Team Functioning: The Why, What, How, and Who of a Team
Many people working in organisations try to avoid being part of a team. Perhaps the many levels of requirements for good teamwork place it in the “too-hard” basket. Yet there are many advantages accruing to both the organisation and the individual from successful teamwork, including greater efficiency, personal growth, improvement in communication skills, superior generation of ideas, and better support networks.
Effective teams rely on several aspects to define it, and determine how well the team will function to achieve its goals. Whether teams are conscious of these factors or not, they operate at some level to impact growth and success. In this article, we’ll explore some of these factors, which include goals, roles, processes, and relational aspects of a team.
Goals: Why are we here?
At age 3, Anaru — whose parents are high-level managers in the health system — called his playmates together and, looking around the little assembled group, said, “Ok, we’re all here now. What are we meeting about?” Unfortunately, it would appear that some workplace teams are little clearer on their purpose (and consequent goals) than Anaru was. What Anaru — much to his credit — did get was that people should have a reason for coming together when they do. A team’s mission or purpose is why it exists. From that mission or purpose a vision is generated: a sense of “what we’re trying to accomplish”. With clarity on why the team exists and what it is trying to do, members can generate the “how” of their team: the strategies that will bring the vision into reality. Strategies work best when they are wrapped in both long-term goals (the priorities) and also the operating plans, tactics, and short-term objectives that guide day-to-day decisions (Acorn Consulting, 1999).
Roles: What are our roles and responsibilities?
The role aspect of team functioning is comprised of:
- Skill sets
- Expectations of team leader and member roles
Responsibilities/commitments/accountabilities. Looking at the above list more closely, we can see that there is both individual and team responsibility and accountability. Teams, as noted, exist to produce results. Commitment to both the shared and individual goals required to achieve the results is critical. While there may be understanding of overall responsibility for and general commitment to shared goals, areas of individual responsibility can be unclear. All group members need to agree on what needs to be done, and by whom. But the discussion cannot end there. There must also be agreement on accountability and follow-through. How will accountability be manifested? How will follow-up be assessed (and by whom)? A question for the team is that of how team members are expected to check in with one another around the carrying-out of responsibilities. Is there a touch point for circling back to check in on progress toward the tasks? Some teams just assume that everyone has followed through. High-performing teams come to conscious agreement around how actions will be tracked, they put a consistent focus on accountability, and they are willing to help one another stay accountable for responsibilities undertaken.
Gaps/overlaps. Of course, division of work tasks does not always occur along tidy (clear) lines, and there are inevitable gaps and overlaps: tasks or relationships which — if the team is not careful — could slip through the cracks, and also overlaps, where more than one team member could logically fulfil a responsibility. How the team initially negotiates these, and how it moves to re-align assigned tasks when gaps and overlaps become apparent are functions of both its processes and its relationships (more on those in a moment). Suffice it to say here that the more a healthy climate of trust, respect, and support has been established, the more easily such corrections can happen. Similarly, the more effective the processes already in place, the more smoothly workable modifications can be made.
Interdependencies/skill sets. We can define team interdependency as any area where there is a need for communication, coordination, or collaboration. These can be identified as gaps and overlaps (as noted above), handoffs (where one person’s output is an input to the second person’s work), and places where information must be shared if the project would succeed. While the resulting need to coordinate activities and engage collaborative thinking between members may be challenging, there are equally great opportunities for leverage to better achieve team goals. Reviewing the various skills sets of team members in a climate of respect, adaptability, and appreciation of differences will help to re-clarify expectations of the various members and the team leader.
Expectations of team leader and member roles. Within a given project, there are functional roles (that is, areas of expertise and task responsibilities) and also roles to do with team structure (that is, whether one is a team leader or a member). Project management roles (usually more formal) revolve around planning and coordination, budget and resource management, tracking action items, and communication. Team maintenance roles (often less formal) are those of facilitator, social director, and those who monitor how the team is functioning overall (Acorn Consulting, 1999). We can get a better understanding of the roles needed within a team by looking at a schema for naming the primary roles that teams need.
Belbin team roles
Dr Meredith Belbin, defining a team role as “a tendency to behave, contribute, and interrelate with others in a particular way”, has generated nine roles that he believes are essential for successful teams to have access to. He notes that people typically are comfortable with two or three of the roles and have a few others that they can manage to cover if they need to, but they prefer not to adopt the rest at all (Belbin, 2015). The nine team roles are detailed below.
Resource investigator: Inquisitive, outgoing, and enthusiastic, these individuals serve as reconnaissance personnel, using their explorative personalities to find ideas to bring back to the team. They develop contacts, which helps them find opportunities. The weakness of this role is that the person might be over-optimistic and often loses interest once the initial enthusiasm for a project or procedure has passed. Don’t be surprised if the Resource investigator forgets to follow up on a lead.
Teamworker: Cooperative, perceptive, and diplomatic, Teamworkers use their adaptability to help the team gel, identify the work required, and complete it on behalf of the team. They are good listeners who avoid friction, but can be indecisive in tough situations, avoiding confrontation. They also hate making unpopular decisions.
Coordinator: The mature and confident Coordinator identifies talent on the team, clarifies goals, and draws out team members in order to focus on the team’s objectives. While these individuals’ strength is their ability to delegate work appropriately, they occasionally can be seen as manipulative, delegating to such an extent that they have little of their own work left to do.
Plant: Without a creative, imaginative, free-thinking Plant, teams are uninspired and can get stuck. The ability of the Plant to solve problems in unconventional ways generates ideas and helps the team solve difficult problems. With their minds on the larger picture of the problem, Plants may ignore incidentals, being absent-minded and forgetful. Often they are too preoccupied to communicate effectively.
Monitor evaluator: This role is the team’s logical eye, making objective judgments where necessary and weighing up the team’s options in a dispassionate way. Monitor evaluators are sober, discerning, and well able to think strategically. They see all options and assess accurately, but may be overly critical, slow to come to decisions, and unable to inspire fellow team members.
Specialist: Specialists bring in-depth knowledge of a key area to the team, which benefits from their single-minded, dedicated taking of initiative. The problem with specialist knowledge is that it tends to contribute on a narrow front; Specialists may inadvertently overload you with information, dwelling on technicalities that are irrelevant to you.
Shaper: The dynamic Shaper thrives on pressure, possessing the drive and courage to keep the team moving ahead, overcoming all obstacles without a loss of focus or momentum. If you are sensitive or easily offended, however, you may feel uneasy around the provocation-prone Shaper. In their attempts to get things done, such individuals may become aggressive or bad-humoured.
Implementer: Does your team need to plan a workable strategy and have it carried out with maximum efficiency? If so, you need the Implementer, whose practical, reliable, efficient approach turns ideas into actions and organises work. Good at planning, however, they may be loath to relinquish plans in favour of positive changes or new possibilities. Implementers should hang out with flexible team members and learn to adopt more of this trait.
Complete finisher: Every team needs to subject its work to (hopefully) high standards of quality control. The Complete finisher is the one for this work, polishing completed tasks and scrutinising the work for errors. Conscientious, painstaking, and sadly anxious, the Complete finisher worries excessively and delegates reluctantly. Perfectionists, they don’t believe anyone else can do it as well as they do (Belbin, 2015).
Processes: How shall we do things?
If you ever entertained the illusion that running a team is a simple thing, think again. Teams must manage all of the following processes:
- Business processes
- Systems (including but not limited to information technology systems)
- Guidelines (not only group norms for acceptable behaviours between members, but also guidelines around the content of the work and to do with relating to the various stakeholders, including customers)
- Managing conflict
- Running meetings
- Coordinating work (i.e., communication loops) (Acorn Consulting, 1999)
Relationships: Who and how are we together?
Perhaps the most crucial factor in effective team functioning — the thread most intricately interwoven with all others in the fabric of team life — is that of how the members relate to one another. Yes, effective communication is a large part of any high-performing team. Yes, congruent verbal-non-verbal messages and active listening skills are an important part of an effective team’s communication norms. And there is more.
Over and over again, expressed in myriad ways, team development consultants emphasise the trust and respect, openness, capacity for support, ability to give and receive feedback, and appreciation of differences that comprise the dynamics of well-functioning teams.
Trust and respect. As these two qualities go hand-in-hand, let us consider them together. For trust to be present, group members must communicate their opinions in a way that respects others, focusing on “What can we learn?” rather than “Who is to blame?” This approach touches on feedback, as that communication must be given respectfully to be of high quality (see point below). An attitude of trust and respect conveys, “I believe that you are basically competent to do what we have come together to do” and “I respect unconditionally your basic humanness” — which means that even when there is disagreement, it does not need to be “visceral”. Differences can be negotiated respectfully, with allowance for differences.
Trust presumes that team members “have each other’s back”, that members have a sense that the team environment is safe enough to share the resources and information required to get the job done. What is the alternative? Hoarding resources, building “silos”, and going around relevant others to get things done only heightens mistrust and obstructs progress, connoting a lack of respect for the avoided individuals and for the team in general. When trust and respect are fully operative, group members demonstrate personal accountability for responsibilities which they have undertaken.
Openness and self-disclosure. Similarly, team members must feel safe enough to share their ideas and feelings. In an open, accepting climate, people feel free to express their thoughts, opinions, and potential solutions to problems. They feel as if they are heard and listened to. Team members try to understand, asking questions for clarity and listening rather than forming rebuttals when others are speaking. A sense of mutual trust develops to the extent that members are willing to self-disclose, being honest yet respectful. Higher levels of self-disclosure engender higher levels of commitment, closeness, and belonging.
Capacity for support. Team members demonstrate support for one another as they achieve their goals. They exemplify a sense of team loyalty, cheering on the group, but also helping members who are having difficulties. Members view one another not as competitors, but as collaborators. Team members understand that a chain is as strong as its weakest link, and work to ensure that all links feel strong and well-supported. What are not supported are personality conflicts and clashes or members picking sides in a disagreement. Rather, the team has agreed procedures for diagnosing, analysing, and resolving teamwork problems, especially including relational problems.
Ability to give and receive feedback. On high-performing teams, members are able to give and receive feedback in timely, constructive ways, focusing on ideas and behaviours rather than individuals. They emphasise the positive and offer suggestions for improvement. Good feedback exchange requires an attitude of respect, good listening, a willingness to ask for clarification, and a nondefensive willingness to change. The team is able to continually examine itself, improving processes, practices, and the interaction of team members. Highly functional teams openly discuss team norms and what may be hindering their forward movement.
Appreciation of differences. There is often great diversity in teams. Every aspect — from professional background, ethnicity, working style or preference to generation and world view — can vary widely. Effective teams not only appreciate but also utilise the differences, adapting to and accommodating one another rather than creating conflict. The “broad brush” thinker, for example, works complementarily with the detail-oriented person to ensure that both the “big-picture” view and the “up-close” detailed examination of the project are being monitored for progress. Valuing individual members’ differences allows greater sensitivity to idiosyncrasies and capacity to flexibly adapt approaches to suit. Certainly, different viewpoints are expected and encouraged as part of fostering creativity and innovativeness, and comments such as “We tried that and it didn’t work” or “What a dumb idea!” are neither allowed nor supported (Briton, 2014; Heathfield, 2016a; University of Waterloo, n.d.; Berteig, 2009).
- Acorn Consulting. (1999). Teamwork basics. Acorn Consulting. Retrieved on 19 May, 2016, from: hyperlink.
- Belbin, M. (2015). Belbin team roles. Belbin Associates. Retrieved on 24 May, 2016, from: hyperlink.
- Berteig, M. (2009). Seven essential teamwork skills. Agile Advice. Retrieved on 19 May, 2016, from: hyperlink.
- Heathfield, S.M. (2016a). 10 tips for better teamwork. About.com. Retrieved on 19 May, 2016, from: hyperlink.
- University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Teamwork skills: Being an effective group member. University of Waterloo. Retrieved on 19 May, 2016, from: hyperlink.