Trust: Essential for High-Performing Teams

"High"-Performing Team
“High”-Performing aerobatics team working in unison

Whether strategic, project-based or operational in nature, organisations want high-performing teams. Why? High-performing teams are recognised for the quality and quantity of work, and their capacity to solve problems and create solutions that are not tenable to a lesser team. With several decades of experience in team settings, I can count on one hand, without repeating the use of fingers, the number of teams I have been part of that were truly high-performing.

My absolute favourite team was a short-duration team of 4 of us brought together for a very specific purpose. None of us had worked together before, or even known each other. For the six weeks we were together we spent most of our waking time together. We were in Twizel, highly remote back in the 90’s, and effectively we only had each other. We were individually and collectively committed to success. We worked tirelessly on our individual tasks. We collaborated whenever we dealt with interfaces or one of us had struck a problem that was anything more than routine. We had rich conversations about problems and possibilities, potential solutions and validating client expectations against our deliverables. As the project manager, I managed the work, not the team. Other than attending to issues and concerns as they arose, team management was not needed. In the context of what we were doing, I was an equal member of the team to everyone else, with my ‘technical role’ consisting of work, delivery and customer management responsibilities. We were peers. We trusted each other thoroughly. We knew all the others had our backs, were supporting us, and that if we were straying from what we were there to do, one of them would respectfully bring us back in. It really was hard work. Being on that team was fantastically rewarding. As much as I would love to claim ‘I created a high-performing team.’ I cannot. It was high-performing, and I certainly ensured that my contribution did not thwart it being high-performing.
High-performing teams result from the team as a whole creating the environment and enabling it to happen. If anyone opts out, or gets in the way, of the process, the fullness of a high-performing team cannot occur.

Why do I put such stock in trust that I name it as an essential ingredient? You can manage teams, assign tasks, ensure roles and responsibilities are clear, establish clear decision-making and problem solving protocols, and monitor performance. The bigger the team, the greater the management burden, which may also extend to ongoing recruitment, performance management and other human resource processes. While all that is in place for a high-performing team, you don’t “manage” the team. You facilitate it. You lead it. You allow and encourage and attend to the culture, values and interpersonal relationships within the team. High performance is nurtured and developed, not mandated. It is established through leadership and owned by everyone. It requires commitment, shared purpose and values, and a willingness and capacity to name and deal with whatever is getting in the way. Those behaviours within a team environment require significant trust. High-performing teams really are all about trusted relationships.

Common behaviours that erode team performance include one-upmanship, back-stabbing, political positioning, withholding from others (relative to team function and work space) and irresponsibility for self and to others in the team. This is not an exhaustive list by any means. What other behaviours have you observed that undermine trust and interfere with achieving cohesion and performance?

Developing high-performing teams is a prime area for team coaching. The coach, as an impartial outsider, is able to observe team functioning and dynamics, and call attention to behaviours that are getting in the way. A coach cannot make a team high-performing. That requires the team’s effort and commitment, but a coach sure can make it easier for those committed to the process, willing to receive feedback, and open to personal growth (adjusting their own attitudes and behaviours where necessary). High-performing teams can and do occur, and the experience of being on one is an incredibly satisfying and fulfilling experience.

Contact me if you’d like support in developing the performance of your team.

 

Isolation to Connection: A Challenge For Any High Performing Team

Team productively connected and engaging with each other.
Team connecting productively with each other

I have always been a people watcher, and in the last half of my life have worked to improve my capacity to connect with others. I can easily play the hermit and go into isolation, be there for days without concern. I did a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat, one of the most challenging things I have done in my life, but it was a physical challenge for me whereas many others reported silence, not talking and not connecting with others, as really difficult. I could have maintained the silence and my own space much longer. Yet, I do like people. It takes me time to engage with others. So I write this piece with a strong understanding of the enjoyment and importance, for some, of having and maintaining personal space.

For some time I have held a heightened awareness of the generally isolationist ways of people travelling to work on buses, ferries, or walking, and the different sense of what is going on for them. Of course, much of this is my fantasy of what is happening, albeit tempered by a lifetime of experience.

I am sitting near the front of the morning commuter bus, facing the back, and I notice the steely expressionless faces of my fellow passengers. Some stare ahead, eyes fixed, blank, hardly a movement. Others have ear pieces and are likely listening to something, eyes closed. One or two may catch my gaze as I look around the bus. Eyes may meet but there is rarely acknowledgement or warmth.

I am walking along the sidewalk as people pass me going the other way to catch the ferry. I greet with a friendly (in my world) “Hello” or “Gidday”. Many maintain their disconnection, their minds somewhere else, or at least refusing to be where I am. Some appear wary of, even annoyed at, the stranger intruding on their space. There are a few that respond, some even warmly.

I liked the movie “Patch Adams” from the moment I first watched it. One of my favourite parts is where Patch is performing a social experiment, finding novel and exuberant ways of inserting himself into the space of others, all with the intent of eliciting a smile and some warmth and connection. I am not attempting to emulate Patch. His experiment does highlight what is a fairly significant aspect of the human condition, the isolating and detached way we spend much of our time.

Imagine how different the world would be if connection and warmth were the norm. Trust would be the underpinning basis when meeting others. Warmth and generosity of soul would be abundant. Perhaps you have noticed that when you truly connect with someone else there is joy, satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment. It would be fantastic living in a world where such richness were more readily available.

Irrespective of your reaction to the above “wondering”, this isolationist phenomena has real impact on how we work and function in different social settings, including within teams. Whenever a group comes together there is a necessary process of “warming up” individually and as a group, to enable us to become available to ourselves and those around us. There is a necessary unpacking of the distrusts or intrusions we experience as we engage with others, unwrapping our protections. It is as this process is addressed that the real work of being together advances. In fact, the “real work” of the group often is about establishing and working in meaningful connection. Attending to the culture or way of being together as a group assists the capacity of the group to come together effectively. Common understanding of the way in which decisions are made, conflict will be resolved, specific responsibilities, all assist ongoing capacity of the group to come together as a team. The more fully the culture is addressed and consistently honoured, the easier it is for those within the team to arrive and engage, trust they will be safe and allow themselves to express themselves and contribute fully.

In my work as a group facilitator I know I must address the warm up of the group so the intended work can move forward. As a project manager I know my team will coalesce and function more effectively if they collectively understand and adopt a team culture that makes sense to them, and they see it lived and honoured. As a team coach, this is one of the areas I look for as part of ensuring a team is able to be high performing.

The challenge is to transform all these people on buses, ferries, private cars and however else they travel in isolation into connected, trusting and generous group participants and team members, ready and able to contribute fully. This includes ourselves. Are you up for that challenge?

You are so different to me!

Differences coming to the fore
A team with some unmanaged differences

Have you ever done the “I see red” activity? Look for and silently name all the items in the room that are red. Now close your eyes and recall all the blue items. If you have gone blank, or at least had some difficulty in doing that, don’t worry, you are normal! When the mind has been oriented to focus on something specific it is very difficult to disentangle and see another perspective.

Some people are pessimists and overwhelmingly see the negative or the threat in a situation. That can be highly beneficial if you are a risk manager. The optimists see the positive in any situation. Both struggle to understand the perspective voiced from the other end of the continuum. Examples of other continuums include introversion/extroversion, thinking/feeling, judging/perceiving, sensing/intuiting and orientations to big picture/detail, certainty/uncertainty, action/fact gathering etc. And then there are those beliefs, values and perceptions we have adopted from childhood, tribal, cultural, social, economic, political and other influences and experiences. There are a myriad factors that combine to create the way you are and the way I am.

Collectively they shape our perceptions of the world, our attitudes and expectations, and obscure other perceptions to some degree. Whatever we have learned to see, from all these factors, is what we see as we live and experience life. Most of these influences are invisible to us, and yet they powerfully steer us in terms of who we are drawn to or repulsed by, what we believe is possible, who we trust and how much, how we deal with ambiguity and change, and our capacity to work with others. These same influences also shape groups of people, teams, organisations, countries etc.

It is almost surprising, given all this, that we ever find any common ground. Fortunately, in any given situation, only a small portion of these influences show up. When we start to feel a rubbing, a developing hot spot, or blatant conflict, there is something arising that is causing a difference of opinion. Whether in relationship with another person, or within a team or organisational context, the results you achieve will depend on how you handle those points of friction.

When the friction relates to what is being worked on, harnessing differences of opinion can be extremely valuable, even if some find that quite frustrating. If the friction arises from judgement and criticism of another person, then it is damaging and detrimental. Recognising our biases with respect to others and finding a way to navigate these respectfully enables rich and fertile material that will aid the quality of your thinking processes. This is often a good time to engage a team coach who is not embroiled in the work activity. The team coach can draw attention to and strengthen the group process and help your team unleash its full potency.