By Mona Sabah Earnest
I have a confession to make: I live in Oklahoma and I don’t understand sports. I know what you are thinking: HERESY! It is truly a heretical declaration in a state that lives, eats and breathes sports. In fact, I have come to realize that just about every state in the nation supports its own teams and idolizes its players. This is very foreign to me, especially as someone who came to the United States as an immigrant.
However, my husband tells me that I cannot play the “immigrant” card anymore, since I am a bona fide United States citizen, and have been for a few decades. I think that there are things that become the fabric of your very being, and sports is just not one of those things. Granted, being married 25 years to a sports fanatic can rub off just a bit. He has tried to teach me the nuances of football field, basketball and baseball from morning ‘til night, but to no avail. I still don’t get it.
So, it was a shock when my boss came to me (back when I was working at the Campbell Soup Company in Sacramento) and told me that I was the one chosen by the executive team to lead the implementation of high-performance teams at the manufacturing plant. I think I stared at him with my mouth open and told him that I didn’t understand teams because I didn’t understand sports. I’m sure that tickled him because he said, “Well… those aren’t the only types of teams.” My job became to research what he meant by all of that… how exactly does one go about implementing work teams in a plant with approximately 1,500 employees? It doesn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure.
In sports, you need specific numbers: a baseball team needs nine people and a soccer team needs at least 11. However, teams outside of sports aren’t always a set number of people – you could have a team of three or as large as fifteen. The size often depends on the purpose of the team (sales, project management, natural work team, etc). Evan Wittenberg from the Wharton Graduate Leadership program found that there is no optimum size, but that, “not conclusive, it does tend to fall into the five to 12 range, though some say five to nine is best, and the number six has come up a few times.”¹
Although I am using my experience at larger companies as a frame of reference, I want to point out that teams can be as small as three people (two is just a couple). It should not be assumed that just because a team is small that it is exempt from the same issues as the larger teams. There is research (Baker, 2009)² that shows that small teams can quickly deliver big results due to accountability and cohesion. Many small businesses are also family-owned. This presents yet another layer of challenge to the work team dynamic that would be better addressed in a follow-up article.
Even more critical than the number of people on a team is the notion of building trust. When people are placed on a cross-functional team and they don’t know one another, how do they begin to build trust? How does a random group actually develop into a high-performing team? Do you have to put people through a ropes course to physically get them to jump off a platform into people’s arms? Is there an easier way?
This is the spot where managers don’t receive much training. I have seen organizations randomly choose teams and expect them to bring top results overnight. It’s rare to find that kind of a mix of people that can get right to work, understand what they need to do, and do it without anyone slacking. In the years of my work as a human resources manager, professor and consultant, I have found that there are a few things that are common to creating a team that will perform well:
- Build trust
- Embrace conflict
- Increase commitment through accountability
- Embrace results
The most important piece in establishing trust in a team is to first look at yourself as a leader. Do you trust your employees? When I am working with an organization, I will ask their managers about empowering their employees to do daily decision making. Do you allow employees to control events in their own area? Do you keep a stocked pantry of food items and coffee? What about supplies? Can they order or use supplies? Is there a closet or a drawer where supplies are kept? Who has to reorder those? Who holds the key?
You might be surprised at how many managers answer yes to the first few questions and believe they are managers who empower others, yet they will micro-manage little things. “The supply closet is a big deal,” I’ve been told. True… might be, but what are you saying to your people? I trust you to be productive and reach the goals I want you to reach but I am going to hold tight to the tools you need to be successful. This is something to think about – is there anything your people need that they come and ask you on a daily basis? If yes, it might be time to turn that over to them (with guidelines and limitations).
Once you have done some self-assessment on your own level of trust, the team’s trust level can be evaluated. Setting guidelines for communication with respect can go a long way toward establishing an open and honest dialogue between team members. Asking for constructive feedback is another way to build team trust. One of the most important lessons I have learned in building trust is as simple as having lunch together. There is something special in sharing a meal. When my department had to put in extra hours or work an off shift, I would order pizza and salads for everyone – including me. I have seen well-meaning managers who order lunch for their employees and then go missing. Stopping for 30 minutes to eat together helps everyone to connect in a personal way. As we took on the high-performing team implementation challenge, I took my HR team to a conference on the topic. We were able to bond together, establish a shared vision for what we wanted when we got back, and also used the time to draft a plan and proposal. It was one of the most productive times for our department.
Yes, you read that correctly: embraceconflict. How many of you welcome conflict with open arms? Many of us run away from conflict as fast as we possibly can. I would like to challenge you just a bit – why does conflict exist? Conflict comes from the Latin word “confligere” which means to strike together. When a match is struck, there can be fire. Fire can be productive or destructive; it all depends on how it is managed. The same is true for conflict!
As a manager, one of the best things to do is to take a step back and ask a few questions. This accomplishes several things: it allows things to cool down and allows an explanation of the root cause. Allowing team members to voice their own side without interruption can help to establish a standard for the team to use when you are not there to mediate. Active listening is very important, and can help to further clarify opinions or confusion.
I believe that conflict at its most basic is merely a differing perspective. There isn’t anything wrong with seeing things differently. That is how diversity is defined and it enriches our perspectives. Conflict is something that comes up where one or more parties cannot understand or recognize the other person’s perspective.
Constructive conflict can help to strengthen the team. They will realize quickly that the differences can be an asset and their views can lend toward creative problem solving. If conflict is seen as a way to remove bottlenecks from the system and improve communication, the team will begin to quickly resolve conflict themselves.
Increase commitment through accountability
As team members build trust and embrace diversity in their group, they will begin to value one another on a personal level. Helping the team to set their own vision, mission, objectives and goals will allow them to take ownership of the process and also be able to create synergy. When employees have a say in how the work will get done, there is pride that is generated as a team.
It is really important at this stage that the manager doesn’t let the team settle into status quo, but allows for increased commitment through challenging the team to accept more responsibilities. One of the ways to do this is through delegation of tasks. Delegation does not mean “pawn-off” work that you hate to do! In fact, it means quite the opposite. Is there work that a team could take on that is a normal part of your day? Does it fit nicely into what they are doing already? Would it be a challenge for them to learn a new skill such as finances of a particular project? Regularly evaluating team performance allows the manager to check in on each member’s progress toward goals and address any challenges that remain. The team should also update their manager on the established timeline and productivity levels. Teamwork requires two-way communication and trust that is established between both with the manager and the team.
Check in with the team and ask them what they would like to learn. Managers sometimes assume that their employees may not be interested or may not want to learn a new skill. If the skill is transferrable (like leadership, finances, quality control, etc.), many are willing to learn. When a whole team is willing to learn, the burden of taking on the task is also shared. That is a true high-performing team.
At the height of our team implementation at Campbell Soup, the teams were doing daily tasks, interacting with the customer, handling total budget, making budgeting cuts, hiring new employees (but NOT discipline or firing – some things need to remain with management, especially dealing with employment law) and also making all the quality-control checks. They were also handling staffing and scheduling. It was quite an amazing thing to watch, and our employees flourished for it.
Creating a culture of trust, empowerment, accountability and commitment result in engaged employees. Teams are a wonderful vehicle for productivity; and when managed properly, each team will perform. Managers need to provide encouragement and support by strengthening the team members. Embracing results – sometimes good and sometimes bad – is also a factor in helping teams to grow. Each project or goal should have a post-mortem. What went well, what went wrong, how can we fix that for the next time, and how can we do better?
Just as sports teams have someone who can lead and coach players to victory, so a manager can help to champion their employees’ performance as an interdependent team. No manager or leader can do everything on his or her own. Establishing a culture where successes are celebrated, diversity is encouraged, ideas are welcomed, members are included, alliances are discouraged, and creativity is fostered can help to deliver results with accountability.
Teams may not get to high performance overnight, but by focusing on these four areas, managers can help to nurture, provide support and grow their teams.
Mona Sabah Earnest, MHROD, is VP human resources organization development (HROD) for Team@Work. She is a human resources professional with 20-plus years of proven experience, and is also an accomplished author, speaker and leader. She has worked with both private and non-profit organizations, including Sonic Corporate Headquarters, Hewlett Packard, State of Oklahoma, DHS, Oklahoma State University and many others. She is fluent in three languages and has lived in six countries.
- Baker, B. (2009). In praise of small teams. PM Network, 23(3), 26.