Learning & Development

Leveraging Team Psychology to Drive Stellar Performance

To understand what teamwork means, consider your favorite rock band, which consists of individuals with a variety of skills and experiences that complement one another and function cohesively toward a shared goal of delivering great music. Contrast, for example, a band with enduring popularity such as U2 to any number of ‘supergroups’–instances where already famous musicians form a band–which have imploded under their own weight.

team psychology

Whether it’s a rock band or a software design team, in nearly all instances the most successful teams comprise members that:

  • Possess an unwavering focus on a common goal
  • Talk openly with each other and regularly assess and enhance plans of how they work together
  • Share responsibility for responding to current and new challenges and opportunities
  • Embrace holding each other accountable for agreed actions and outcomes
  • Make time to evaluate the combined outcomes and impact of their efforts

In some workplaces, there can often be a lack of clarity or agreement between people as to whether they are part of a team or a workgroup. While teams and workgroups admittedly have some things in common, there are also notable distinctions.

Workgroups, in contrast to teams, emphasize individual products and outcomes versus collective efforts.

Consequently, they also tend to have roles that are more distinct and individualistic, in contrast to teams which have interdependent roles where outcomes can only be achieved through collaboration. Furthermore, objectives of workgroups are predominantly determined by a manager, rather than arising from member consensus.

With that said, workgroups aren’t a bad thing, provided they effectively fulfill their intended objectives. Take a college bowling “team”, for instance, which benefits from a workgroup-style structure in terms of not needing to share resources and  coordinate their individual performance. Ultimately, the performance of one player typically does not directly impact that of another.

Contrast this to a basketball team. Even a team with top notch talent will underperform if they don’t coordinate their efforts and play to each other’s strengths.

In modern business most situations demand true team performance. If your team is behaving more like a workgroup, you’ll want to make some changes.

Let’s delve into what it takes to transition a team’s behavior from that of a workgroup to a genuine team.

Thinking Like a Team

The initial step revolves around getting all team members to view themselves as part of a bona fide team rather than a mere assembly of individuals who happen to be working together. This perspective is commonly described as ‘team orientation,’ and signifies that the individual thoughts and actions of team members are directed toward team objectives rather than self-oriented pursuits or outcomes.

To shift a group of individuals toward a team-oriented mindset:

  • Invest time creating and agreeing to a shared team purpose
  • Promote the open exchange of knowledge and resources
  • Prioritize team achievements over individual successes
  • As conflicts emerge, address them proactively and constructively so they don’t distract from the team’s purpose and goals

As team members begin to internalize a team-oriented mindset, you’ll witness a heightened sense of loyalty to each other and to the overall team and its objectives.

Develop Trust and Psychological Safety

The ability to foster a team-oriented mindset relies on building trust between members, and a sense that one can comfortably explore new ideas and voice contrary opinions. Often referred to as ‘psychological safety’, this involves team members having a level of comfort and confidence in each other that allows them to contribute freely, without worrying about repercussions if their ideas or approaches buck the status quo.

Think of it as the antidote for ‘groupthink’.

If it seems that trust and psychological safety are deficient, consider:

  • Making time for the team to explore and discuss what is limiting trust – this often requires facilitation by an external team facilitator
  • The team leader needs to role model and encourage an open dialogue that allows people with diverse perspectives to speak up
  • Gaining agreement from all members to demonstrate respect and attentively hearing the input of every team member – even if not everyone agrees with what is shared

Sync Up

In your car, the engine may be composed of the highest quality materials and components, but if the cylinders aren’t firing in sync, it may yield reduced horsepower or seize up entirely.  Similarly, team orientation and trust, alone, cannot deliver high performance unless the daily activities of individual team members are synced.

To make this happen, consider:

  • Refining or re-designing individual roles, taking into consideration the unique talents and strengths of team members
  • Clearly defining accountability, and establish concrete mechanisms to track progress and address barriers
  • Develop a norm where all members share responsibility for holding each other accountable to agreed actions and decisions.

Stay Flexible

Continuing with our basketball team analogy, being able to execute plays in a highly disciplined fashion must be balanced with the ability to react quickly to unexpected shifts in the opponent’s strategy. Similarly, in the business world, while highly effective teams may be carefully configured toward an agreed objective, their path toward that objective must remain flexible.

Great teams promptly evaluate the situation and adapt accordingly, most often through minor adjustments, but also through major course corrections when necessary.

To enhance your team’s flexibility and adaptability, concentrate on:

  • Establishing regular opportunities for the team to step back from daily activities and explore what is working and what needs to change
  • Equipping individuals with the means and authorization to swiftly address emerging challenges without having to jump through unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles
  • Enabling team members to embrace a reasonable level of risk-taking and learning from taking risks that don’t succeed
  • Continuously assessing and addressing team dynamics (the hidden or unspoken motivations, biases or personality preferences of the team) that can derail teamwork

Know Your Team Inside and Out

In conclusion, consider that a basketball coach who consistently sends their team to the championships will have a deep understanding of not just physical skills and abilities, but also psychological temperaments, thought patterns, and blind spots of the team.

The same applies to business leaders. To lead a high-performing team, you must develop an understanding of the communication preferences, work approaches, decision-making tendencies, and learning methods of your team members.

While there’s no substitute for putting in the time to get to know your people, even this can fall short, as human beings tend to make subjective observations regarding each others’ behavior. One of the best ways to check your own biases and ensure you’re gaining an objective view of your team members is through evidence-based team development strategies and psychometric assessments.

As an illustration, personality type, as assessed through the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) model, offers a highly effective approach for ensuring that diverse perspectives are freely shared–a key element of psychological safety. One of the tenets of the model holds that people with different personality preferences have varying levels of comfort expressing themselves extemporaneously in meetings.

Most of us have observed that, within a team, certain people tend to speak up more during meetings. It’s tempting to assume that these folks are simply the ones with strong points of view, but this is typically not the case. Rather, they tend to be people who, due to their personality preference for Extraversion, are simply more comfortable thinking out loud in front of people.

In contrast, people who prefer Introversion may make their best contributions towards the end of a team meeting of even after the meeting.

If you’re aware of the personality preferences of your team, you can make special efforts to ensure that those who may feel less comfortable with this kind of communication have adequate time to prepare and present their thoughts. In some cases, you might need to give them multiple communication channels.

When leaders and team members understand each other’s preferences, they can make better choices about how to work together as a team and minimize misunderstandings or incorrect assumptions.

To sum it up, effective teams do not spontaneously spring from collections of skilled individuals. Instead, they are the product of deliberate and consistent nurturing. Consider how you can use these psychological levers to create a stellar performing team.

Dr. Martin Boult has worked as a psychologist in the field of management and organizational development since 1998, with a focus in the areas of executive leadership development, strategic planning, the psychology of change, team performance, talent development and workplace well-being. He’s a member of The Myers-Briggs Company’s Asia Pacific’s Executive Leadership Team where he’s responsible for managing consulting services and overseeing the certification programs for a range of psychometric instruments.

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