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On Teams: A Conversation with HR Leaders

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We recently hosted 24 HR and Talent leaders from a variety of industries for a roundtable conversation on teams. During the few hours we spent together, each leader shared conversations they are having in their organizations on the topic and took the opportunity to learn from each other.

On one level, the discussion proved how difficult it can be to talk about teams as a unit without focus shifting to the individuals on the teams. Our time together also proved that this is a topic worthy of many more conversations; while everyone acknowledged the importance of focusing on teams, most organizations don’t have – or struggle to create – a strategy for their teams. Furthermore, getting the most out of talented individuals who are not part of a team, creating shared experiences, communicating effectively, incentivizing teams and building diverse teams remain top-of-mind for HR leaders.

ARE WE TALKING ABOUT TEAMS? OR THE INDIVIDUAL?

While the ultimate goal of the roundtable was to learn from each other regarding the different experiences each person has with teams in his or her organization, often we found the conversation trended towards discussing the individual (especially the team leader) instead of the team as a unit. For example, questions from the group emerged around “How do we get the right leader in place?”, “How do we match a leader with a team?”, and “How do we leverage a leader’s skills from one team to another?”

Suggestions by audience members revolved around having clear competencies associated with effective leader performance (e.g., “What are the top ten characteristics in a good team leader?”), as well as re-examining the structure and the environment that the team leader must operate within to identify if he or she is the appropriate fit, and having to make the tough call of removing a leader when necessary.

At the same time, when asked whether leaders were directly assessed for their capability to lead a team, the group was notably silent. It was not clear from the conversation if such team-oriented metrics exist within organizations to allow for this. However, this suggests a potential missed opportunity for organizations to assess leaders for team leader roles in a different way.

DIVERSITY IN TEAMS

As HR and leaders in the business face decisions regarding team make-up, diversity remains another key factor. Several of our HR leaders shared tools and methods they use to ensure diversity is a core value to the business. Instruments, such as the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI®) by IDI, LLC can be a unique way to assess one’s cultural competence and provide the team with a shared experience and opportunity for learning and development. Additionally, some organizations use internal team and self-assessments to ask their employees how they experience diversity and inclusion efforts generally at the company, as well as on their teams specifically. Findings from these assessments are used to promote dialogue around how safe individuals feel getting to really know one another, sharing their ideas and engaging in healthy conflict.

Ultimately, as one leader noted, it can feel easier for teams to get along when they feel similar to each other, although research suggests that dissimilarity amongst team members can lead to stronger results. Demonstrating vulnerability, creating a space for team members to have shared experiences, and establishing trust have become critically important factors that impact team performance. In turn, they provide experiences that allow team members to move past superficial differences and become more understanding of each other’s viewpoints,  allowing for greater diversity of thoughts and opinions to be shared.

It was particularly interesting to hear how valuable the “soft skills” of team members and the team leader are in helping a team operate at a high level. Particularly in this era of constant change, competing demands, and ambiguity, the ability of team members to relate to one another is increasingly important. As part of this conversation, a few key trends emerged:

  • Storytelling is crucial for helping teams (especially those newly formed) understand the journey the team has taken to reach its current point. The ability of the team leader, or tenured team members, to explain to others the obstacles and triumphs the team has experienced in the past is one way to create a shared experience among all members of the team.
  • Relatedly, this type of open communication about the team’s history allows for early discussion of any “elephants in the room.” This can create transparency, as well as build trust among team members that the team can talk about difficult topics in an open and honest way.
  • There are aspects of vulnerability and bravery that are required when operating on a team, and organizations can help foster this type of team culture. For instance, asking members to speak to formative life experiences or mentors who have contributed to their development can open dialogue among team members and allow for similar experiences to be identified.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this conversation too ended up focused back on the team leader. Although it was not yet a common practice among our participants to evaluate leaders on their team leadership skills, our conversation shows there is a common understanding of some of the behaviors one might look out for. Specifically, while it is important for teams to “lean in” to one another, feel “safe enough to share ideas,” and have healthy conflict, the tone for this is often established by the leader. As several individuals mentioned, to allow team members to feel like their voice and ideas can be heard, there has to be an expectation driven by the team leader. Team leaders need to “set the stage and create camaraderie and vulnerability on the team” in addition to articulating and signaling to the team that bravery and open dialogue is important.

TOPICS TO EXPLORE FURTHER

It was clear that the discussion of teams is complex, and as will happen with these types of conversations, as many questions were raised as were addressed. Specifically, the importance of having a team strategy emerged from the conversation, yet how should organizations think about and plan for their teams? Additionally, the best way to incentivize and motivate teams – should the individuals be compensated, or the team as a whole? – was a question without any clear answer.

As you would expect, these are areas that require further exploration and, based on our discussion, there is no one correct answer or solution. And while the topic of teams can seem daunting, what inspired us was the idea that we are not alone, and likely sharing our common troubles and tribulations associated with teams has created a shared experience and bond that will serve as a platform for further team conversations.

 

Does your organization have a team strategy? How do you motivate teams? Tell us in the comments below!

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