What Makes an Exceptional Team?

Most of us can probably search our past and quickly identify a team experience that stands apart from the rest. Whether it was in the workplace, in a Toastmasters club, on a performing-arts stage or on an athletic field, we remember the team fondly for its diverse set of individuals who just seemed to click, who consistently met or exceeded its performance goals or rarely got bogged down in interpersonal squabbles.

Conversely, we can likely point to a group experience where recurring conflict or poor communication regularly undermined productivity or performance, one that suffered from “me first” thinking and questionable leadership.

Research has shown that high-performing teams display characteristics that are vital to their success – qualities that distinguish them from less productive groups. These characteristics include sharing accountability for team results, embracing differences among members, putting the right people in the right roles and openly addressing issues of conflict so they can be resolved in a healthy manner.

Over the years, many management consultants and organizational psychologists have pondered the question, What factors separate extraordinary teams from their mediocre or otherwise forgettable counterparts? Few, however, have explored it with as much depth or rigor as consultants Geoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan. Their findings hold lessons for anyone seeking to create a more effective and cohesive Toastmasters team or speaking experience.

In their groundbreaking research and 2009 book, Extraordinary Groups: How Ordinary Teams Achieve Amazing Results (www.extraordinarygroups.com), Bellman and Ryan spent three years studying more than 60 self-declared “great” groups ranging in size from two to 20 members. Their aim was to discover what factors made these teams exceptional. The two consultants interviewed insurance executives, project designers, financial strategists, community-service workers and river rafters, to name a few, who were part of for- profit, volunteer and virtual work groups.

Bellman says the field study identified eight indicators linked to “extraordinary” performance. (For a full list of the indicators, see the accompanying article on page 11, “8 Traits of Extraordinary Work Groups.”) Among the defining traits of these top groups were Shared Leadership and Embracing Differences. Reflecting the first quality, leadership in these groups comes from many directions, Bellman says, not just from a leader- by-title. Designated leaders “see to it that the group is always led, but don’t feel the need to lead all of the time,” Bellman says, and are secure enough to let others share the spotlight. By taking a minimalist approach, these leaders create room for other team members to step in and grow, building a sense of shared accountability for results among all members of the group.

What did this shared leadership look like in practice? Members of these exemplary groups frequently volunteered to lead projects, research a pressing issue or bring draft proposals to the group; willingly offered their content expertise; asked critical questions to help focus a group; and when group discussion became contentious, often invited the group to talk about the dynamics of the conflict.

Extraordinary groups also embraced their differences, be they distinctions of culture, working style, communication preferences or age. Bellman says team members were usually intrigued by such diversity of information, perspectives and backgrounds. Rather than using these differences to separate them, they capitalized on their strengths. “Respect for differences enables people to bring their true selves to the group,” Bellman says, and from that freedom often emerges creative alternatives to problems, enhanced innovation and productivity.


Don’t Avoid Conflict
Some level of disagreement, misunderstanding or frustration will occur on any team, even the most extraordinary ones. Messy group interaction and conflict were common in the groups he studied, Bellman says. Yet rather than seek to avoid conflict or sweep it under the rug, high- performing teams appeared to embrace it openly, believing the quicker they addressed problems, the less corrosive they would be to group productivity, morale and results. Indeed, they seemed to take to heart the quote from well-known mediator Ron Kraybill, “No meaningful change takes place in the absence of conflict.”

“Those who seemed best at dealing with conflict didn’t feel like they had to play nice and cover it up, but rather they took time to openly explore polarities in team member positions, and in that gap sought to find creative alternatives that incorporated ideas from both sides,” Bellman says.

Tammy Lenski, an organizational-conflict management expert and mediator, says problems that commonly emerge on teams over issues, such as managing big workloads or ambiguous expectations, don’t evaporate because the teams choose to ignore them. “They usually reappear later, often at inopportune times,” she says.

Lenski stresses that how the conflict is addressed is often more important than what the conflict is about. The healthiest teams she knows don’t assume conflict is a sign of something being fundamentally wrong, but rather see it as a natural part of working with teammates who have diverse personalities, backgrounds or belief systems. “Teams that can robustly debate, but do so in a way that doesn’t damage relationships, usually make better decisions, are more creative and lose less time to unhealthy conflict,” she notes.

Patrick Lencioni, author of the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, believes that many work groups are dysfunctional simply because they are made up of human beings, with all their varied frailties and interests. The best leaders manage their teams by always taking that humanity into account.

“When you put [individuals] together and leave them to their own desires, even the most well-intentioned people will often deviate toward dysfunctional, unproductive behavior,” Lencioni says. “And because most leaders and managers are not schooled in the art of building teams, small problems are left untreated and can spiral further into ugliness or politics.” 


When Conflict Resolution Isn’t Working
Lenski says poor conflict resolution has several causes. Here are three of the main culprits:

1. Moving too quickly to “fix-it” mode. Lenski, who is based in New Hampshire, jokes that in American culture, there is a 20/80 rule rather than an 80/20 rule regarding conflict resolution: “We spend just 20 percent of our time trying to understand the root cause of problems, and 80 percent trying to fix them.”

The fix-it mentality comes from wanting to avoid the “groan zone,” a term coined by Sam Kaner, an expert on consensus decision-making. “It’s that messy place in conflict where people are complaining and no one knows what’s going to happen yet,” Lenski says, “and it usually feels frustrating, hopeless and confusing as you are hashing things out.” But hurrying through the zone is a mistake, she says, because that is where the real learning and understanding comes from amid conflicts. Tanya Maslach is the president of Elevati, Inc., a San Diego, California-based consulting firm that helps leaders build stronger relationships with multi-cultural and multi- generational teams. She says the most effective leaders view conflict like scientists – with an inquisitive mindset rather than a fix-it approach. By asking a repeated series of “why” questions, leaders can find long-term solutions to recurring conflict rather than short- term fixes, while at the same time sending a powerful message to team members: that the leaders care enough to invest time to uncover the truth.

For example, a manager might hear grumblings that one team member, John, isn’t holding his own weight and is a “slacker.” John is charged with missing deadlines, showing up unprepared for some meetings and not responding promptly to e-mail. With a little investigation and questioning, the leader might find that John isn’t lacking work ethic or commitment, but rather has had so much added to his work plate that he doesn’t know what to focus on first – the new project he was given last week or the others he’s been working on for a month. His manager needs to help him prioritize his work.

“The smart leader doesn’t get in the middle, and asks, ‘What is the data or observable behavior that shows this claim to be true?’” Maslach says. “And if they are forced to confront someone, their initial approach isn’t to scold or accuse before all the facts are in, but to drill down to find out first-hand why something might be happening, and ask those ‘why’ questions.”


2. People aren’t solving the same problem. Say there’s a conflict and you have a difficult encounter with a peer or co-worker you think has been too direct or harsh in addressing the problem. They, in turn, might perceive you as a conflict-avoider, someone too fearful to confront problems head-on.

“Regardless of the content of the conflict, what the two team members are really arguing about is the diagnosis they have done of each other’s personalities or work styles,” Lenski says. Both also are liable to disagree with the labels placed on them.

In essence, they are trying to solve separate problems – the conflict itself and their co-worker’s contradictory approach to resolving it. “Those two aren’t magically going to become different people overnight, so they need to learn to embrace their differences, capitalize on the strengths of each approach, and work together for the common good,” Lenski says.


3. Staying in the conversation too long. Most of us don’t know when to disengage from escalating conflict and step back to get perspective. The problem is particularly acute when communicating via e-mail or text message. “When one or both people are hot under the collar, unhappy or anxious, they aren’t bringing their best selves to the table,” Lenski says, “yet most of us will stay engaged and plow through that conversation until we are proven ‘right,’” rather than taking a break and coming back to the interaction more level-headed.

But it’s not just taking a break – it’s how you spend that “time out” that makes all the difference. Research shows it takes at least 30 minutes to have “the emotional hijacking brought back to a baseline calm after reaching a boiling point,” Lenski says. Going for a walk, run or a short drive usually won’t do the trick, because your mind simply replays the conflict over and over again. Instead, Lenski says, you must fully engage your brain in another task, such as doing a crossword puzzle or editing a presentation or document.


Pick the Right People
Creating highly successful teams of any stripe starts far upstream, by putting the right people in the right roles. As any hiring manager knows, an ounce of selection is worth a pound of training. Consultant Jim Collins explored this concept in his groundbreaking book, Good To Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. In his research, Collins found something surprising: The first step that most leaders took in transforming their companies from good to great wasn’t setting a new direction, vision or strategy. In other words, they didn’t focus first on where to drive the bus, then on getting the right people to transport it there. Instead they first got the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus, and then figured out where to drive it.

The lesson for those seeking to create great work groups: If you begin with “who” instead of “what,” you can more easily adapt to a changing world or shifting business strategies, Collins believes. “If people join your bus primarily because of where it is going, what happens if you get 10 miles down the road and you need to change direction?”

The best people can adapt to almost any strategic goal or mission, and they don’t need to be tightly managed or consistently cajoled. Perhaps guided or led, Collins says, but not micro-managed. “They will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and to be part of something great.”

In the end, extraordinary groups become that way by accepting their human flaws, embracing their differences and understanding there are few things in life as rewarding as joining forces with others in pursuit of a common goal. Sometimes our lesser instincts threaten to derail a positive group dynamic, but with effort and awareness, we can get past that and thrive. As teamwork expert Lencioni put it:

“Successful teamwork is not about mastering subtle, sophisticated theories, but rather about embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence,” he says. “Ironically, teams succeed because they are exceedingly human. By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of functional teams overcome the natural tendencies that make good teamwork so elusive.” 


Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Toastmaster.





8 Traits of Extraordinary Work Groups

In their three-year field study of extraordinary work groups across many disciplines, consultants Geoffrey Bellman and Kathleen Ryan found these eight performance indicators that defined group practices: 

Compelling purpose: We are inspired and stretched in making this group’s work our top priority.

Shared Leadership: We readily step forward to lead by demonstrating our mutual responsibility for moving our group toward success.

Just enough structure: We create the minimal structure (systems, plans, roles and tasks) necessary to move our work forward. 

Full engagement: We dive into our work with focus, enthusiasm and passion. 

Embracing differences: We value the creative alternatives that result from engaging differing points of view. 

Unexpected learning: We are excited by what we learn here and how it applies to other work, other groups and our lives outside of work. 

Strengthened relationships: Our work leads us to greater trust, interdependence and friendship. 

Great results: We work toward and highly value the tangible and intangible outcomes of our work together.

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