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What makes a team really perform?

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Thumbs upA team's emotional strength, based on the trust and communication between its members, is crucial to its successful performance, says John Frost.








What makes a team really perform? Roles, goals and functions are often the focus of attention, but what is the real glue that binds a team together to create great performance time and time again?

In reality it is the emotional strength of the team that enables them to perform. Factors like trust, emotional resilience, communication and leadership are all critical success factors in teams that consistently deliver results.

There is no doubt that a high-performing team needs a clear understanding of their goals. It is also true that each team member should have an understanding of their role, function and key targets as well as an understanding of what they need to do to support the goals of their colleagues in the team.

Photo of John Frost"What derails a team in reality is very rarely that they don't understand what they have to do to get results. It is more often that they have not put energy into how they have to be."

Many teams focus on this first because, if anything, it is the easiest element of team performance to establish. And yet it is also true that teams with very clear targets at an early stage of their development do not deliver against them. What derails a team in reality is very rarely that they don't understand what they have to do to get results. It is more often that they have not put energy into how they have to be. So, it is crucial to understand the other factors that directly enhance performance - the emotional strengths and abilities of the team.

In Drexler and Sibbet's 'Team Performance Model' (1999) goals, roles and deliverables are only considered after the key emotional strengths that will bind the team together and sustain performance are developed.

Their first stage is orientation – the why am I here? This covers aspects such as team purpose and how the team will add value to the business. It also covers the team's identity and values and aligns the people with these values. In reality, this means developing a set of values that will guide decision making and underpin the team's performance. Does your team have a set of values or principles which act as a guide for decision making? Do you use team or company values to measure individual performance as well as bottom line contribution? Values are the glue that binds the team together and a team that is congruent with its values is a powerful unit.

Their second stage is about building and creating mutual trust, respect and support for each other. Trust has a direct link to performance. Without it a team will always under-perform. Trust is based on many things. One of these is open and honest communication. This builds support and confidence in the team.

As Covey points out in 'The Speed of Trust', when trust is high, the speed at which the team performs increases and therefore its costs reduce and it makes more bottom line contribution. What is the level of trust in your team right now? What does it feel like working in your team, is it a positive or a negative experience? Where do you spend your time and energy; on value added activities or worrying about the quality of the relationships in the team?

Communication is an important element in creating trust. Ultimately this is about being open and honest - saying it as it is. This means telling the people around us the truth, fact and reality, that they need to hear. Many times we belittle those around us by assuming that we will hurt their feelings if we are honest with them. In truth we are only protecting ourselves. And in teams, if people are not open and honest about not just what they think about a situation but also how they feel about it, then the team will underperform.

"Without exception the teams that sustain performance over time are the ones that invest in the emotional foundations first. They understand that when the emotional connection is made... then achieving what it wants to do follows naturally."

By holding back we are in effect sabotaging the team's performance. Sabotage is a strong word to use but it's true. What would you say if you knew that you would get a positive outcome for yourself and the team? If there is a gap between your internal dialogue (what you are thinking and feeling) and your external dialogue (what you are saying) then you are making the choice not to be open and honest. None of this is easy but the art of tough conversations, when mastered, has a dramatic effect on a team's performance. Only by naming the elephant in the room can we have a chance of dealing with it!

Great relationships are underpinned by great communication. A team needs strong relationships and the support that goes with this if they are to develop another key competence - that of emotional resilience. Put simply this means how the team responds to set backs and learns from those set backs. The past does not equal the future unless we wallow in it and fail to learn from it. A resilient team will review what happens and have an open and honest discussion; not to lay blame at anyone's door, but to create a change which will improve performance.

The final stage in developing teams is leadership. It is often said of leaders that they cannot create a high performance team on their own, but they can be responsible for the team not performing.

There are many roles for leadership in a team but perhaps the key role is to help the team create the culture and the climate that releases potential and then enables the people in the team to perform to the highest level of their ability. Leadership is an art and the greatest proponents of the art all seem to have three key emotional qualities. The first is courage: the courage to do the right thing even when it is hard. The second is persistence: the ability to bounce back from a set-back, learn and re-focus on your vision. The last is humility: the understanding that you are there to serve others rather than to take all the glory. It is the ability to admit when you have made a mistake. It is being humble and not getting caught up in arrogance and pride. This kind of leadership engages the heart as well as the head.

I work with many teams as a leadership consultant and a team coach. Without exception the teams that sustain performance over time are the ones that invest in the emotional foundations first. They understand that when the emotional connection is made, when the team decides what it wants to be, then achieving what it wants to do follows naturally.


John Frost is the operations director at Values Based Leadership

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