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Improving Team Building Efforts

January 29, 2021
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Team building is a process of improving the ability of a team to collaborate and help it both achieve organizational results and fulfill the needs of its participants. Because some groups demonstrate unconscious patterns that limit their effectiveness, these engagements usually involve diagnosis, facilitation, and coaching over many weeks and months.

Unfortunately, the investments some organizations make in team building do not translate to improved results. Before hiring a consultant to help you conduct a team building effort to enhance collaboration, consider the following five questions.

How are you defining collaboration?

Your definition of collaboration may or may not correspond with how your team defines it. 

Collaboration is more than team members demonstrating positive teaming behaviors in meetings or team members acting upon top-down decisions. Instead, it implies that members willfully engage each other, share their best thinking with each other, consciously debate ideas, and remain open to feedback from their colleagues - both within and outside of team meetings.

Before I accept team building engagements, I often suggest that CEOs first elicit input from their leadership teams about what it means to collaborate. This practice can help surface any inconsistencies among team members and ensure that a team building initiative will succeed because there is alignment around what collaboration means. 

Is your executive group really a team?

A workgroup is not necessarily a team. Workgroups are traditionally top-down oriented with team members focused on tasks with little or no need for collaboration. However, to be a team implies there are dependencies between individuals on the team, as well as a shared vision. It also suggests that the nature of the work to be done is complex enough to call forth a need for different perspectives. It is not a good investment of organizational resources to conduct a team building effort when a workgroup is not a team. 

Are members of your executive team capable of collaborating?

Some leaders are seemingly not wired to collaborate in a team environment. In fact, some leaders should remain individual contributors and not be expected to collaborate based on their working style and personality. Before conducting a team building session, its critical to assess the capacity of team members to function as a team. For those team members who actively resist such efforts, they may need additional one-on-one coaching and feedback to help them remain open to the idea. 

One healthcare CEO I worked with had a CMO on his senior leadership team who actively resisted efforts to build a collaborative team. The engagement was still positive, but several months later the CMO resigned. The new CMO was strongly supportive of team effectiveness, and the senior leadership team flourished in its efforts to collaborate. 

Are there structures in place that support collaboration?

The lack of structural support for a team and collaboration can diminish any effort to help a workgroup become a team. For example, if executives are compensated solely for their individual effort, there is little motivation to function as a collaborative team. Another example of a critical organizational structure is performance standards. Organizations that embed expectations of success for both business goals and demonstration of core competencies (e.g., collaboration, communication, etc.) provide a compelling incentive for members of the senior leadership team to collaborate.

In the vignette noted in the last question, the CEO did raise the issue of the CMOs resistance to him directly. However, there were no implications regarding negative impacts on his performance appraisal. As a result, the resistant behavior continued. 

How does your behavior impact collaboration?

I rarely take on a team building client if I don’t believe an executive can reflect on how their behavior may contribute to the lack of collaboration on a team. This behavior can be explicit, such as verbally criticizing the ideas of team members in an open forum, as well as non-verbally such as when an executive rolls her eyes when team members share their proposals.

I recall working with an executive team where the CEO was frustrated because team members remained passive and would not step up and address important issues. Upon further exploration, it became evident that he was unable to let go of control of the team - thus, reinforcing a pattern of passivity among these direct reports. I raised the issue with him directly, and after some exploration, he became more receptive to letting the team take greater ownership of their process. As the team increased its trust, this CEO even became willing to allow the senior leadership team to meet without him.

Many sectors, especially healthcare, are facing higher pressure to delivering quality services at lower costs. Therefore, collaboration within the organization, especially at the senior-most levels, is critical. A team building initiative can make a substantial contribution to accelerating this process to become more collaborative. CEOs should ask themselves some critical questions before launching such an effort to ensure its success.

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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 25 years of experience developing transformational change leaders in healthcare and other sectors. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, a coaching and leadership development firm based in Southern California. For more information, contact Kevin at 310.715.8315 or kevin@nourseleadership.com

(c) 2020 Kevin Nourse

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