Five ways to get your teams working more effectively

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Teams are the building blocks of organisations. Teams are groups of people who work together to achieve things - but not all groups are teams. Teams are characterised by interdependencies, in other words team members have to work together to get things done. While this interdependency creates the potential for the whole to be more productive and creative than the sum of the parts, it can just as easily be a recipe for frustration and conflict.

So how can HR support managers in their need to get teams working effectively? Here are five actions you can encourage managers to take.

1. Create a positive working culture

Research over the last 10 years has backed up what many of us intuitively knew; a good working atmosphere makes a huge difference to a team’s productivity. What the research found is that the key to the difference between high-performing and low-performing teams is the ratio of positive to negative comments in team meetings. Interestingly this doesn’t need to be balanced, it needs to be weighted in favour of positive comments, at least by a ratio of 3:1.

A number of things seem to happen once this magic ratio is reached and even more so if the ratio moves closer to 6:1. There is more positive ‘good feeling’ effect generated by the group when they are together. When people feel good they are more able to think well, be creative, and to work with others. In addition, people become more willing to contribute ideas, and to work with goodwill through the moments of uncertainty, disconnection or confusion in the conversation until something new emerges. The benefits continue beyond the immediate team meetings, as team members’ actions in their own domains are more in sync with their colleagues, and so the departmental interface issues are lessened.

2. Help people play to their strengths

Recent thinking is that attending more to our strengths than our weaknesses will reap greater benefit in terms of performance improvement.

Strengths are an expression of highly development mental pathways and neutral connections that take minimal effort to enact. Encourage managers to to help team members discover their true strengths and then find ways as a team to utilise everyone’s strengths to achieve the team task. 

3. Create commonality amongst team members

Teams are often made up of people with different skill sets and areas of expertise that tend to see the world, and the priorities for action within it, differently. This can lead to a great awareness of difference, and the differences can come to be seen as insurmountable. Yet at the same time there will be areas of commonality amongst team members, often in the areas of core values and central purpose. 

A very productive way to access these commonalities is through the sharing of stories. When people are asked to share personal stories of their moments of pride, achievements or successes at work, or the part of their job that means the most to them, they are expressing their values and sense of purpose in an engaging, passionate and easy-to-hear form. The listener will undoubtedly find that the story resonates with them, creating an emotional connection at the same time as they begin to see the person in a different light. In the best scenarios, as people share their highlight stories, a sense emerges in the room of ‘wow, these are great people I’m working with here, I’d better raise my game’.

4. Move from the habitual to the generative

Groups can get stuck in repeating dynamic patterns. When this happens, listening declines as everyone believes they know what everyone else is saying – they’ve heard it all before. And so does the possibility of anything new happening. To break the patterns we need to move from rehearsed speech (which means exactly what it says, speech that has been thought or said so often it just tumbles out) to generative speech (which is the delightful sensation of hearing ourselves say something new). 

Encourage managers to ask questions or introduce activities which mean people need to think before they speak - that brings information into the common domain that haven’t been heard before. Positively or appreciatively framed questions as suggested above are particularly good for this. So too are imagination-based questions, for example:

  • ‘If we woke up tomorrow and we had solved this dilemma, how would we know, what would be different?’
  • ‘If we weren’t spending our time locked in this conversation, what might we be talking about?’ 

Or use ‘as if’ questions, for example, ‘If we discuss this as if the customer were in the room with us, what will we be saying?’ 

Sometimes just getting people to switch from their habitual seating pattern breaks old and creates new dynamics.

5. Create future aspirations

When teams suffer a crisis of motivation or morale it is often associated with a lack of hope. A lack of hope that things can get better, a lack of hope in the power and influence of the group or the leader, a lack of hope or belief in the possibility of achieving anything.

Hope and optimism are both great motivators and also key in team resilience. In hopeless situations we need to engender hopefulness. Appreciative Inquiry as an approach is particularly good at doing this as it first of all discovers the best of the current situation, unearths the hidden resources and strengths of the group, and then goes on to imagine future scenarios based on these very discoveries about what is possible. As people project themselves into optimistic futures clearly connected to the present, they begin to experience some hopefulness. This in turn engenders some motivation to start working towards those more aspirational scenarios of how things can be.


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