Improving team dynamics
Slides & PDF's
Team dynamics can make or break a team.
Teams can be great places to work and a source of professional fulfilment and wellbeing. They can give us a valued role, provide inspiration and learning, and be a cause for celebration. Supportive and friendly colleagues can increase our enjoyment and our resilience.
But teams can get into habits that drain our energy and make us less effective.
We summarize the evidence of the effects of poor dynamics specifically on team decision making here, but there is a more important general point to be made. Teams thrive when they can have full and informed discussion, not when there are ‘taboo’ subjects that cannot be discussed or the same voices dominate whatever the topic. When people are regularly denied a voice, morale and team effectiveness suffer. This is one of the most common complaints in teams. But the solutions are straightforward. Which is not quite the same as 'easy', but at least we can point to evidence-based1 solutions.
Teams thrive when:
- People listen well and speak constructively
- Everyone can contribute - discussions are not dominated by the same people
- People feel free to disagree
- Everything that needs to be discussed is discussed
- Decisions are based on evidence, not power
Speaking and listening well
Team members need to contribute constructively to team meetings. Active listening and constructive speaking are skills that build relationships. These skills can be learned and improved - see the Exercises tab at the top of the page for more details.
The team leader could have a quiet word with people outside the meeting if he or she feels a team member could be a better listener or speak in a more supportive manner. Golden rule: praise in public, but criticise in private.
If it is better to approach this issue for the team as a whole, our development exercise "Giving better feedback" will help.
Everyone can contribute
Over time, every group settles into its own pattern of behaviour and team norms become established. Usually quite unconsciously. For example:
- People regularly turn up late without having read the papers, so presentations have to start with a long introduction.
- The same people speak all the time, and the others stay quiet
Teams usually have some members who like the sound of their own voice, and some who are more reticent. For the good of the team, each must overcome their shyness or long-windedness to make the most effective contribution.
The solution is to step back from time to time and spend time reviewing the way the team is working. You can do this informally by allowing 20 minutes at the end of a meeting to run the Exercise ‘Reviewing team dynamics’.
Changing team norms can be a particular challenge for successful teams. Unconsciously, successful teams close ranks. They start to assume that everything they do is right. They stop listening to contrary views from inside or outside the team. There is evidence that groups are more confident about their decisions than individuals – even when the decisions are wrong.
People feel free to disagree
Disagreements and debates are helpful. Candid discussions eliminate complacency, encourage analysis and, the evidence shows2, lead to better decisions.
The trick for the team leader is to encourage disagreement at the same time as discouraging personal conflict. The first focuses on issues and viewpoints, the second on personalities and chemistry. People are often concerned that the former will lead to the latter, but that is not necessarily the case.
By asking questions and encouraging different views you can build a dynamic of open and honest discussion in the team.
It will help if the team develops a routine for addressing the most important decisions, with an emphasis on looking at a range of competing options.
Agree team criteria for choosing the best option. Stress that successful teamwork is about team solutions, not individuals winning arguments.
When one option is chosen, review the other options to see if there are aspects of them that would improve the chosen option. Build the improvements in. Celebrate finding the best solution for the team!
When it comes to successful disagreement, practice makes perfect.
Sometimes people are well aware of a particular dynamic in a group. They talk about it privately outside team meetings. But no-one is prepared to discuss it in the team, give direct feedback to the team member causing the problem, or raise it with the team leader.
It is undiscussable; a taboo subject. What’s worse, its undiscussability is undiscussable.
Sometimes the problem is relatively minor:
- Carol joined the team right at the start as IT lead but the project has changed, and she doesn’t have the level of specialist IT knowledge the team needs. She flies in especially from the other side of the world. Privately, people are muttering about the expense but no-one confronts it because they can get round the problem by hiring extra local IT expertise.
Sometimes it’s more serious and anxiety about discussing the issue amounts to fear:
- Fred says too much, too loudly and talks over everybody. No-one interrupts him even when he’s gone way off the point, because of his volatile temper. He may not realise the negative impact he’s having.
There is understandable apprehensiveness and fear of conflict behind these silences. We have a range of “tricks” to help us avoid the discussion – pretending the issue doesn’t matter, waiting to see if anyone else raises it and so on. But these defensive routines get in the way of effective team performance. They are also undermining the openness and trust in the team.
From time to time, the team leader may need to handle uncomfortable disagreements. You have to find the courage to discuss the issues with the individuals concerned, and build a culture of openness, candid discussion and constructive problem-solving in the team.
Making sure that the team doesn't settle in to either defensive blandness on the one hand, where important issues don't get discussed, to open hostility on the other is essential if the team is to work productively. See the briefing on 'From debate to problem-solving' for more on how to manage this. There is also a downloadable 'Team leader's guide' for a range of practical tips you can try to keep team discusions on track.
If it’s too much to handle on your own, think about involving an experienced external coach. They can conduct a more objective team review, and get issues discussed in a way that may not be feasible for a participating team member.
Base decisions on data, not power
An analytical process for making decisions, combined with good data, produces the best results. You shouldn’t just rely on a process where the most important person in the room makes the decision. Team leaders please note. (This has been called the HIPPO problem – when the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion is all that matters).
Even with good data, judgement calls are often needed. The best choice here is to establish an open dialogue between the team member with the specialist knowledge and the person who is taking responsibility for the decision.
Beware the sloppy compromise of consensus – where options are tossed around until an option no-one seems to disagree with emerges. You may well be missing something important. Watch out for undercover team dynamics - they can hide disagreements unless you follow a rigorous process.
Use data, transparent analysis, and candid problem-solving.
Agree team ground rules
To have the best team discussions and make the best decisions, agreeing a set of ground rules can really help. There is good evidence that agreeing and following the ground rules shown in this video, or something very similar, will improve your discussions and the quality of your decisions. Our ‘Agreeing team ground rules’ exercise will show you how.
1. Straus, S. G., Parker, A. M., Bruce, J. B., & Dembosky, J. W. (2009). The group matters: A review of the effects of group interaction on processes and outcomes in analytic teams. RAND WR-580.
An exercise to practise Active listening with two colleagues, and receive feedback on what you did well and what you might improve.
A short reflective exercise to help you build good relationships by responding positively to others.
You can do this exercise informally at the end of one of your meetings, to check in with the team that topics are getting aired and everyone feels able to contribute.
The aim of this exercise is to help you improve the way you discuss and make decisions in your team.
The aim of this exercise is to help you give more constructive feedback to other people.
The aim of this exercise is to help you turn conflicts into joint problem-solving discussions.