To Get Your Team to the Top, Sometimes You Have to Push Them Off the Edge

This weekend's high ropes course - definitely the tallest ladder I've ever climbed!

This weekend's high ropes course - definitely the tallest ladder I've ever climbed!

In my free time, I volunteer with a local organization to mentor under-served urban youth through outdoor experiences, including in the wilderness.  It is often both the most challenging and most rewarding work that I do.  This past weekend included taking students from a local school to a high ropes course.  Now, considering the first 10 years of my parks & recreation career were in recreation, and many of them were spent working with teens, I have been to my fair share of high ropes course.  I love them because they seem to be the great equalizer in terms of social hierarchies within a group of teens.  There is always at least one quieter, non-athletic teen that seems to shine on these courses.  Cliques break down a bit as some people start to encourage others.  And there is always at least one more vocal pack leader that unofficially runs/influences the group that seems to struggle, giving others their chance to lead.

Overall, this might seem like a good thing.  And an experience like this can be the best thing for your team.  But it can also be the worst.  What's the determining factor?  You, the team leader.

Most team leaders don't grasp the influence and responsibility that they have regarding group dynamics, especially when it comes to building a new team.  And this doesn't just apply to leading teams on a high ropes course. Whether you are leading your staff, a project team, or a group of campers, you are a team leader. As a project manger, I am constantly tasked with quickly building new teams with each new project and have the opportunity to see this action (as well as the benefits when it's done correctly and the negative results when it isn't) on a regular basis.  And when observing other team leaders, I see the same three problems over and over again: 

  1. Team Leaders often don't understand how team dynamics are formed.
  2. Team Leaders don't take time to think about the individuals that make up their teams, including the skills, prior relationships, and baggage that they may be bringing to the group.
  3. Team Leaders don't adjust their agendas and activities to the individuals that they are leading.  In other words (and this is a huge point), they are not intentional with what they do.

Since you're taking the time to read this article, I'm guessing that you're the kind of team leader that actually wants to know how to fix this problem.  I'm going to start with Problem #3 and work my way backwards, since that is currently the way most team leaders think (which I guess could be called Problem #4!).

3. Team Leaders Must Be Intentional.

I know that most team leaders want the best for their groups.  Unfortunately, it is not enough to add a fun or "team building" activity to your training or agenda and magically have a functioning team appear at the end.  Many people plan their team activities based on something they found online or in a book that seems fun or emphasizes some important point like communication or teamwork.  But they never stop to think about the following questions:

  • If the activity is truly only for fun, does my team have the need for fun at this moment? Will they be receptive to spending time on something that is purely for fun?  Have you ever stopped to ask yourself these questions?  You would be surprised how annoyed people get with "wasting" their time on fun activities.  And then team leaders get annoyed at their teams because they spent time planning this fun activity that no one wants to participate in.  I've observed that fun activities are usually most welcomed when they are not mandatory, not a surprise agenda item, and not last-minute.  If you can, try to strive for a minimum of 2 of those 3 when planning a fun activity.  
  • If the activity is to develop individual or team skills, does this solve one of the biggest problems that my team is facing?  When you develop a training or team development agenda, think less about what should be on a training agenda and more about what your specific team needs to cover to be stellar this year.  What few things are holding you back?  It takes a lot more work to do this because it requires you to really think about your current team dynamics and plan something specific to the group you currently have and where they are now as a team.
  • If the activity is to develop individual or team skills, how am I going to ensure that the goal is achieved?  How am I going to introduce the activity?  What could go wrong with the activity and how will I respond to use it as a teaching moment or get it back on track?  What questions will I use to debrief with the group and make sure that the objectives were achieved?  How will I stay out of the process as much as possible so that they "learn it" instead of just hearing me say it? Team leaders often assume that if they run an activity that focuses on a topic like communication, that their team will automatically become better communicators by doing it, although this is rarely the case.

2. Team Leaders Must Think About Their Individual Team Members and Adjust To Them.

Hopefully now you can see why it is critical that this step take place before planning your team activities.  Every team you lead will be different, even if some of the members stay the same.  Even when you put a group of people together that all know each other, they may respond in different ways.  For example:

  • You may find that an over-abundance of skills/strengths in one area could lead to a team strength in that area.  But it could also lead to conflict as people who are used to being seen as a leader/expert in that area find that that is no longer the case.
  • When teams are formed because of individual strengths and/or job titles instead of taking team dynamics into account, there are often skill gaps or personality conflicts that may need to be addressed.
  • Sometimes hierarchies exist outside of the group that don't necessarily exist inside the group, but still must be considered.  For example, social statuses at school can initially play a big role in youth camp dynamics if camp leadership is not intentional about breaking those down and building up new ones.  Likewise, two team members may be on an equal level in your team, but someone may be unlikely to speak up because another team member has authority or is higher up the organizational chart outside of the group.

It's really important to take time to look at your individual team members and the dynamics at play before moving on to step number #3 if you want your activities to actually address issues like these and move your team along faster.

1. Team Leaders Must Be Aware of How Team Dynamics Are Formed.

Even more important that understanding who your specific team is, it's important that team leaders understand first how any teams are formed.  My personal favorite model that seems to ring more and more true with every team I lead is Tuckman's Team Development Model.  In this model, there are four core steps that every team goes through.  

There are key roles that team leaders need to play depending on what stage their team is currently in.  (Click on the image to see it full-sized.)

  1. Forming. 
  2. Storming.
  3. Norming.
  4. Performing.
  5. Adjourning. Okay, I know that I said that there were only 4, but this one has been tacked on by some and is very appropriate for temporary teams, whether they are for projects that have an end date, or seasonal teams, like summer staff.

All teams start at "Forming" and move through each step, building upon the previous one.  It is critical for team leaders to be aware of each step and what stage their team is currently at so that they can shepherd their team through the process to the Performing level as quickly as possible, but while emphasizing and ensuring that the culture and expectations that the leader wants to implement are happening.

For example, successful teams will move through the steps with some uncertainty and direction needed from the leader in the beginning, but eventually get to the Performing level where they become those dream teams that lead themselves, solve their own problems, and accomplish their goals. 

However, it's just as possible for a team to move up the ladder, but in a negative way. For example, if a dominant person that is negative or doesn't allow others to participate is left unchecked by the team leader and team members, the group may get to the Norming stage, but won't be very productive.  Likewise, some teams left unchecked can get stuck at the Storming stage and never actually get much work done.

And to make it even tougher, anytime a new X-factor is introduced to the group (a new team member, a new challenge, a change in direction), the team drops right back down to the Forming stage.  In this case, the team could move back up through those first few stages quickly to get back to Performing as long as the team leader acknowledges that this needs to happen.  Likewise, think about the possibilities and what it means for a team that can't get past the Storming stage.  Would purposefully and intentionally (there's that word again) introducing your own X-factor be what you need to restart the team and get it back on track?

In my experience, the biggest issue team leaders have is a lack of awareness of this model or the information that it contains.  In doing so, leaders often lead their teams by doing things that are not appropriate or needed for the stage that their team is currently in, which causes more harm than good.  Of course, now that you've read this far into this article, you won't be making that mistake, right?  

Back to My Original Point...

So let's get back to my original point. I said that a high ropes course could be either the best thing for your team or the worst depending on the leader.  

If the leader understands where their team is in terms of performance, understands (or makes some educated assumptions) about team dynamics and potential challenges, and designs the activity to address those issues and move the team forward, it could be incredibly powerful and beneficial.  For example, I often use it at the Forming stage of teen groups to get everyone on a more even playing field by using the activity to give more confidence to step up to be a leader to those that need it, to require different people to work together, and to show that physical strength isn't the only kind of strength.  But I also stay keenly aware of those who might be a bit broken by the process or a perceived failure and take extra time to work with them individually on that.

But, you could also just take your team to a high ropes course and let them play and go home.  Some might go home happy and empowered on their own.  But you might also unintentionally reinforce some negative team dynamics - stronger teammates might talk others into sitting the activity out.  Someone might have a perceived failure and walk away feeling worse than they started.  And others might be mad at you for wasting their time when they had work to do in the office.

Whatever activities you decide to do with your next team, I hope that you consider this information and most importantly make some intentional decisions about what you want to do.  This sort of push might be exactly what your team needs, as long as its catered to their needs, you've anticipated that someone might need a parachute and are ready to catch those that fall.  Otherwise, that push just might cause your team to hit rock bottom.