George Bernard Shaw had it right: He said the biggest problem in communication is the illusion it has taken place.
That view is especially true with teams. People come together to pool their efforts in behalf of a common cause. With a shared focus, one might surmise, everyone would be “on the same page.”
But of course anyone who’s worked on a team knows (or should know), it’s dangerous to assume that message are always accurate.
Scott Tannenbaum and Eduardo Salas have plenty to say about this. Both Tannenbaum and Salas are psychologists and consultants. And they provide excellent counsel in their book Teams That Work: The Seven Drivers of Team Effectiveness.
In the first part of this conversation, they discussed what they view as essential ingredients in effective teamwork. This time they focus on the learning, communication and reinforcement that enable teamwork to—well, to work.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You say learning is good, but “too much” emphasis on learning can be a problem for teams. Tell us more about that.
Eduardo Salas: A team is rarely at its best on day one. Teams become great by learning and adapting. While most teams need to spend more time reflecting on and learning from their experiences, a few teams go too far.
An over-emphasis on learning is when a team incessantly engages in self-analysis to the point where they aren’t getting things done because they have taken their eye off the prize.
To be clear, most teams need to spend more time on learning and adapting, but we have seen instances where it was taken to an extreme.
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Duncan: Team leaders often need to manage conflict. What are your tips on that?
Scott Tannenbaum: It’s normal for people to disagree. But what they disagree about and how they handle disagreements will determine if conflict is constructive or destructive. When the majority of a team’s disagreements are interpersonal in nature, performance tends to decline. But if most of their disagreements are task or work related, then the way they handle those conflicts determines whether performance improves or declines.
There are three main approaches to handling conflict in team settings. The first is competitive conflict where each person is trying to ensure that their idea wins. The second is avoidance, where team members don’t want to upset anyone, so they don’t speak up…or at least not until they are in the hallway! The third is collaborative conflict where the goal is to ensure the best idea wins. Research shows that teams that engage in collaborative conflict about work related issues perform better.
As a leader, you should be guiding your team to focus on what is right, not who is right and creating an environment where people are comfortable voicing alternative views.
Duncan: Communication is clearly an important ingredient in team effectiveness. But some leaders mistakenly assume that more is better. You suggest that better is better. Please elaborate.
Tannenbaum: Perhaps you have a friend who talks incessantly. He communicates a lot! When he says something important, it might be just after he retold a long irrelevant story, so you are no longer listening carefully. His noise-to-signal ratio is high.
That’s why effective communication is not simply about talking more, having more team meetings, or exchanging more emails. Many highly effective teams communicate less than low performing teams. Quality matters far more than quantity.
High quality communications are timely and accurate. And research shows that it is the sharing of unique information that enables effective teamwork. Unfortunately, people sometimes fail to share unique information because they falsely assume “everybody knows that.”
Effective teams are often better at “closing the loop,” which means that team members periodically restate what they have heard, allowing the sender to correct any misunderstandings. That way no one walks away wondering, “did he get it?”
Salas: In team settings it is also important to consider who isn’t in the room. One simple question you should regularly ask is, “Who else should know this?” And as a follow up, “who is going to tell her?”
Duncan: There’s no doubt that team leaders (and teams) get what they encourage—and tolerate. What’s your advice on how maintaining the optimal conditions for excellent team performance?
Salas: “Conditions” begin at the top, so let’s consider this from a senior leader perspective. If you are a senior leader, we encourage you to do an honest self-assessment. You are probably asking your teams to collaborate across boundaries, but are you modeling cross-functional collaboration in your own work? Are you breaking down or promoting silos?
When you communicate about successes, do the stories you tell typically focus on individual heroes or do you acknowledge the people who helped make it happen? Is it always about a star or is the supporting cast also featured?
Do your company’s processes and practices reinforce teamwork? For example, during the hiring process, are applicants asked about their teamwork experiences and skills or simply about their technical skills? When performance is evaluated, rewards are doled out, and promotions are determined, are team players recognized? Are jerks tolerated and promoted if they generate enough revenue?
Tannenbaum: Finally, be honest. Do you ever create teams but provide them with insufficient resources, direction, and autonomy to succeed? When you “starve” teams like this, they fail, and people learn to avoid team assignments when possible. Don’t form teams you won’t commit to.