The Effective Team

I just completed an engineering project at university. Here’s what I learned about effective team decision making:

There are four important types of behaviour in the team environment.

Initiating behaviours

These behaviours are all about creating ideas and possibilities. They tend to fall into two categories: proposing and building. Finding the correct balance between these two is critical.

Too much proposing and a team may find themselves lacking direction. Teams are often pressed for time and can’t afford to wander around aimlessly. Too little however, and great ideas and opportunities may get missed out on.

Building is a great way of creating direction in a team. By building on someone else’s idea, there can be a sense of progress in a team because something is getting developed. It also creates a sense of collaboration because more team members feel like they have ownership, or a stake in the final solution. Asking a question that encourages a precise contribution to your idea is a great way to get people to build on it and agree with you in the process.

Clarifying behaviours

Clarifying is all about ensuring a common understanding about the chosen proposal. Ambiguity and misalignment about an objective will show up as a defective final product. To improve clarity, two behaviours can help: giving information and seeking information.

Giving appropriate facts and breaking things down for people is a great way to remove ambiguity. The principal is simple- give in depth explanations and descriptions so that everyone understands. Add your thoughts into the mix so that people understand your perspective and where you’re coming from. Great. Except too much of that can dramatically slow down the progress of the team and leave your team members frustrated or uninterested.

Seeking information when you aren’t fully clear, or if you think other team members may have not grasped a concept can help more. Questions like, “Could you go into a little bit more detail there? I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying”, or, “Does everyone understand what I’ve just said? I’m happy to explain further”, can prevent disasters down the line. If you’re unclear about something, make sure you seek! When it comes to questions, it’s quantity over quality. Don’t feel under pressure to ask profound questions or look smart. Just make sure you understand. I can think of only a few behaviours that are this dangerous in their absence and I’ll get onto them soon. Let’s move!

Reacting behaviours

The effective team is undivided in their decisions. Division whether internal or external, will show up as a halt in progress, or the fragmentation of a team sooner or later. And guess what? Sooner is better. Reacting behaviours are: supporting, disagreeing and defending/attacking.

Knowing where everyone stands is a must in any effective team. Opinions from all team members must be canvassed at every checkpoint to ensure this happens. Supporting an idea is letting someone know that you’re on board with their idea or way of thinking. Does everyone like this idea? Sweet, let’s move on. But wait. Although Supporting an idea is good, supporting a person is even better. When we reactive positively, making it personal makes the recipient feel good. Do I really need to explain why this is beneficial?

Often people are reluctant to disagree. No one wants to constantly hold up progress with their disagreeing and dissatisfaction; another may not want to offend the proposer. Another still, may feel like their small doubts are too insignificant to voice. But remember when I said I can think of only a few behaviours that are more dangerous than seeking information in their absence? This is one of them. Undercurrents of disagreement carve out doom for the future of the team and must therefore get checked immediately. The key to disagreeing is disagreeing with the idea, not the person. Keeping negative reactions as impersonal as possible is the grease necessary for friction-less disagreement. Besides overtly disagreeing and stating why, disagreement may take on subtler forms. For instance, one may build on an idea, subtly changing its direction to one they feel more suitable. Or one may ask a cutting question, exposing an inconspicuous flaw in a proposal. It’s good to disagree in the right amount. Playing the devils advocate is a surefire way to improve the strength of a proposal.

Defending and attacking are behaviours that seldom occur but they too have their place in the team environment. When someone is being attacked, stepping in to defend can even out tempers and restore the balance in a team. Attacking may be necessary where someone has acted unduly, or when underlying tensions need to be brought to the surface.

Process behaviours

Research has shown that the most effective teams are those where everyone gets a near equal amount of air time. This can be regulated by two behaviours: bringing in and shutting out.

Bringing in is calling on the thoughts and opinions of that isolated team member that hasn’t said much. Bringing in is making that person feel a little more comfortable to speak. It’s all about accommodating, receiving and drawing a voice out of those distanced team members.

Shutting out or interrupting is necessary because effective teams don’t have all day to listen to the same person babble on. Interruptions must be made in order to progress and also to contest for your own air time if you feel like you’re not getting much. Yes, raise your voice above the others every now and then.

The balance of these two behaviours is crucial in ensuring the team itself is balanced as it moves forward.

Before I wrap up, it’s worth noting that every team has its own dynamic. That is, every team will have its own particular combination of all these behaviours that just seems to work for them. It’s important to be sensitive to your team dynamic and learn what mixture of these behaviours is suitable.

As social beings, it’s in our essence to work in teams. Teams in the natural world achieve all kinds of wonderful feats and we are no exception. It has been proven that collective thinking trumps individual thinking. If you struggle with team work or want to get better, work on developing these behaviours one at a time and I have no doubt you’ll see your team performances excel. Hold me to it.

Does everyone understand? Yes? Excellent.

If that’s all clear,

Let’s get it.