Team development seems like it should be a topic less prone to buzzwords and generic consultant-speak. After all, most businesses these days are organized into teams — and effective team development means those teams hit their goals, position the company in a better way, and maybe get some individual results for themselves. (Someone please explain to me why we want people to work in teams but still promote individuals, though. It confounds me.)
Anyway, most articles and books I’ve ever read or seen on team development are mostly fluff and BS. You can look at the NBA Finals right now and see a little of the team development aspect — Steph Curry was an undersized guard at Davidson, Klay Thompson was mostly semi-known at best at Wazzu, etc. They just won the first two games of the Finals by a combined 48 points, which is the most in the modern era — and that’s against a team with arguably the best player on the planet playing for it.
Team > individual most of the time, so team development would seem important. But how do we actually create effective teams?
Team development and psychology
One of the hallmarks of most business discussions is that we tend to set them in an utopia and rip any real ties to human psychology away from them. A good example would be “People Analytics.” It’s a good idea in some respects, sure — hell, maybe most respects. But it violates every principle of how people think about themselves, their value, and their connection to work. As a result of that, it will probably never take off in the way we hope it could/can.
The same holds true with team development.
You almost need to start any conversation about effective team development with human psychology, because that’s going to be the root of everything. A team is just a collection of individuals, and those individuals might have different goals, different family situations, different titles, different bosses, different commutes, different tenures with the company, different self-esteem levels, different beliefs about their own ability, etc. All those things are crucial and factor in to how the overall team will work together.
But too often, we dive head-long into the team hitting targets and tasks — when in fact the first thing we should do is get to know each other and define roles.
Here’s an article about “7 Habits of Resilient Teams,” i.e. teams that bounce back from problems and hit their goals, and said seven are:
- Culture of psychological safety
- Clear communication
- Low turnover
- Leaders have a cool head
- They don’t avoid problems
- Reframe challenges
- Build the right skills
That’s a good, standard Fast Company-type list. FC is mostly BS, snackable business content. It’s not meant to be “real” or reflect what’s really going on out there. Here now are the issues.
Team development and the management yin-yang
Remember this above all: most managers, even executives to a certain extent, are always trying to manage up. They want to impress the right people to get the next thing, be it more money, a promotion, a series of perks, etc. Very few people have a true interest in managing down, even when they have a span of direct reports numbering in the 20s. This is the essential yin and yang of middle management (and all management, really), and it’s one reason why hopefully conventional definitions of middle management start to die off soon.
Look at this seven-list above on team development, right? Let’s go through them and think about what most managers would say if told this stuff during a performance review:
Create a culture of psychological safety: “I can’t have these people feeling safe! I gotta motivate ’em to hit goals!”
Clear communication: “Where’s the time for that? I’m rushing to my 2:30 on Q2 revenue plays!”
Low turnover: “Most of these guys can’t hit targets anyway, good riddance!”
Cool head: “I’m always calm and collected, baby!” ( ** said with hair literally on fire ** )
Don’t avoid problems: “Of course not! I know everything that’s happening with my team!”
Reframe challenges: “Ain’t got time for this, I’m chasing growth!”
Build the right skills: “Not worth it, they might leave anyway!”
I’ve heard managers say all variation of the italics above. You think that’s the path to good team development? It’s not. It’s the path to high turnover, increased workloads for those who remain, and completely unclear and poorly-articulated priorities all over the organization.
So here’s where we are right now:
- We gotta root any efforts at team development in psychology
- We gotta understand how most managers approach the ideas inherent to team development
Team development: So, er, what now?
Everything at work is really about two things: people, i.e. relationships, and processes, i.e. how is shit going to get done and who’s ass is on the line when it doesn’t. Beyond those two things, everything is just passing a bunch of bucks between A and B so that you can surf the Internet all day while telling people how slammed you are.
So if our focuses need to be on relationships and processes, what can we do?
Relationships: Think about how teams are comprised. Often it’s very hasty, with no thought. If someone’s worked with you for even 3–4 weeks, you have a vague idea of their work style and personality — and who they might get along with vs. they wouldn’t. You can’t make every team perfect, but avoid oil and water deals. And also, open every new meeting and new team and generally new concept by explaining who is involved, why they’re involved, what the goal is, and how the path could look. In short, please tell me who the heck ‘Dave’ is.
Processes: This is really the most crucial aspect of team development. A team entirely rooted in meetings and calls begins to get resentful. A team entirely rooted in happy hours probably isn’t doing shit. You need to figure out the processes you’ll use — Basecamp?!? — and how and where new items and ideas will live. Many companies screw this to the wall and do a ton of “process for the sake of process,” which benefits absolutely no one. That creates a deal where process buries results, and the goal of process is actually to bolster results. So basically, to have effective team development, you need to define your processes clearly for all involved — but keep ’em a bit simple, because there is a “Goldilocks Effect” to managing process for teams.
What else would you add about team development? There’s much that can be said, but this is a humble blog post — so I’d love more thoughts.
My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.