, including developing a team code of honor.
  • Acknowledge that, some days, we all may have more or less energy to “deal direct,” but commit as a team to strive together each day to create a healthy, productive team.
  • Work together to achieve these goals, with coaching and mentoring where appropriate.

A leader still has hard decisions to make sometimes. There may just not be a good match between a member and the team, and the way to help the team be healthy and productive is to coach and mentor that member out. It’s hard, but can be worth it. Your members will appreciate your commitment.

And you’ll see results! The energy of a healthy, productive team moves out externally. The individuals and families you serve, community members you interface with, your funders, all will feel it. It’s not just the happiness of team members; it’s productivity. When we’re working together in a healthy way, as adult professionals, when we respect and value each other, then we’re productive: we can get things done together. We leverage that healthy team, and our relationships, to do more than we could ever do on our own.


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