Written by Beverly Y. Langford Tuesday, November 15 2011For the past several decades, business and educational institutions have embraced the organizational concept of teams to achieve superior results.
Conventional wisdom asserts that teams typically outperform individuals because they benefit from the collective IQ as well as a variety of backgrounds, viewpoints, skill sets, and perspectives. Ideally, teams make everyone feel that he or she has a voice in outcomes, thereby democratizing organizations, enhancing the learning process, and inspiring commitment.
Why then, do so many teams end up being mini-organizations, with a “boss” and followers, or a playing field for strong personalities to clash, or a vehicle where someone can coast along on others’ accomplishments and share in the glory? Those who have been on a dysfunctional team in many cases end up frustrated and wishing they could just do the work themselves.
Although it does not make the work easier, a high-functioning team is worth the effort. However, no matter how talented team members may be, if a team does not put some communication guidelines in place, it can quickly become dysfunctional. On a team, members can’t just let water seek its own level when it comes to effective communication. The entire team needs to be intentional about creating a climate for clear communication. Here are some communication strategies for success.
Build Trust First
When people trust someone, they feel safe. And, when they feel safe, they are willing to open up. Without trust, communication will be superficial and tentative. Many times what people say is just the tip of the iceberg. What is important is the reason that they said it. That’s what makes an iceberg so scary. The real deal is underneath the water.
So, when a team member says, “I don’t like this template you are using for our PowerPoint presentation, what she may really mean is, “I’m upset because you didn’t ask my opinion before you chose it.”
When a team creates an atmosphere where it is safe to reveal not only what members think but also why they think it, hidden agendas don’t create impediments to progress.
Teams can build trust by talking openly about their likes, dislikes, fears, concerns, and pet peeves. Trust increases when team members can share these feelings without receiving strong negative reactions or a contemptuous response from others.
Establish Clear Communication Ground Rules
Of course, communication is more complicated when five, 10, or even 15 people are trying to work on something together. For that reason, setting some ground rules for communicating in a team environment is critical for successful interaction. Identify each person’s preferred communication vehicle. Does a team member prefer a text message to an email? Do others check email only twice daily, but always have their cell with them?
Further, team members should agree on how quickly they should respond to each other. Should they answer text messages or emails within a few hours, or does the nature of the team’s work permit a 24-hour response window? Going off the grid is not acceptable in an interdependent environment. Certainly, team members should know if other members are going to be unavailable for a period, but for a member to simply disappear creates frustration and anger from those team members who need colleagues to be available and engaged.
Team members should also commit to seeking and sharing information. If members miss a meeting, they should not wait for everyone to bring them up to speed and then sulk if they aren’t in the loop. Although the team should make sure that absent members know what is taking place, it is also that person’s responsibility to be assertive in finding out the latest developments.
Information becomes currency in some organizations. “I have it and you do not.” But if the information pertains to a team project, everyone has an obligation to share early and often.
Finally, teams should strive to master the art of straight talk, communicating with clarity and simplicity. Team communication should be to express rather than to impress.
Acknowledge and Accommodate Communication Style Differences
Many factors affect the way people communicate – age, culture, gender, language, and personality to name a few. Moreover, being unaware of those differences can create significant barriers to effective team communication. (Renie McClay, 10 Steps to Successful Teams).
Some team members may love to talk, often generating ideas while they are still thinking about the topic. Others prefer to digest information and synthesize it before speaking. They may not lead the charge in a brainstorming session, but they often can pull together what appear to be everyone else’s random comments.
Certain team members may be more assertive than others. Coming from them, a suggestion sounds like a command, and they relish a lively argument. Other team members may shy away from taking on that person who seems so confident.
Not only should individual team members analyze their own communication styles, but the team should also talk openly about these differences and find a way to accommodate everyone so that each person can make a significant contribution. Which team members talk too much? Which ones talk too little? What does the team need to do to leverage everyone’s thinking?
Develop and Implement a Process for Dealing with Conflict
The clearer and more open the communication, the greater the chance for disagreement. Many times, the tendency is to shut down or choose sides when team members find themselves at odds with each other. Team members owe it to each other and to the success of the team to make sure that conflicts stay issue based and solution focused.
Keeping personalities out of conflict is easier said than done, but the entire team needs to be sure that words and actions from all members don’t fuel the conflict. If someone on the team feels hurt or angry, everyone should make sure that the person addresses the source of the problem directly rather than carping to other colleagues.
Some situations call for a cool-headed decision to say nothing and to let it go. Recognize that stress exacerbates the climate for conflict, and team members should always strive to know when to pursue an issue and when to let it disappear on its own.
Spend Some Time Communicating on a Personal Level
Strong relationships are key contributors to team success and help minimize both the occurrence and seriousness of conflict. Although the relationship among team members is primarily business, teams are stronger when members appreciate and value each other as people.
Finding areas of common interest and communicating about nonwork related topics can build bonds that will see teams through difficult projects. Showing a concern for illness in the family or celebrating the achievement of a team member’s child can go a long way toward creating a solid, cohesive unit. Some social interaction, such as a birthday celebration for team members is not only appropriate, but also goes a long way toward making everyone feel a part of a community.
At the same time, respecting each other’s privacy and observing proper boundaries can avoid the problems that arise when teams become too close and too involved in team members’ personal lives.
Without effective team communication, even the most talented group of people cannot reach its full potential. The extra effort teams spend intentionally creating an excellent environment for communication can pay big dividends in the early days of team formation as well as in forging long-term relationships.
Beverly Y. Langford is author of The Etiquette Edge and president of LMA Communication. She teaches management communication in the Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University, Atlanta.