How to build high functioning teams

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"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much." - Helen Keller

As always, I’m sharing some insights from a client conversation I had this week. This is for the business owners, managers and those amongst you who collaborate with people on a daily basis (well, basically, all of us!).

A well-functioning team is what everyone dreams of, whether you’re a business owner or manager. You feel supported and free when your team works seamlessly and efficiently. On the other hand, it can lead to stress and sleepless nights when there’s trouble in the team, even if it’s just one team member’s performance that doesn’t meet expectations.

So what can you as a business owner or manager do when faced with team members whose performance seem to be suboptimal?

While firing the person might be an immediate, tempting choice, it may not be the best at hand in most instances. Why? This is because most human beings bring some strength or the other to the workplace. As a leader, it is up to you to identify, nurture and use those to the advantage of the company, your team and the individual’s career progression. In this blog, I delve upon ways how you can do that.

1) Understand that not all of your workforce may comprise of the superstars you desire to have

This understanding alone can take the pressure of expectations off your back. It will help you realize that you have the responsibility and power to create the team that you want, even if things aren’t going great right now. While great teams can be nurtured over time or can also happen as a rare natural constellation, as with everything in life change is a constant. People switch teams, leave the company, you add new team members, etc. which change the structure of the team. With the addition of every new member, there’s a steep learning curve – not just on the specifics of the work topic, but also in integrating into the team and company culture. This requires effort from everyone in the team if it’s a high-functioning team that you desire. While as a leader, you can hope and dream that the person is motivated to learn, integrate and thrive, the onus falls upon you to create the space within the team for the person to feel accepted, provide support and have regular conversations to understand how things are shaping up. More on that in the points below.

2) Trust is key

"Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability." - Patrick Lencioni

Take time to know the person and what their professional aspirations are. Be human. Over several interactions show genuine interest in the person and treat them as a human being. I see our society is very uncomfortable with this, but here is where the gold lies. You see, every human being is wired for human connection. We thrive in environments where we feel connected and appreciated, where we feel we are valued. We then are motivated to contribute our best. On a Monday morning, when a person steps into the office, s/he doesn’t remove that requirement from their personalities. We are all habituated to wearing armored selves at work, but at the core, we all still crave to be understood. Can you imagine the difference it will make when your manager take the time, sits down by your side when you are going through an exceptionally challenging situation in your personal life and work, and offer her/his support? It doesn’t mean you have to pry open your entire personal lives to each other, but why not go beyond the usual superficial pleasantries?

Trust is built in small increments through such seemingly inconsequential steps. When someone knows that you as a leader have their back, that they can rely on your support, their motivation skyrockets. It helps during those tricky performance feedback meetings as well, when you can share your feedback (clearly, honestly and kindly – more on that in another post), where the person will understand that you’re coming from an empathetic space where the only desire is to create exceptional results for the company including the individual.

3) Communicate clearly

You might have the best intentions but if they are not communicated clearly in a way your employees understand, it can only lead to confusion and poor performance. Ask yourself these questions, reflect on the answers and see what changes you can make.

  1. Am I regularly sharing updates and expectations with my team?
  2. At the end of key meetings, do I summarize or ask someone in the team to summarize the key priorities, ownership structure and desired outcomes?
  3. Am I being approachable and open enough for my direct reports for clarifications, feedback and sharing ideas?
  4. Do I set regular milestones, through regular touchpoints, to review progress and provide feedback?
  5. If something didn’t work, what could I have done better in hindsight to clarify and follow up on expectations?
  6. Are there regular SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) in place that teams can follow for important, repetitive tasks?

4) You are the leader. Mindset is key and, everything starts with your mindset

What’s your attitude when it comes to your team? Do you have stressful thoughts when you think of a particular team member? What’s the quality with which you’ll show up at work when your internal software (thoughts) is mired in resistance?

Instead, what if you choose to take a positive stance, to understand the motivations and strengths of each individual, and how to build a coherent team using everyone’s unique skills, knowing you are completely capable of creating an exceptional team? Feel your state shift. It’s a more empowering stance, isn’t it?

5) With that empowered mindset, take a look again

Is that person or people in your team really unsuited for the job? Can there be skills that can be taught? Am I ensuring that the people in my team have enough time to build the skills? Or can you re-assign jobs based on individuals skills? With the right support, training, and feedback, you’ll notice improvements.

Thinking of parting ways with a person (aka firing or severance through a mutual agreement) should ideally be the last option in my opinion. The more humane and empathetic workplaces become, the more motivated individuals and teams will be. This is the ideal foundation for exceptional results for the business and a highly satisfied and motivated workforce.  

Teamwork, performance and business results – I’ve touched upon some key areas here. I’m eager to hear from you. Do you have insights to add or are struggling with something related to team performance? Let me know in comments.


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