Two Keys to Leading Healthy Teams

How healthy are your teams at work?

Are functions siloed or is there proactive communication and cooperation? Do team members work purely on their own individual tasks or do they also help their colleagues when the pace demands it?

If your team’s interactions fall somewhere between those extremes, effective team work is eroded. Doing team work right, every time, requires clarity and discipline from leaders and team members.

My experience with teams is probably like yours. I was exposed to sports teams in my youth. Some of those teams were competitive - most weren’t. Some of those teams were gratifying to serve on - most weren’t.

One sports team - my college volleyball team - was a very effective team. It was a club team without a formal coach. Two players, who the previous year were awarded All-American status, co-coached us. They did a great job. They set up practices, plays, strategy, and - most importantly - ground rules.

Ground rules were guidelines on how we teammates were to treat each other. We agreed to not curse (that was a big one), to cheer our peers, to show up prepared and on time, and to challenge ideas while honoring our fellow team members.

It was the first time I’d been exposed to team values and behaviors. It worked wonders with that team. We performed very well in a tough league while rising above the typical ego-driven behaviors that screw up a team.

That experience was further clarified when I worked with my best boss, Jerry Nutter, years later. Jerry created a powerful, positive, productive culture that ensured we team members delivered on our performance promises while treating team members with trust, respect, and dignity.

You might well have seen the same dynamics in teams you’ve served on in your youth and in your career. Most teams have inconsistent performance and inconsistent teamwork and civility.

When I interview leadership teams as part of the “discovery” process before starting a culture refinement initiative, I learn about all the lousy practices their leadership team’s culture tolerates. Sometimes their current culture even rewards lousy behaviors - like withholding key information, or sitting on a hiring requisition for weeks, or creating an insider/outsider dynamic where those outsiders don’t know what’s going on.

Those behaviors erode performance and relationships, every day.

How can you ensure an environment where your team and team members thrive, engage, produce, and have fun (God forbid)?

First, define what effective teamwork looks like. Don’t leave good team citizenship to chance. Be specific about the values and behaviors that you expect from team members in every interaction.

One client’s top value is “commitments" - meaning, keep your commitments to your commitments! When anyone on the team makes a promise to deliver something by a certain time on a certain day, that team member is expected to deliver exactly what’s promised, on time and under budget.

Second, once effective teamwork has been defined in behavioral terms, hold everyone - leaders, hourly employees, everybody - accountable for demonstrating those required behaviors in every interaction.

Accountability takes the most time, energy, and attention. When people keep their commitments, celebrate, thank, and recognize them for honoring that value and those behaviors. When people miss their commitments, don’t let it slide. Engage in conversation to learn what went wrong, determine how it’s being addressed, and map out a plan to ensure missed commitments don’t happen again.

Creating a healthy, inspiring, productive team culture doesn’t happen by default. It happens only by design.