Development of High Performing Teams.
First let’s begin by defining precisely what a team is. Katzenbach and Smith, in “The Wisdom of Teams” define a team as follows:
… a small number of people with complementary skills committed to a common purpose, performance goals and ways of working together for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.
I’ve been fortunate throughout my life to participate in some of the highest performing teams in a variety of different disciplines.
These include both sporting teams as well as teams within the framework of my job.
As a young man I was introduced to the value and importance of teamwork during critical incidents during my service as a Volunteer Firefighter, my life in the Army, as a K9 handler and finally as a Team Leader in SWAT.
Teams can consist of very few individuals all the way to being comprised of thousands upon thousands of people.
Teams that consist of more than 15 to 20 members are likely to be made up of sub teams such as a sniper Cadre or a fireteam consisting of two infantrymen dug into a trench.
In the business sense a subset can be comprised of your analytics team within your larger strategic execution team for example.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s an extraordinary large team or a subset of a team there are specific characteristics that exist within any team structure in order for it to be functioning and successful.
First let’s take a look at the stages of Team development.
The first task of somebody who is fulfilling the role of a team leader within business or tactics, is to understand the stages through which a team will develop in order that he or she may encourage and accelerate the process.
This requirement to understand the knowledge skills and abilities of your team is essential especially as it relates to risk management both in a physical and fiscal sense.
Rest assured during a critical incident that becomes a long and protracted event ideas that are generated for the purpose of expediting a resolution by well meaning people tucked away in a command post, will be vast.
The same holds true in the conference room of a corporation scrambling to execute a marketing plan or some other function within their business. The troops slugging it out to make things happen will have some well meaning CEO or COO parachute in to try and save the day… like they did in the old days…
Often times it is because those in a Command role may not completely understand the full range of the capabilities of the team.
It is either up to you as a team leader to educate them as quickly as possible or utilize someone in a liaison role to do it for you.
Knowing your strengths, weaknesses and capabilities as a team ensures you avoid putting team members individually, or the team collectively, in a situation that it is not equipped for or trained to handle.
Make no mistake about it this applies equally in the world of tactics and business.
A CEO may agree to undertake new business development or strategy, not fully comprehending that his team does not possess the specific expertise required to execute.
The danger I have seen with too many tactical teams is they develop a linear subset of many skills believing they are then prepared to handle any situation instead of staying focused on their core responsibilities.
I’ve also observed this in businesses looking to go too wide to fast before they have shored up their core functions and acquisition strategies.
As a leader in any type of organization we want our teams to perform. To reach high performance requires a very methodical transformation.
A model of Team development that people easily understand now is known as Firo B. This model, which was developed by doctor Will Shutz, who was one of the forerunners of encounter group therapy, based at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur California along with other legends like Maslow, Perls, and Rogers, the fathers of humanistic psychology.
Shutz called this method “Firo B” be after the seminar room that he most often use at Esalen.
It’s been my consistent observation in team development scenarios or training, anybody involved in this process finds it very difficult to expose emotional vulnerability during the learning process.
It doesn’t matter whether it is a high-performing team involved in tactics, high performance sport coaches or a team of business execs.
It becomes critically important for the team leader to ensure that the environment is conducive to learning and growing by making it as safe as possible.
In order for a team to develop and move to becoming a high functioning group that can assess and implement plans for task execution, it must first pass through specific stages.
The first stage is called inclusion. John Whitmore, in his book Coaching for Performance writes: It’s here that people determine if they are, and if they feel they are, a group or a team member.
People may feel nervous, anxious and introverted but they may come across as quite different.
We’ve all experienced Jonny OneUpYa who is the loudest in the room, telling the jokes and laughing way too loud. Frankly, that is their method of compensating for nerves and feeling inadequate.
You as a team leader must be able to guide the group through what can be a somewhat awkward and emotionally challenging time.
An individual will look to you as the team leader for acceptance and guidance. it’s been my experience that during this phase it doesn’t hurt to display or reveal some form of vulnerability as the team leader.
Often times even self-deprecation or joking can facilitate an environment that feels safe. Giving other teammates the win even if you shared it… let them have it. You don’t need it I assure you.
It doesn’t take away from your personal power as team member or a team leader for that matter, to allow others to be recognized even if it wasn’t all their doing.
Fortunately this phase of team development is very short-lived. It seems that often the speed of this process is reliant to some degree on the amount of time a new team spends together.
If it is a team established for an ancillary purpose that meets infrequently you can expect the time of each phase to be reflected accordingly.
Once the majority of the group feels included there is a secondary transition.
This second phase of team development is called assertion, which is where you will observe the emergence of individuals trying to establish themselves.
This can occur during a short session of team development within days or it can exist throughout the entire time a team works together.
Individuals will begin to express power and extend boundaries. The common business language around this phase of development is called the establishment of rules and functions, but the same applies to the world of special operations as well.
Competition within the team is always present and not necessarily unhealthy. In fact it may lead to exceptional individual performance, but sometimes at the expense of others which in my view is not acceptable.
It is a phase in which people try out and discover their strengths and the team may make up for what it lacks in cohesiveness with productivity.
Just as a heads up, this phase of development can be particularly tough on a team leader.
There will be challenges to the leadership and if left unchecked some may attempt to create splitting activities and undermine the team leader’s position.
Team members have to find out that they can disagree with the leader and be heard in a meaningful way before they will be willing to agree.
They need to exercise their will internally in order to hone it for team application externally.
As a team leader you want to offer opportunities for your members to become craftsmen in their own right.
Provide them with taskings and responsibilities that are challenging and rewarding that will satisfy their assertion needs.
Don’t get upset when you are challenged. In fact you should welcome it. If you feel threatened you may need to examine if you are the right person to be leading the team.
This isn’t about egos but rather execution.
Remember to lead from the front. Don’t be afraid to do the task or undertake the assignment and put your heart into the team and it’s outcomes.
It is your opportunity to demonstrate your ability to achieve balance in the energy and dynamic within the group.
The majority of business teams, sports teams or high performing teams seldom advance beyond this point.
To go beyond the assertion phase of development and above the norm takes guidance.
The next phase of development for a high-performing team is known as cooperation.
The most productive teams will be highly cooperative but will be balanced with a degree of tension.
This goes back to the assertion phase but can be leveraged to foster cooperation. High performers are often very creative and need to exercise that side of their spirit.
By allowing individuals and small groups to specialize it not only facilitates individual satisfaction within the team, but it creates mutual respect among the team members.
Here’s an example:
On my SWAT team (we call them tactical teams in Canada) every team member must possess the basic skills of an Assaulter, which is a the basic function of moving through houses or buildings efficiently and as a member of the team.
Each member can perform that function. Once they have mastered those basic set of skills I would encourage them to develop a particular discipline within the team framework. The discipline selected was a result of my observations of their talents, their own aptitude and preferences against the backdrop of team needs.
This would include Snipers, Breachers, Explosive Forced Entry, Less Lethal Chemical Deployment, Tactical Fitness and Rappelling to name a few. Each individual member was responsible for learning their discipline and training the team as a whole.
No one person contained all of the knowledge, and each team member was at one point or another in charge of the team as a whole when training members in their respective discipline.
When this is achieved you will observe a high level of espirit de corp, which is a sense of pride in the group and the work it produces.
As a good team leader it’s up to you to preserve this sensitivity between your team members.
There are so many factors which detract from achieving a cooperative state that it is quite possible a team only ever reaches the assertion phase. High turnover in team members, a lack of experience in the discipline and life for that matter.
All of these dynamics can work to unsettle your transition to a truly cooperative high performing team. Don’t let that frustrate you.
This stage is actually very rare to achieve and requires that many individuals let go of their own egos to ensure the greater good of the team is preserved to achieve a high level of execution.
Work diligently to lead the development of your team anchored in your vision and values.
The values of a strong team include Trust, Support, Patience, Commitment, Honesty, Enthusiasm, Friendship and Courage to name a few.
Sometimes you will need to remind your team members of both your vision and values, but that’s your role as the team leader.
Your vision will always act as a guide and enable you to stay on the path of executing your strategy for developing a high performing team.
Remember, team development happens in phases and it certainly isn’t over night. Taking a bird’s eye view of the process will give you the ability to recognize the characteristics of each phase and better enable you move through the transitions to get to a high level of cooperation.