Tuesday 4 August 2020

Building high-performance (virtual) teams

Building high-performance (virtual) teams

The more teams are willing to reflect on their way of working (together), the more effective they are. Successful teams not only continuously evaluate their performance, they also understand how they develop as a team.

In my previous blog, I have touched upon the four phases of team development according to Tuckman. In this blog, we will dive into which project leadership characteristics and roles are needed in each of these phases to achieve the best team performance outcomes. We put them in the light of today’s virtual times.

The role of the Project Leader in the path towards a high-performance Team

Tuckman describes the path that most teams follow on their way to high performance. With each stage come recognizable behaviors and sentiments, as well as things to do as a team.

Stage 1 | Forming

In this first stage, you cannot really speak of a true team yet. The team members are assigned to each other; they show enthusiasm and are eager to get started. On the other hand there is a feeling of uncertainty about their place in the team. As the project leader, your main role is that of an instructor. Your task is to define clear team goals, structure and division of roles. A good kick-off will help to get the mission started and clarify mutual expectations between all team members and to test understanding. In order to grow as a team in this phase, the members must also dare to discuss harder topics and not avoid conflict situations in advance. Therefore, it is important to be directive but also act in a benevolent manner to facilitate these discussions.

Stage 2 | Storming

After Forming, the team will move towards the storming stage. During this stage, the team discovers that not everything is going as hoped or expected. The process and progress as well as the mutual cooperation are sources of anger and frustration. Team members find out that they have a different approach, ways of work and communication style. This can lead to conflicts between team members, dissatisfaction with (informal) leadership and questioning of their team goals. These disagreements and conflicts are important in order to function effectively in a team. If team members discuss openly and passionately about substantive points of view, this is a sign that there is sufficient safety and trust within a team. Achieving this is already complicated enough during a “live” meeting as team members must actively cross a threshold to do this. In a virtual team, this is becoming even more complicated as the non-verbal communication is less visible, and team members tend to behave more often as a spectator rather than an active member of their team. With this, the role of the project leader is becoming even more important in this stage to successful develop and function as a team.  In order to make progress as a team, the team members must abandon their critical attitude and adopt a more solution-oriented approach. As project leader, you act as the facilitator for these discussions and conflicts, also in a virtual environment. Make sure that conflicts are around relevant topics and encourage the team to have these discussions. Your task is to create and maintain an equal, respectful atmosphere and approach the team members in a non-positional, non-defensive way. During this stage you should focus on sharing thoughts and ideas and stimulate a divergent way of thinking to embrace creative ideas and brainstorms. This will encourage stronger team dynamics and effective communication.

Stage 3 | Norming

In the norming stage, the gap between the initial expectations and team practice is closed. Team members realize that the differences in the team are making them stronger as a team, enabling a constructive feedback culture. In order to reach their goals, they see that there is a need to make good work agreements and make efforts in order to really understand each other. The team members are able to address problems and have real conversations. As team cooperation is now established, the focus of the team should be more towards the team objectives, process and performance. In this stage, you as the project leader should act as the integrator, bringing team cooperation, decisions and actions together. As the integrator you lead decision-making, communication and allocation of tasks and make sure to secure mutual commitments.

Stage 4 | Performing

In this final stage you can recognize that the team is high performing when the atmosphere is good, and team members have confidence in their own capabilities and those of their colleagues. They are aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and act upon them. They enter a constructive dialogue and effectively solve any problems. During this stage it is most important to monitor the progress the team is making and to ensure that the team continues to improve and learn together, by celebrating successes as a team and continuously challenging the team members. Now, the project leader’s role is that of a manager. You make sure to maintain the right circumstances so that the team can proceed with their tasks and are inspired to perform. You observe, listen to feedback and stay alert to change, foresee actions and respond quickly when there’s a need to prevent a “relapse” to an earlier stage.

Keep in mind that in practice, team formation processes do not develop linearly but are more often recurrent and the stages described above are rather fluid. There is also no handbook on the timeframes for each of the stages, so for each team the timeframes can differ. It is more important to recognize and understand the causes for change in the team’s behavior, in order to maximize the team’s process and productivity.

At Motion5, we can provide you with ideas and ways on how to achieve a successful team through strong project leadership. Interested to know more? Let’s talk.