Updated: Jan 19
There are few entities within our organizations more critical than teams. Whether long-standing units or ad hoc task groups, people working together to pursue an action or goal is how work gets done, problems get solved, and innovation emerges.
In our last newsletter, we wrote about the gaps in Awareness, Implementation, and Impact that individuals must negotiate to bring themselves more fully to their work and world. In simplest terms, teams are a collection of individuals, and the more fully and authentically those individuals connect, communicate and contribute, the more agile, inclusive, and productive the team. Gaps stop individuals and teams in the same way - by limiting access to their inner knowing and by inhibiting the application of that knowledge.
Teams are composed of people who have the skill, knowledge, and expertise needed to solve a problem, create a solution, provide a service or accomplish a task. Initial activities to build a team often focus on goal setting, analysis and assessment related to their purpose, and strategic planning. Jumping right into the work content of a group, what they are together to accomplish, is putting the cart before the horse.
A sense of safety begins with uncovering what aligns team members.
As we've worked with ensembles and teams over the past 30 years, we've learned that the most successful groups begin by centering individual members in their Essential Drivers and Cornerstones — their values, principles, and requirements to participate at 100%. Team alignment is revealed in the themes throughout individual Drivers and Cornerstones. Alignment establishes meaning and lays the foundation for high trust, a motivating environment, and a culture that invites all members to participate and be fully accountable. This inner knowing of a team amplifies the personal meaning that connects them and their work and allows them to join and contribute in authentic and empathetic ways.
We know from the Google Aristotle project that psychological safety, what Dr. Tim Clark calls "a culture of rewarded vulnerability, "¹ is the number one factor present in effective, high-performing teams. Critical milestones in team development – belonging and acceptance, learning and failing, contribution and acknowledgment, and challenging the status quo to achieve better results – are only possible when an interpersonal context is made explicit by articulating alignment. Then, members know, respect, and allow one another to be full participants. When that context remains unknown, we see how teams experience the Awareness, Implementation, and Impact gaps.
Defensive behaviors and ego-driven actions define the first gap.
Here are three sets of questions that can help you understand the gaps your team may be struggling to traverse.
Do team members compete for the spotlight to be the center of attention?
Do team members talk about others behind their backs?
Is gossip part of the team's communication?
Are there cliques within the group that exclude others?
Do team members feel a need to protect themselves from judgment or ridicule?
Is it easier to keep to oneself than to participate in the team?
If you have answered yes to some of these questions, your team may be in the Awareness Gap. The Awareness Gap is evidenced by a lack of connection to team Essential Drivers and Cornerstones, the mandates and motivators that the group requires to feel balanced, energized, and centered. They have yet to form an identity as an ensemble and act more as distinct individuals than team members bound by a conscious commitment to a shared purpose and group ethos.
Overcoming this gap requires team members to think of the well-being and success of the team before thinking of themselves. We Before I. Understanding the values and principles that group members share and defining the behaviors and practices accompanying them will help the team coalesce.
Teams who successfully manage the Awareness Gap move past understanding the values and principles that align them to develop a code of conduct, delineating desired ways of interacting and, as necessary, unacceptable behaviors and attitudes that will harm the group.
It is easy to forget shared values and standards when day-to-day pressures hit.
Do members share their ideas with confidence and enthusiasm?
Are they open to feedback?
Do teammates accept failure as part of the creative process?
Are teammates able to confront one another when there is an interpersonal concern?
Do team members seek one another out to talk through obstacles or work out ideas?
Grounded in aligned values and principles and subscribed to an agreed-upon code of conduct, teams can still get stuck when negotiating obstacles and differences. We call this the Implementation Gap, a lack of congruence between a team's inner knowing and behavior. Just as individuals who struggle with bringing their inner knowing to light in everyday practice, groups must move their aligned ideals and aspirations into action. It is one thing to agree to open and candid communication, but quite another to summon the curiosity and courage required to do it. The ego defends against anxiety and potential threats to well-being. Teammates must be confident that they will be heard and that change will come if they confront one another or admit their missteps or failures.
We have learned from the performing arts - the cast of a play, a quartet of musicians, or a corps of dancers - what a true ensemble requires of its members. A production is only at its best when each team member works to raise the performance of the rest. Creative works of any kind are honed and perfected through candid assessment and constant reinvention. In business, as in the arts, an outcome is perfected through experimentation, imagination, and play. And rehearsal – trying, failing, and creating new – is essential.
Teams who operate from a place of sincere curiosity and who practice listening and investigating for understanding create interactions, even confrontations, that are grounded in empathy. This dynamic is the birthplace of innovation and growth.
Interaction with other teams defines a team's reputation.
Do team members practice the same behaviors outside the team as they do within it?
Does your team seek to raise the performance and experience of their constituents and stakeholders?
Does your team have the agility to adjust in the moment as they take in new information and feedback?
Do others in your organization seek the counsel or expertise of your team?
Are others in your organization welcome to offer your team feedback?
In your own experience, you've likely worked with teams that were approachable and accommodating. Members probably communicated well and were responsible and responsive to others. You've also avoided working with other teams unless it was absolutely necessary. They may have been exclusive, isolated, and restrictive.
A brand's ability to meet its goals lives where teams intersect. This third gap is defined by a team's reputation, how it connects with others, and its ability to see and take responsibility for its impact. The hard work that a team must do to overcome the Awareness and Implementation gaps prepares them to cross the Impact Gap.
A team with a firm grasp of who they are and what they want to cause can integrate new information and make choices with ease and agility. A team that embraces the vulnerability of human interaction as the bedrock of collaboration, innovation, and growth can invite the observation, participation, and evaluation of all stakeholders – employees, coworkers, managers, leaders, and customers. A team that understands the extent of their influence can have a measurable impact on their company's human and economic returns.
Hybrid work adds nuances to the challenges and opportunities of working in teams.
The pandemic has triggered a monumental shift in the way we work. Remote and hybrid models permeate what was once a 9 to 5 day in the office. We've learned that we don't need to be co-located to be productive and effective, but there are implications for the quality of human interaction. Deficits in connection and spontaneity will impact teams' creation, integration, and development, widening the gaps that have challenged us already. Sourced from the hearts and minds of our clients, what we've learned about building aligned, inclusive and productive teams transcends location. We'd love to talk with you about creating an experience of alignment and purpose in your teams.
¹ Clark, T. The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation (Oakland: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc, 2020)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christine Strong is Chief of Staff and Coach for The TAI Group. Chris partners with leaders and teams to discover higher levels of clarity, focus, and action by uncovering the sources of guidance, alignment, and motivation that lie within them.