Making teams work takes work

Working in Teams is something we can all relate to.

There is huge quantities of literature on how to create high performing teams and many professionals available to help our teams work more effectively. Yet my guess would be that many of us would say the teams we work in aren’t nearly as effective as they could be.

Why is this so?

Teams are not a panacea

As global teams expert Professor Richard Hackman from Harvard University points out, the conventional wisdom that teams are the solution for many organisational ills is simply misguided. To start with, if a manager isn’t disciplined about who’s selected to be on a team and how the team is set up, the odds are slim that the team will do a good job. Often the focus is on getting a mix of functional skills and experience with too little attention paid to individual personalities and team role orientations. Given Jim Collins dictum “getting the right people on the bus in the right seats”, a wider focus is paramount. There’s also a big incentive for managers to invest time in this process. Research by the Centre for Creative Leadership found that the failure to hire build and lead a team is a major derailment risk for aspiring managers

The right roles for the right people

One thing that’s always stuck out for me is how much time organisations spend on matching individual’s personalities, skills and experience to specific person roles but how little time is spent doing the same thing when they select individuals to work in a team. While doing my MBA many years ago, our class went through the Belbin Team Role profiling exercise ( Meredith Belbin’s research identified 9 team roles need to be performed by its members for teams to be successful. That doesn’t mean every team needs 9 people as most of us are capable of performing multiple roles but having diverse roles mattered.

When we applied our profiles to syndicate teams, we discovered that some syndicates were effectively destined for failure because of an imbalance in team role preferences i.e. too many “completer finishers” and insufficient “shapers”. In our case, we had an abundance of “co-ordinators” and a dearth of “resource investigators” which were my 2 preferred roles. The solution? I focused my team role on external knowledge acquisition and let my colleagues drive the bus. Later, I used the same process with student teams I taught and found it made a significant difference to the success of their projects.

Beyond Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing

Many of us will have been exposed to the “Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing” mantra for how teams come together to achieve outcomes. But my view is that this may be too simplistic an approach. Confirmation that the team role profiling process works was published in a 2017 HBR article by Tomas Chamarro-Premuzic and Dave Winsborough. They found that psychological team roles are largely a product of people’s personalities and fall into 5 categories:

  • Results-oriented
  • Relationship-oriented
  • Process and rule followers
  • Innovative and disruptive thinkers
  • Pragmatic

They found that the balance of roles in a team offered an extraordinary insight into the team’s likelihood of success or failure. One team they observed had an absence of relationship and results orientation. The result? A lack of connection to the audience the team was charged with working with and no forward drive to achieve results. Another team had an absence of pragmatism or results orientation. Not surprisingly, this team talked a good game but didn’t get anywhere.

Team roles and personality matter

There are lots of factors that influence a team’s success, some of which are outside their control. Nevertheless, spending time at the beginning of the team selection process ensuring there is a diverse balance of individual personalities, role preferences and orientations within a team certainly increases the odds of a team achieving its objectives. And as Richard Hackman has written, HR departments tend to put in place systems that are really good at guiding, directing and correcting INDIVIDUAL behaviour not GROUP behavior. Therefore, the challenge for managers is to find a balance between individual autonomy and collective action.

In my experience, using team role profiles is a step in the right direction for 21st Century Managers.

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