Building a Team

Well built teams are powerful. Poorly constructed teams are, at best, a headache; at worst, a nightmare. Measure your team. Do any of these comments sound familiar?

“We keep ‘solving’ the same problems over and over again.”

Our meetings are boring!”

Team members don’t keep commitments.”

My teammates bicker over nothing. I wonder what our customers think.”

Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team provides an excellent model of the interpersonal infrastructure of great teams. With such an infrastructure, teams can do amazing things.

Five Essential Behaviors of a Team

Trust: Trust is the foundation of good teams. Team trust is based on each person’s willingness to give up the image of perfection. Members of high performance teams are open about their mistakes and weaknesses.

The pretense of perfection leads us to lie to each other (and ourselves). We do so out of fear of attack. To ward off attack, we ignore problems or blame others. Bickering, blaming, and, impaired communication result. Without trust, the team can’t uncover and correct errors and shortcomings that are always a part of human life.

To build trust on your team, be trustworthy:

  • Admit to flaws and mistakes that affect the team.

  • When others make errors, assume the stance of a kindly teacher with high expectations, i.e., turn a problem into a learning opportunity.

Conflict: Constructive conflict is essential for high team performance. Useful conflict is characterized by open, unfiltered, passionate debate about ideas, policies, strategies, or tactics. Constructive conflict is not about personalities or motives. Members of great teams discuss and debate, often with great energy, ways to best serve the business purposes of the entire team.

Most people fear conflict. Trust creates the opportunity for constructive conflict. Team trust helps members recognize that the conflict is about ideas, lessening the chance that disagreements will be taken personally. It is to everyone’s benefit to engage in conflict that leads to the very best ideas and ways of doing things.

To bring constructive conflict to your team:

  • Be a model - be sure that you disagree with ideas, not people.

  • Require team members to discuss differences in terms of ideas, not personalities.

  • Do not engage in triangulated communication. Don’t listen to Mary complain about George. Rather, insist that Mary talk directly to George about her concerns.

Commitment: Members of high performing teams share a strong commitment to a common purpose. They share a passion for their vision and how to get there. You can identify commitment problems by the frequency with which team members fail to keep agreements and promises.

Commitment problems stem from insufficient conflict. Discussions are sometimes cut short to “get on with it.” While initially some time is saved, long term delays await. Inadequately discussed conflicts get expressed through behavior leading in different directions. Real commitment to agreements can only develop after constructive conflict, i.e., after everyone has been heard.

Leaders often have a clear idea about how they want things to go. They may worry that discussion will entrench conflicting opinions. In reality, most mature people don’t always need to get their way. They just need to be heard and respected. Once their ideas have been seriously considered, most folks are willing to go along with another decision if necessary.

To create commitment:

  • Be sure team members know what they are committing to. Every team needs an identified mission, a vision of an exciting future, and a way for the team to move itself towards its goals.

  • To create ownership, involve team members in creating the vision and major strategies.

  • Help each team member determine whether the vision is one they can embrace. If not, they must leave the team. This is not personal. Everyone has a right to their preferences but the team needs a direction.

Accountability: Team accountability is not just to leaders. Team members are accountable to each other. Each team member is free to confront other members for behaviors that run counter to commitments. Team accountability helps leaders give up the thankless role of “enforcement agent” and put more energy into actual leadership.

For example, suppose that a sales team agrees to cross-sell for each other. A sales assistant notices that a senior sales person forgot to mention other products to a customer. She brings that oversight to his attention. On great teams, the senior sales person will say to himself: “She is telling me this for the good of the team. I did forget and this reminder will help me remember in the future.”

Accountability cannot develop without commitment to vision, strategies, procedures and processes. Otherwise, no one really knows what they have committed to.

To build accountability on your team:

  • Encourage team mates to “catch” your mistakes. Then you can model accepting feedback and changing your behavior.

  • Encourage team members to confront each other’s off task behavior. Comments must be about the behavior, not the person.

  • Good: “You forgot to tell Mrs. Jones about our new service.”

  • Bad: “You always forget to tell customers about our new service. You don’t care about the team!”

Attention to Results: Finally, great teams pay attention to results. They measure team results, not personal results. Personal results are nice but cannot be allowed to take precedence over team results. Otherwise, you are promoting individual success over group success.

Attention to results cannot occur without accountability. Accountability is the willingness to be measured and to use feedback for self correction.

To build attention to results:

  • In concert with the team, identify team performance goals to measure progress. Remember, “What is valued gets measured. What gets measured gets done.”

  • Constantly inform all team members of team results.

  • Take disappointment calmly. Leaders who make it unsafe for team members to provide bad news get lied to.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., which helps individuals and companies solve problems and build skills. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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