Having worked to develop teams for 17 years, I thought I’d share a few key ideas that will help facilitators or managers that need to get a group of people working more cohesively. It is particularly effective to do some of these with a new team or group that about to embark on a project together for example an IT system change implementation team. It can really pay dividends in the smooth running of the project.

1. Help them build trust

As Patrick Lencioni explains in his book on the five dysfunctions of a team, it is really important for a team to develop ‘vulnerability-based’ trust. This means that they need to share things and understand more about each other. Sometimes using a personality profile together can help with this. My favourite activity is to get them to tell stories about when they were younger. Here is a format that I got from my friend Larry Reynolds, which I have used many times to great effect. These questions enable to fashion a story out of a life incident to share with the team:

  1. Think of a time when you faced some kind of challenge. It can be a challenge big or small, and it can be something that happened recently or many years ago. Challenges you faced as a child or young adult can make especially powerful stories. The only proviso is that things worked out alright in the end, and that you are happy to share this experience with others.
  2. How did you feel when you encountered this challenge? It’s probably something on the spectrum between concerned and terrified.
  3. What unexpected help came your way? Maybe you drew on some inner resources, or maybe someone else helped you.
  4. How did things work out in the end?
  5. What did you learn from this experience?
  6. What does that say about your values and beliefs as a person now

2. Help them get comfortable disagreeing

It’s really important, if a team are to make great decisions that they are comfortable with a level of conflict and disagreement in the team. Give them some tasks to do that involve disagreement and negotiation like Ecopoly or better still, take some real work, a decision that they need to make and carefully facilitate a discussion where when a person states a point of view or puts forward an idea, at least two people must say specifically what they like or agree with and then at least two people must point out potential issues, flaws or reasons that they disagree. When a team can get comfortable separating the ideas and concepts from the person, they will be able to make better decisions. Also if issues are discussed properly, teams are able to commit to decisions that they don’t necessarily fully agree with if they can understand the rationale behind the decision and they feel that they have been fully heard.

3. Help them get comfortable giving and receiving feedback

Giving and receiving feedback effectively will enable the team to grow and develop faster and will also enable them to hold each other accountable for behaviours and results. Enable them to practise giving real face-to-face feedback by doing an activity such as ‘warm seat’, which I learnt, from Dr. Roger Greenaway many years ago:

A ‘warm seat’ is a little bit like a hot seat but cooler! Group members prepare questions to ask the rest of the group about themselves. These questions can be positive e.g. what is great about working with me? Neutral e.g. what is it like working with me? Or negative e.g. in what ways do I sometimes annoy you? Group members take it in turns to sit in the warm seat for a pre-arranged amount of time e.g. five minutes and ask their questions. Group members answer the questions (which can be general or specific) as specifically as possible with examples. They can only answer questions posed and at any time the person is free to vacate the warm seat if they’ve had enough. (See my article on giving difficult feedback if the group may need to do some learning about how to give feedback well.)

4. Set up a team charter

Another practical thing that a team can do is to set up a team charter, which includes agreements about ways of working. Get clarity first on the team’s vision, purpose and values. Then get clear about people’s different roles within the team by defining individual responsibilities and goals. Once this is done, I often use an exercise like Culturallye, which looks at written, and unwritten rules that naturally establish themselves in a team as part of the culture. We can then get into identifying appropriate behaviours for team members, communication and decision-making processes and agreements about the use of resources. Encourage the team to put forward ‘rules’ that they can all sign up to, for example, ‘we get back to e-mails from each other within 24 hours’ or ‘when we disagree, we express this calmly and openly’ etc. Once this charter is established, team members can be encouraged to hold each other accountable for both behaving in line with what has been agreed and for their responsibility areas. This should happen as part of every team meeting.

5. Give them chance to practise being a real team (and to feel what it is like) by giving them challenges to complete together

If you have a well thought through problem-solving challenge where the objective is really clear and truly shared and the problem necessitates the team working together, they will have an opportunity to feel what it is like to work as a team (hopefully successfully). This physical or ‘muscle’ memory will hopefully stay with them and also make them want to achieve that feeling of working in harmony and being jointly accountable again! Great team problem-solving challenges include Tower of Power, EasySpider, Leonardo’s Bridge, MarbleRun, Scoop, StringBall, Maze and Team2. Once people feel what it’s like to truly work as a team and achieve positive results, they usually want to do it again! The review of the activity also enables the team to practise disagreeing, giving and receiving feedback and holding each other accountable.

by Shirley Gaston