When I ask, “What do teams need to be successful?” folks will commonly say, “communication”.
Similarly, when I work with a team and ask them what they want to improve, the most frequent response is “We need to improve our communication.”
But what exactly does that mean? Does their team need to talk better to each other? Share information? Problem-solve? Make decisions? Resolve disagreements?
Yes. All of it. All those activities fall under the gigantic umbrella of “communication.”
When teams define that communication is the problem (and maybe get more specific by saying “handling disagreements”), the next step they take is often the wrong one. They call an HR person or consultant and send everyone through a conflict resolution training. But this is ultimately a waste of time and money.
This is because training is not what is needed. In fact, most teamwork problems do not need to be (nor should be) solved with training. Training often targets improving the person but most often, the person isn’t the problem. It’s the work.
Teamwork problems are most effectively resolved by establishing expectations and processes.
Here are three of the most common teamwork complaints I hear and the processes and expectations that will solve them.
There are a variety of ways a meeting can be unproductive and they’re nearly all process and expectation related. Such as, participants don’t pay attention, talk too long, not enough, share irrelevant information, and the meetings don’t start and end on time. All of this is solved with expectations and process.
A team of managers I know had this exact issue. Their leadership update meeting was deemed a colossal waste of time for all the reasons I just outlined plus a few more. They discussed the problem as a group and agreed to the following:
A consistent agenda that would remain the same for each meeting. That way, no one was responsible for creating an agenda, it was constant.
Because this was an “update” meeting (intended to share information), they agreed to a specific format for sharing updates. They would share:
A success or proud moment, to foster celebration on the team.
A challenge that needed team support or assistance. If they didn’t have one, they could skip this.
Their “hot item”, this is the work topic that was capturing their attention for the week.
Three weeks after implementing these expectations and process, I talked to the team and they said not only was the meeting more enjoyable and valuable to attend, but it was also shorter. They saved time.
They were enjoying the benefits of clear expectations and processes in their meetings.
Working in silos
About every organization I’ve work in and consulted with complains of this, working in silos. This refers to a lack of sharing information and problem-solving across departments or functions. In these cases, people are often blamed for being protective of their work or there is a lack of understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities leading to redundancy or missed opportunities.
I worked with a team that complained of this within their own department, “people don’t share information with each other.” Yet, they had no mechanism in place to do it, let alone a common understanding of what information to share with each other. They then established a meeting, much like the one described above, and they now have a stronger cross-functional dynamic.
Another group I know who wanted to collaborate more with other departments, agreed that each person on the team would meet with two colleagues/month in another department and then report back what they learned to each other. The sole purpose was to build relationships and discuss opportunities to collaborate, share resources, and meet goals. After 6 months, the team had multiple projects underway with representation across the organization.
Don’t let silos get in the way of good work. Break them down with expectations and processes.
Avoiding direct conversations
I recently received a complaint from a client who was frustrated with a colleague who repeatedly engaged their boss to resolve disagreements instead of going to them directly. Some of the disagreements were benign like differences of opinion and others were more significant like securing resources. The client felt slighted by their colleague, thought the colleague was conflict avoidant, and at times thought the colleague was trying to manipulate the boss. Maybe, all three explanations were true.
But when I asked my client if the team had discussed expectations and a process for when to engage the boss (and when not to) he said they had not. This means, not only did the team not know what to do when disagreement came up, the boss didn’t either. The problem in this case wasn’t just the colleague, the problem was also how the boss was responding to the colleague who was escalating the issues.
In cases like this, first talk about it and focus on the lack of process (and not on what is thought to be a manipulative colleague). It might be helpful to have a neutral party facilitate the conversation to help establish when to bring issues to the boss and when not to. I know of a few executives who will not address issues related to other people or departments without all parties represented in the discussion.
Then, decide on how decisions will be made. Will the team vote? Will the boss make the call? Either way, teams who avoid direct conversations most often do so because they don’t know what to do when the disagreement comes up. Establish that first.
Effective team communication is the backbone of high performance, and it is also one of the hardest to tackle. The concept is big and broad. But, by narrowing the focus and identifying a process and expectations to support it, most teamwork problems can be resolved.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.