October 9, 2012

Can You Change the Dynamics of Your Team?

A former client decided to bring his team—a group of legal experts in a small family firm—together for a one-day, off-site retreat as a way to set mutual, progressive goals for the coming year. The retreat was a great success: they discussed priorities for the year and ways to improve productivity and reduce stress when working under tight deadlines. His team was fully on-board, eager to share ideas, and committed to the vision they had collectively discussed. They talked about their current projects and, at the end of the retreat, scheduled a monthly check-in to foster ongoing collaboration.

A year passed, and they never met again. At the end of the year, he was disappointed that he had not seen long-lasting improvements.

Even with the best of intentions, it’s hard for leaders to achieve major changes during a one-time event. Behavioral habits—and especially habits we take on as members working within a unique team dynamic—take time to form and time to break. So how do you transform the way your team functions and make long-lasting change stick?

Honor the Strengths
Start with capturing what’s working. It’s tempting to dwell on your own weaknesses and the negative aspects of others’ behaviors, but all groups have qualities that reflect strong values and individual motivations to get the job done. These might include loyalty (to the company’s success or to the team itself), a solid work ethic, or a commitment to fully serve the customer. Being able to pinpoint the team’s existing strengths will not only help you set realistic goals—it will also make change seem less like a top-down judgment and more like a shared vision.

Focus on a Few Critical Shifts in Behavior
Identify the key changes that would make the most significant impact on your group’s growth and success—and seek the input of your team. I once worked with another team in a creative firm whose members rated their skills as “low” in handling conflict. When they brainstormed about the problem, they found that group members had constructive insights about their own behaviors. One individual realized she jumped to conclusions too quickly, while another resisted asking for help when faced with an issue. In addition, their discussions revealed that the leader didn’t make it emotionally safe to bring up problems in their meetings. If you’re willing to allow individual members of a team the opportunity to acknowledge their own roles and make small behavioral changes, a team dysfunction can improve rapidly—and dramatically.

Craft a Compelling Call for Change
An exceptional leader motivates his or her team by creating a shared vision for the future that taps into and elevates their team members’ individual goals. Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, liken this vision to a “destination postcard.” According to the authors, the picture of the future must be enticing and inspiring—and achievable. They relate the example of a rookie 1st grade teacher in a low-functioning school. Her students had never been to kindergarten and their skills varied widely, but many lacked even the most basic skills, like the ability to hold their pencils. Undaunted, the teacher cultivated a culture of learning by calling her students scholars” and uniting them with the rallying cry: “You are going to be like 3rd graders by the end of this year!” What 1st grader doesn’t want to be as cool as a 3rd grader? Their achievement soared.

We’re all used to hearing that it’s incredibly difficult to change how people work and behave with one another, particularly when certain team dynamics are ingrained over a long period of time. But the Heath brothers assure that, “Clarity dissolves resistance.” Likewise, a mentor once told me: “Velocity is a function of clarity.”

In other words, when you engage your team in an honest assessment of both the good you want to preserve and the changes you aspire to make as you move forward, you’re able to co-create a picture of the future that brings enthusiasm and excitement for your joint effort.

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