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Effective strategies to overcome team challenges and boost performance

Rebecca SchalmThe ‘team’ is probably the most complex and irritating relationship in an organization.

As individuals, we seem to be able to work with most people one-on-one, perhaps in groups of three, and also as an entity of hundreds and even thousands. We struggle most when a medium-sized group of us is clustered together in a room, meeting once a month to, at least theoretically, do something together.

Teams have the most trouble when there is a power differential (i.e., there is an appointed leader) and when their purpose is more strategic than operational (i.e., they make decisions vs. work on products). Most advice to teams targets the leader and what they can do to build a better team. Below are three membership dysfunctions that can get in the way of team effectiveness and suggestions on how team members themselves can help.

1) Team members believe the problem with the way the group is working (or, rather, not working) is someone else’s fault.

Effective strategies to overcome challenges face by your teams and boost performance

Photo by Annie Spratt

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Let me be clear: responsibility for effective team functioning and dynamics sits squarely with the leader. However, he or she does not bear the responsibility alone. Each and every person who sits around the table is responsible for how they contribute to the dynamic. I sometimes ask people: ‘What is one thing you could do differently to help the team work together more effectively?’ and then throw up my hands in despair when I get a blank stare. The way a team member can make the team experience more positive is to reflect, answer that question, and then set about making a personal change in how they interact with their peers and leader.

2) Team members expect their leader to manage the team in a way consistent with how they personally prefer to be led.

Those who want to be consulted and have decisions emerge through participative consensus-making struggle with a team leader who manages decisively and directly. Team members who like direction, structure, and discipline flounder with leaders whose style is relaxed, opinion-seeking, and open-ended.

The solution? Adjust your expectations that your boss will always adapt their style to suit your preferences. While some leaders excel at understanding and accommodating the needs of the group, not all do. The complexity increases when you consider that everyone at the table has slightly different preferences: it’s impossible to please everyone simultaneously. Recognizing this, along with your leader’s limitations and strengths, can foster empathy and perhaps encourage you to adjust and temper your expectations.

3) Team members expect their peers to defer to them as experts on functional issues and regard them as smarter than average on everything else.

One of the most common complaints I hear is that no one asks for their opinion or listens when they offer it. The trouble is, I hear this from every member of the team, suggesting that not only are they not being heard, but they are also not listening to others.

The solution? There are two. First, spend more time having one-on-one conversations to fully express yourself, get feedback, and refine your ideas before presenting them to the entire team. Second, be selective about sharing your opinions. Consider whether the team really needs your input on every topic. Ask yourself if your opinion is unique or critical enough to change the direction of the conversation. Is it central to the issue or just an interesting aside? The more relevant and insightful your input, the more likely people will stop and listen.

Teams are as unique as individual relationships. Sometimes they feel like magic; other times, they stumble along clumsily. Most teams shift back and forth between these extremes. Our goal should always be to lead an effective team when we are in a position to do so and to be a member of an effective team when we are not.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions.

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