How to Turn Random Individuals Into a Team

Team and teamwork - leadership and management
Michigan team – Wikicommons

How do you take a group of people who work together and turn 
them into a team?

We know that building a team is not all about ‘trust falls’, away days and retreats. Therefore, how can managers build lasting bonds and the kind of trust that makes teamwork a breeze?

I started off my career as a Bomb Disposal Officer in the Army, working in situations where working well together as a team was potentially a life or death situation. Since then, as a consultant and leadership coach, I have worked within and alongside organisations in the commercial, governmental and voluntary sectors, equipping teams with the skills they need to be more effective in working together. The bulk of my work revolves around facilitating strategy, giving people the tools they need to make good decisions, and through this building teams that are resilient to change and uncertainty.

There is not always the luxury of having time out and fun activities to build a team. Fortunately, these things are not actually necessary. You can build a successful team in the harshest of environments if you understand certain fundamentals. Here are the things that I have found are most effective in turning a bunch of individuals into a high performing team.

“Great things in business are never done by one person. They’re done by a team of people.”

Steve Jobs

Be a leader who understands how teams develop

A well-functioning team is dependent upon good leadership. If a team is failing in some way, then the manager has to make the assumption that they have to shoulder the bulk of the blame and take responsibility for finding a solution.

One thing that can really help a leader build and manage a team is understanding the natural evolution that a group goes through on the way to becoming an effective team. One great model of this that I have found particularly helpful (and memorable) is the Tuckman Cycle. Bruce Tuckman did research that demonstrated that every team goes through stages of:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing and
  • Ajourning

A manager can do things to speed the process through these steps to the performing stage. It is especially important to get through the painful ‘storming’ phase but you cannot completely short circuit the system to get straight to performance. There has to be some pain to get to the gain.

Another model, the Drexler-Sibbet model of Team Performance, is a helpful complement to the Tuckman model. The Drexler-Sibbet model poses a set of questions that a team needs to work through in order to progress through each level of performance. As a leader, this is invaluable in working out how to support the team best.

You can see how the two models combine in the picture below.

team development
The stages of team development and the questions that need to be answered

All teams experience a level of change and you can progress or regress through these models. Therefore a leader needs to assess which stage their team is at and how to answer the key questions. A good leader thinks of strategies to facilitate progress towards peak performance. These can be planned from the beginning.

Gather people to a common vision and set of values

One thing that can help people quickly form as a team and work through initial ‘storming’ challenges is to have a vision for people to gather to and for them to share a common set of values. People need to know where they are going and how they are going to get there. A clear mission gives people the definition of success they need to make progress, while shared values and principles provide the guidelines for behaviour and decision making that will shape the journey. If these are established early on it will help attract the right team members and then engage people effectively so they can quickly get to the settled ‘norming’ phase.

Invest time in individuals

Stephen Covey wisely said: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This is vitally important for the leader and manager. It is very easy to plough into a team environment and start pushing people to do things in a particular way but investing in individuals first can save a lot of time, effort and heartache.

Listening to your team members and understanding the needs and desires of your employees (as well as their skills and experience) will contribute to the effective management and working of the team. Giving time to individuals builds up capital in the relational bank account; an investment you can then draw upon when challenges hit, but hopefully with less chance of going overdrawn.

Give people clear roles and responsibilities

Team members, as well as needing to know where they are going, also need to know their part in the plan. Their roles and responsibilities need to be clearly laid out in such a way that they should be stretched but be able to play to their strengths. One of the most successful tools for establishing the roles within a team is the Belbin Team Roles model.

Meredith Belbin did extensive research into how effective teams function and worked out that there are nine functions or roles that need to be fulfilled for a team to work properly. Some people may take on more than one role but all the following bases need to be covered:

  • Plants are highly creative and good at solving problems
  • Resource Investigators connect with the world outside the team, bringing in external views on opportunities and competition
  • Monitor Evaluators provide a logical, impartial view and help to weigh up options
  • Co-ordinators focus on the objective and delegating tasks to team members
  • Implementers plan and implement a workable strategy
  • Completer Finishers bring high standards, see errors and add polish to the final solution
  • Team workers help the team gel and identify things that need doing to help the team
  • Shapers challenge and provide momentum by driving the team forward
  • Specialists provide in-depth knowledge within a key area

The approach is explained more fully in his book Team Roles at Work (2010).

Overcoming challenges together

When people know where they are going, how they are getting there and what their role is then work starts getting done efficiently. At this point, the team can grow together as they face and overcome challenges together. Successfully tackling a work problem can bring more progress than a plethora of away-days. Helping someone through a problem is far more productive than catching someone in a ‘trust fall’ exercise. The important thing for the manager to remember at this point is that they need to be playing their part in the team, bringing leadership, keeping up good communication, supporting individuals and helping the team to make decisions.

Celebrating success

Finally, when something is done well it should be celebrated. This does not mean popping the champagne (although there are times for that), it could be as simple as praising a team member for a job well done. This should be done in a team or public setting so that people can share in the success and be encouraged to press forward in what they are doing. Then, at the end of a project, throw a party.

Congratulations, you have a fully functioning team!

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