Creating High Performance Teams

Lex Lindeman – HR Boosters
Dr. Paul Rono – Kenyatta University (Nairobi, Kenya)

Lex Lindeman

Paul Rono

What is a Team?
A team is a group of people who work together to accomplish something beyond their individual self interests.  Not all groups are teams.  What distinguishes teams from other similar sounding groups is that a team is not a collection of people simply following orders.

To function effectively, a team needs the following:

  • Shared purpose and goals,
  • Commitment from the outside,
  • Internal rules of operation; and
  • Interdependence and trust between the members.

A functioning team must have a purpose, a reason for existence.

Why Organizations Need Teams
Most organizations introduce teamwork because of the perceived benefits of motivation of staff and reduced costs from more effective working practices or decisions.  Where a group of individuals could share the same purpose, a team with individuals will reach the target faster and more effectively. Teamwork occurs when the members work together to improve performance through sharing core values, all of which promote the use of skills to accomplish common goals. Teamwork is most likely to be successful when it operates in a supportive environment. The atmosphere within the organization therefore, needs to support cooperation and trust.

When to Deploy Teams?
Teams offer an effective alternative in many situations.  Examples of situations for which using teams instead of individuals is particularly useful include:

  • Building houses or other construction projects.
  • Organization of ceremonies (values, rituals, symbols).
  • Weeding or cultivating farms (clear assignments & tasks).
  • Sports and athletics (code of ethics and performance).
  • Administration and HR (supportive and communities of practice).
  • Marketing and Sales teams (increase performance and goals).
  • In a production environment (clear goals and output).

Creating a Team Environment
Effective teams follow a proven pattern with respect to organization and operation of the team.  This typically would include:

  • A (multifunctional) problem or project is identified.
  • Roles are distributed in terms of existing team relationships and expertise.
  • Team members work together to gather data relating to the problems or opportunities.
  • Group members collaboratively analyze data and create a plan for improvement.
  • The action plan is tested and implemented by the group.
  • The group collaboratively evaluates the impact of the new solutions.
  • The process is improved.

The process is related to vision, commitment is related to motivation. Team members must be committed to undertake the task to see the purpose of the team through completion.

Choice of Team Members and Team Cohesiveness
A high-performance team will exhibit a high degree of team cohesiveness.  Team cohesiveness tends to be higher when:

  • The team consists of members with similar attitudes, ages, backgrounds, and needs.
  • The members respect and use each others abilities.
  • They support and share common objectives.
  • Team tasks require interdependent efforts.
  • Team size is relatively small.
  • The team is physically isolated from other groups.
  • The team is able to share performance success.
  • The team is able to cope successfully with temporary setbacks and failures.

The team cohesiveness can be further enhanced by:

  • Rewarding effective team performance.
  • Improving the quality of interactions between team members.
  • Creating competition and rivalry against other teams and keeping the team together for fairly lengthy period of time.

Conditions  for Teamwork
Elements which courage strong team cohesion are a group language, leadership through role model or exemplary behavior, play for both relaxation and the stimulation of creativity, and the development of a group culture through rituals and ceremonies.  Managers who are trying to get their teams to work better, but who ignore the structural, HR, political and symbolic conditions often find that their efforts come to nothing.

Teams can deliver high performance levels for a long time as long as a number of prior conditions have been met.

They include:

  • Structural conditions (clear task and assignment of authority),
  • Human resource conditions,  quantitatively and qualitatively (people who like to work in teams, sufficient staffing and reasonable rewards),
  • Resources and time (sufficient means and time to complete the tasks),
  • The right political conditions (sufficient power and influence); and
  • Symbolic conditions, especially with regard to bringing in and maintaining of a common culture and language (jargon).

One such symbolic condition is the creation of barriers restricting entry to a group whose performance level has to be very high.  Preventing the group from becoming too homogeneous is another.

The Role of the Facilitator is Key

Do not underestimate facilitating tasks in teams.  When people work together in a team, they adopt particular roles.  For example, one person may be responsible for monitoring progress, checking the time keeping or acting as the leader.  There is a tendency for one member to take on the task functions and for the others to adopt the maintenance functional role.

Facilitating task functions are those which help the group to get task done as effectively and efficiently as possible, including:

  • Proposing objectives, clarifying goals.
  • Seeking information and opinions.
  • Keeping the group on track.
  • Summarizing ideas.
  • Suggesting ways forward.
  • Evaluating contributions.
  • Coordinating the efforts of the team to ensure that it makes best use of its resources in achieving its goals.
  • Setting objectives and priorities and driving the team towards successful completion of the task.
  • Coming up with new ideas and strategies.
  • Evaluating and analyzing problems and progress.
  • Exploring and reporting on ideas and developments from outside the group.

Further Team Development
Today there are a variety of approaches to team development other than activities during work. This may involve meetings to discuss insight into non-work related issues or alternatively, putting the team in a fresh context, e.g., outdoor activities, weekend-based activities on team collaboration, team development activities with experienced facilitators to give insight into team dynamics, decision making in teams, etc.

There are a number of aspects of team development, including:

  • Helping team members to identify shared objectives and purposes.
  • Developing interpersonal skills between team members, e.g., listening skills, supporting skills, encouragement skills.
  • Developing team rewards for supportive behavior.
  • Developing collective problem-solving skills.
  • Building up a store of personal goodwill to overcome problems.
  • Developing team confidence and competence.
  • Recognizing personal strengths and weaknesses, functional and personal.

It is important how someone becomes a member of a team. He/she may have to undergo some ceremonies or initiations. Not orders, but behavior models keep teams together. Rituals and ceremonies rejuvenate the spirit and strengthen values. When the team gets the spirit its performance will soar. The belief that working in teams makes individuals more creative and productive is so wide spread that when faced with a challenging new task, leaders are quick to assume that teams are the best way to get the job done. Leading a team requires enormous courage because authority is always involved, which could arouse great anxiety in the team.

Dysfunctional Teams
A dysfunctional team is a major problem for any organization because it leads to wasted resources, particularly to wasted time, and to the demotivation of individuals.  Teams are a major investment of time, money, and resources.  The cost of allowing them to falter or under produce is staggering.  Teams also fails for a number of reasons, from lack of clear purpose to lack of training.

High Performance Teams
The team performance process gives you a purposeful way to look at teamwork and provides a framework for team development that helps to stay on track.  Pay attention to the dynamics.  Pay attention to the mechanics.  It is also essential that team members adopt community building attitudes and perspective.  Teams must be enabled to build a trust based environment.  Trust is built by sharing information, ideas and skills also outside the scope of their work.  Creating new challenges helps team members to work together to meet the challenges and tighter bonds of trust are formed.  Teams learn what they are made of;  a sense of ownership and pride develops.  They feel like they can accomplish things together and each success builds upon prior successes.

Setting up teams has become a major strategy for getting work done.  Modern organizations are nowadays made up of teams. Blanchard (2010) said that managers typically spend between 30 and 99% of their time in a project team or team setting.  He added that teams can execute better and faster than traditional hierarchy. Teams have the power to increase productivity and morale. Working effectively, a team can make better decisions, solve more complex problems, and do more to enhance creativity and build skills than an individual working alone.

A team is the only unit that has the flexibility and resources to respond quickly to changes that have become commonplace in today’s world. The business and working environment has become more competitive and the issues it faces are increasingly complex; thanks to high performance teams these hurdles can be overcome more easily.

Organizations who value their teams create room and provide resources and means to enable teams to develop themselves in various functional (related to the team goals and objectives) and non-functional competencies (related to the various facilitating roles). Organizations who provide this transform their normal teams into high performance teams.

More About the Authors

More About Lex:

More About Paul:
Dr. Rono is a lecturer at Kenyatta University in Nairobi.  He is an authority on leadership development, and has published various articles related to leadership development in Africa with a progressive yet adoptable and realistic view.  Watch for his new website coming soon!

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