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This article was first published in the May 2019 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

How many times have you judged a team to be dysfunctional or simply not performing to the standard that’s required of it? A first step in trying to ‘fix’ such a team is often to lift the lid and look inside to ask: what are the team dynamics? Where do different personalities or personal ‘styles’ clash? What are the unhelpful behaviours? While action in these areas may yield some short-term results, it may not produce sustainable team improvement because it fails to answer the key question: effective team dynamics for what purpose?

In our haste to turn around a team’s performance, we can overlook important clues outside rather than inside the team. Gathering information from key stakeholders and the wider environment to clarify the purpose – and therefore the team’s licence to operate – will act like a magnet moving over iron filings lying randomly on a piece of paper. It will change their orientation to face a common direction and, when that direction is clear, there will be a motivation to embed new behaviours, collaborate with someone with a different style or work through that ‘personality clash’.

In fact, the label ‘personality clash’ is often a misnomer. The ‘clash’ may be caused by different agendas being played out – for example, when two people are working to different goals or outcomes. Disagreements about how to allocate resources or achieve outcomes is often more about the tension between the different agendas rather than a reflection of the individuals themselves. The clash comes because they are being pulled in different directions by different external stakeholders, or because they have different perceptions about how the team needs to achieve its goals or its core purpose.

Start from the outside

Too often, our default can be to dive in and try to improve performance from the inside. Instead, starting from the outside will give the team new perspective, a common future to focus on and a reason to want to put in place new behaviours or ways of working.

Considering the team in its broader context helps us think more systemically and encourages us to draw on a richer range of influences and levers that create and sustain high team performance. In addition to giving the team more perspective both individually and collectively on what they’re in business for, it also grounds the team in their business context. They see the relevance and added value of their contribution, which in turn helps them make better decisions and use resources more effectively because they understand the ‘why’.

Fast forward

As well as looking from the outside-in, it’s also worthwhile looking from the future-back: in other words, asking what will be required a certain period of time from now. This helps future-proof the impact of the team by keeping it agile to opportunities and threats.

Foundations for high performance are built on questions like these:

  • How would we describe the task that our main stakeholder requires of us?
  • What are our own personal hopes and vision for the business in the next two to three years?
  • How far is our purpose, vision and strategy jointly owned by the whole team?
  • What do we need to achieve by when, and how will we measure and demonstrate tangible success?
  • How do our individual roles work together to achieve our collective ambition?

If this approach creates a sustainable level of high performance, then what stops many teams from doing it? Often the most challenging reason is that it requires the team to agree who its primary stakeholder actually is, and sometimes the most obvious answer is not the full one. When we overlay organisational politics, the fast-changing environment in which teams operate, and the complexities of structures such as matrix, cross-company or cross-sector collaborations, the primary stakeholder may not be the obvious answer.

While the person to whom the team reports may be the obvious primary stakeholder – and the person who wants to believe that they are the primary stakeholder – it may be that the real power lies elsewhere in the organisation. There may be other key influencers or budget holders who determine the fate of the team, or perhaps other decision-makers linked to regulatory or technological change who wield important power.

Identifying and seeking out the opinion of the person or people who created the team – or who owns the mandate for its ongoing existence – is a good starting point, adding in others who also have a stake in the team’s existence and contribution. Listening to the needs of these stakeholders, and gathering information more broadly from the wider organisation or sector to consider trends into the future, will give the team a solid licence to operate and rich buy-in to the team’s success. Only once the mandate is clear is it worth the team moving on to address their vision, mission, scope and how they’ll work together based on what success looks like.

Only when the team has agreed and owns its collective ambition – and understands how individual roles need to work together to achieve it – will the scene be set to explore behaviour, style and team dynamics.

Alison Young is a director of Leaders in Change. @Leader_Insights.