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In the (Exchange) Zone: Balancing Individual and Team Development

by Ruth Imose on

When it comes to managing teams, how do you balance?

It has been some time since I ran track personally, but the experience developed my ongoing appreciation for the sport – particularly the relays. Given the inherent individuality of track and field, relays demand a type of collaboration that most track athletes are not familiar with. No matter how fast each individual athlete is, if the baton is not exchanged smoothly within the exchange zone parameters, the ultimate success of the team can be negatively impacted.  Case in point: the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which both the men’s and women’s US 4 x 100 relay teams dropped the baton and were disqualified – during a year in which they were both strong favorites.

This scenario perfectly contextualizes the trade-off between individual performance and team performance. From the perspective of a coach, it begs the question: were the baton drops a consequence of insufficient individual development or insufficient team development? In my experience assessing leaders of high-performing teams in organizations, the inherent trade-off between developing individual members and developing the team constantly comes up.The most effective approach is to strike a balance between the two, though leaders can struggle to do this.

Individual Development

In most organizations, there is considerable support for (and expectations around) individual development. As a leader, when considering how to help a struggling employee – or even a high-potential one – several strategies likely come to mind:

  1. Creating individualized development plans. Within a team, managers quickly realize how different each of their direct reports are. While some are motivated by the idea of taking on increasing responsibility and eventually managing their own direct reports, others likely want to continue developing their technical skills and hone domain expertise. Having conversations with your employees about their goals and identifying developmental activities that would enable their accomplishment are critical for employee engagement. These plans should include measurable goals and a realistic timeframe that can be referenced.
  2. Leveraging stretch assignments and opportunities outside of their job function. Stretch assignments provide great opportunities for growth. Used in conjunction with rotations outside of the employee’s primary function, they also provide an opportunity for the employee to gain perspective on the organization more broadly.
  3. Formal training and learning programs. Formal training includes anything from classes on crucial conversations to “Lunch and Learns” on a new software.
  4. Individualized coaching. Coaching describes any combination of activities aimed at helping the employee realize his or her developmental goals. As a manager, encouraging open communication about progress and derailers, providing timely, constructive feedback, and serving as a mentor and resource is invaluable to developmental progress.

Team Development

But what about team development? Most of us are aware of Gestalt principles asserting that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly, for track and field relay teams, getting that record time is about more than each individual member running his or her fastest. When considering how to develop and create a truly high-performing team, the available resources to leverage are not nearly as expansive but can include any of the following:

  1. An initial team talent review. What are the strengths and capabilities of your team? This strategy works in conjunction with the creation of individualized development plans discussed above. Do your individual members bring complementary skills? They may be committed to their individual development, but are they similarly committed to the team as a whole? Do they possess strong work ethic? Are there any weak links? This assessment may result in the consideration of recruitment and retainment strategies.
  2. Helping members understand their role relations. It is important that team members understand how their roles are connected and dependent on each other for accomplishment of a common goal. Are your team members aligned around what needs to be achieved? Most importantly, do they understand how their skills and efforts support the team’s mission?
  3. Providing team-level feedback. Much like continuous feedback is important for individual development, teams benefit from consistent and timely feedback. It is useful to leverage performance metrics to give the team a way of assessing their progress. Have you identified team performance standards and clear measures for tracking them?

The Balancing Act

It seems that in practice, leaders tend to focus on one aspect of development, which can hamper success. By focusing on individuals, you run the risk of not realizing the synergistic effects of a truly high-performing team (though you may likely have some exemplary stand-out performers). However, when a relay loses, no one ever says, “But look at the best time the third leg clocked!” By focusing on team development, you may miss the opportunity to engage individual employees, strategically delegate assignments, and help them reach the next level.

Consider the following strategies to help encourage this necessary balance:

  • For leaders: Have you considered your vision for high-performing team success? Do you have the right people on your team to realize this goal? How can you work with the team collectively to achieve it? How can you most effectively engage your individual team members? Do you understand their motivations and their individual goals?
  • For organizations: What team development resources are available to your managers? How are managers supported in their development efforts of both individuals and teams? What do you ask of your leaders in terms of development plans? Are they required for individuals and teams?

What are your strategies for achieving balance? Tell us in the comments below!

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