8 May 2019

Building a team mindset

by Dr Rodney Lim

The ability to create and manage high performing teams has become necessary for modern organisations. As work tasks and work expectations increase in complexity, many firms respond by employing teams as a managerial strategy.

The benefits of organising resources around teams are many. They enable organisations to pool together diverse ideas, knowledge, skills and experiences. They can boost productivity, trust, creativity and a sense of contribution or ownership. Done right, team working can be the basis of a sustainable, collaborative organisational culture.

Despite the many benefits, work teams frequently fail or are unable to maximise their potential for a variety of reasons including a lack of purpose, role clarity, leadership, trust, effort and internal conflicts. Teams are also susceptible to being bogged down by ‘deadwood’ members, that is, those individuals who do not put in their fair share of the work but leech off the effort of others.

As a result, many people do not see the value of working in teams and prefer to work alone. Thus, teaching a team mindset is a crucial step towards shaping individuals to accepting teamwork and becoming effective team members.

At Swinburne University, teamwork and collaboration are a cornerstone of the business programme, where business students work in small teams to tackle simulated real world business scenarios. Based on the Team Based Learning (TBL) techniques, these teams operate on a set of principles that are transferable to organisations keen on building a team mindset.

First, in putting a team together, care must be given to considering its composition and size, which typically depend on the nature of the tasks to be handled and the skillset needed. Nevertheless, there is general consensus that as teams get larger in size, performance tends to decline.

At the same time, it is also beneficial to have diverse composition, to generate more and better ideas, perspectives and creativity. Diversity can be accomplished by taking into account members’ age, gender, race, personalities, strengths and specialised competencies.

However, there is a general tendency for most people to prefer working with people whom they already know, or have more in common with. The problem with this is that teams composed of highly homogeneous members can encourage complacency and prevent exposures to new experiences and different ways of working.

Second, while it is important for leaders to communicate specific goals, member roles and responsibilities, they should also allow members to provide inputs on what they can contribute to the team, as well as what they expect to get out of being a part of the team. This reinforces to members that they are stakeholders, and will build cohesion, trust and a sense of ownership, which can go a long way in motivating members.

Along the same lines, it is a good idea to discuss at the outset, how the team should function, in terms of the leadership styles, modes of communication, decision-making approaches and other important concerns. Allowing team members to have a say in constructing a set of desired behaviours is empowering, helps to prevent conflicts and ensures that work proceeds smoothly and with minimal unnecessary distractions. A team made up of fully invested members is in a position to run itself and relieves the leader from having to micro-manage its day-to-day functioning.

Improving team performance involves encouraging members to be proactive, engaged, responsible and reliable. To achieve this, members must be well equipped and supported with the resources needed for their work. At the same time, members must be held accountable for their preparedness to undertake work tasks.

For example, members should not expect team meetings to be mere briefing sessions where the leader gives information and instructions on what to do. Instead, they should attend meetings with information at hand and ready to share ideas and solutions to problems. This places great importance on individuals doing their homework and making preparations ahead of a meeting or a work task, and challenges members to constantly update themselves so that they can keep pace.

Last but not least, successful teams are often built on a capacity for continuous improvements. If long term, sustaining performance is the goal of the team, then it is crucial to have a transparent feedback process that allows members to honestly assess their own performance and the performance of their peers.

Achieving this requires an environment that is open and safe for members to feel comfortable in giving feedback to each other. Regular feedback helps to improve motivation and undertake corrective actions such as assisting underperforming members. The ideal outcome is the team’s self-learning, so that lessons learned in a particular project, work task or context can be applied to future undertakings by the team.

A team is as good as its members. Creating the conditions for members to thrive will go a long way in helping the team perform to its full potential.

Dr Rodney Lim is a lecturer from the School of Business, Faculty of Business, Design and Arts at Swinburne University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. He can be reached via email at rlim@swinburne.edu.my