Want to make something happen in your organization? Give the job to a team.
The top-down, traditional management hierarchy — too slow to meet the demands of today’s market — continues to disappear. In its place, teams have become the preferred strategy for getting work done. With greater flexibility and access to resources, teams can achieve rapid results in ways that bureaucracies cannot.
In our latest Blanchard research, done in partnership with Training magazine, we learned that people spend more than half their work time in teams. Yet only 27 percent of the respondents felt that their teams were high performing.
A high-performance team relies on the contributions of many individuals rather than the talents of one high achiever. To give a recent example, last year the Los Angeles Lakers recruited LeBron James, arguably one of the best basketball players of all time. But as the Lakers are finding out, just because you have a superstar on your team doesn’t mean you’re going to win championships — or even get to the playoffs. Citing bad chemistry and lack of cohesion, The Guardian declared in a March 2019 headline that “the Lakers are a dumpster fire not even LeBron James can extinguish.”
Contrast that with last year’s U.S. women’s hockey team, which won the first U.S. gold medal in women’s hockey since the sport was introduced. The unexpected triumph happened 38 years to the day after the original “Miracle on Ice,” when the U.S. men’s hockey team shocked the world by beating Russia in the 1980 Olympics. In each case, these young teams did not rely on the heroics of a single superstar but instead succeeded through drive, commitment, cohesiveness, trust and a passionate belief in a common purpose.
However, you can’t simply throw talented people together and hope for miracles. Building a winning team requires a trained team leader to keep people aligned, monitor progress, provide feedback, create a safe environment and hold people accountable.
The key to creating a high-performance team is to provide the appropriate leadership style at each stage of the team’s development.
Teams at stage 1, Orientation, are just coming together. People are usually enthusiastic and have high, even unrealistic, expectations. They’re unsure about the task ahead and depend on authority for guidance.
The team leader’s job at stage 1 is to provide clarity by defining the team’s purpose, goals, roles and behavioral norms. The leader should set the context for the team’s work, orient team members to one another, establish boundaries and help develop a team charter.
After the team has been working together for a while, team members are likely to encounter obstacles and conflicts. That’s when stage 2, Dissatisfaction, sets in. People might be frustrated and confrontational and the team may become fragmented. This is entirely normal and predictable.
The team leader’s job at stage 2 is to foster communication. An effective team leader will harness the team’s diversity by addressing and leveraging conflict. Rather than shutting people down, the leader will make sure everyone’s voice is heard. By affirming different points of view, the leader can move the team forward.
Teams at stage 3, Integration, have improved their competence and problem solving. Trust and decision-making are also improving. Confrontation is likely to have mellowed into cooperation; in fact, team members at this stage tend to avoid conflict.
Leaders at stage 3 can bring cohesion to the team by encouraging everyone to participate. Holding each team member accountable, the leader provides the support the team needs at this stage to reach its goals.
Teams at stage 4, Production, are collaborative and confident. By this time the team has produced good results and morale is high. Leaders at stage 4 can ensure continuous improvement by relinquishing control and encouraging people to tackle new challenges.
During the heyday of Larry Bird, Robert Parish and Kevin McHale, I asked Boston Celtics coach K.C. Jones how he led such a group of superstars. K.C. smiled and said, “I throw the ball out and every once in a while, I shout ‘Shoot!’ ” In other words, he permitted everyone to lead — which is what leading a stage 4 team is all about.
Remember that while superstars are nice to have, teams are the engine to productivity — and leaders are needed to guide them.