A Team’s Journey to Higher Functioning

Peggy Penberthy, Organizational Development and Learning

The journey from “team in pain” to high functioning team is an arduous path demanding openness, hard work, vulnerability, and courage. One of MSEC’s recent Leadership Academy graduates shared how she and her team embarked on that path and realized remarkable results.

When “Sally” assumed a management role on the  20-person team, they were in a great deal of pain. There were two growing chasms within the team, and infighting was rampant. Complaining, triangulating, negativity, and passive-aggressive behavior were the norm. People on the team were miserable, and their work product was suffering. The approach to remedying the team’s dysfunction had been to regulate behavior. When an employee complained about another employee’s behavior, the manager instituted a policy. Over time, policies existed on countless issues. Once a policy was written, it had to be enforced. Sally recognized that the team had become “discipline-focused” and that no one took personal responsibility for their actions.  Rather than having difficult conversations with one another or making requests, they called each other out to management. This exacerbated the adversarial relationships.
As part of her work in the Leadership Academy, Sally decided to enlist the team in realizing a shared vision for a higher-functioning, collaborative team. They began by discussing what the team was doing well, what the team was not doing so well, and how the team would like to be. This open spirited dialogue served as a mirror in which the team assessed itself. The next step was to create a team vision, values, and norms. The team discussed their current dysfunctional and functional norms in depth, and created meaningful norms for which they would take responsibility. Specific norms included, “The team is bigger than me, give each other the benefit of the doubt” and “History is for the books.” This was a particularly important norm, as they recognized that they could never heal if they were carrying around 20 years of baggage. They gave themselves one month to “clear the air” by making amends to people they had wronged or confronting people with whom they had issues. Then, the team assessed individual performance, including strengths and areas for development. This was intentionally separated from formal performance appraisal. Individual learning plans were created and training and coaching were provided. Finally, the supervisors attended a three-day interpersonal communications workshop in which they deepened their awareness of their own and others’ styles of communication and practiced skills for communicating more effectively.
As a result of their hard work and commitment over the last two years, communication, support, and trust have grown dramatically within the team. People talk to one another directly, and they are performing extremely well. Turnover dropped significantly. Sally and her team recognize that success will require ongoing effort, including revisiting team norms, giving and receiving honest feedback, analyzing what’s brought them success and discussing how they want to continue to grow. As Sally said, “it’s a continuous journey that requires self-awareness, willingness to learn, and commitment to the vision.”
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