How to Improve Team Effectiveness

effective team

Teamwork and Effective Teams

I read everything I can about teamwork and effective teams. Simon Mac Rory’s new book, Wake Up and Smell the Coffee: The Imperative of Teams, takes us on a journey to deliver improved team effectiveness.

Simon Mac Rory is a team development specialist and founder of the ODD Company. He says that sometimes, when he’s in a room with some teams, he says, “For Pete’s sake will you wake up and smell the coffee” which is how the title of his new book came to be. I recently asked Simon to share more about his perspectives of teams in the workplace.


What do most people get wrong when they think of the term “team”?

There are so many misconceptions about teams in the workplace that it is hard to choose one or two. If I am to choose, these are my three top gripes in terms of what people get wrong when they think of teams.

The biggest and most fundamental issue is in the assumption that teamwork happens by magic. 90% of what we do in the world of work happens through collaborative effort, and that makes teams and teamwork an imperative and a strategic imperative at that. Yet the majority of organizations have no strategy for teams. Label a group of people a team, stand back and ‘hey presto’ you will have a high performing team. Nothing could be further from the truth. If teamwork is so important, you would think that organizations would treat team performance as a strategic imperative, but most do not, preferring to muddle on with poorly performing teams and accepting mediocracy.

Contrary to popular opinion only 10% of teams are high performing, a frightening 40% are dysfunctional and detrimental to members’ experiences and lives, leaving 50% which are performing at best with small incremental results. This is what most organizations accept. I consider this unacceptable, particularly when delivering high performing teams is not rocket science. It does, however, take effort, it does take strategy, it does take time, it does take budget, and critically it takes persistence and commitment from the organization, leaders and team members. We are not all team experts, we do not operate intuitively as a team, and if organizations want high performing teams, they need to put in the effort and stop dreaming. They need to think and strategize about it and stop making so many ridiculous assumptions.

The assumption about teamwork and fun drives me crazy. Teamwork is not fun. Work is work and fun is fun. Fun is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as “behaviour or an activity that is intended purely for amusement and should not be interpreted as having any serious or malicious purpose.” Now tell me what that has to do with the world of work? The fact that it can be an enjoyable experience to work in an effective team should not be confused with it being fun. Real team development does not happen up the side of a mountain, putting life and limb at risk once a year or completing exercises with no connection to the reality of the workplace. Real team development that delivers sustainable development and effectiveness happens in the work place day-to-day. Give time to tackling real issues for the team and not worrying about how to build a house of straws, how to build a raft or how to build trust by falling backwards into someone’s arms. I come to work to work and I would much prefer to give of my time with my colleagues, dealing with and finding solutions to real work challenges. Team members are much more likely to be engaged, committed and enthusiastic if they are dealing in reality, where their opinions and ideas, and inputs to real challenges of the team are welcome and actually considered—in other words, doing the work they are employed to do. Enjoying your work is important, having fulfilling work is motivational, being challenged is good (most of the time) but do not confuse this with fun. Work is serious and not fun.

And size does matter after all. There is substantial evidence that team size has a very great impact on the effectiveness of a team in a work context.

The issue of team size is linked to how we define a team and indeed to the way the term ‘team’ is used and understood. The term is applied generically and seems to encompass all group activity and often is used to refer to an entire department and in some instances to an entire company. These larger groups, mistakenly called teams, are in fact comprised of many teams. The term team should only be used to refer to a real team, that by definition is:

“A group of people, less than ten, that need to work together to achieve a common goal, normally with a single leader and where there is high degree of interdependence between the team members to achieve the goal or goals”.

There are several issues that have been identified when a team is in double digits – social loafing, cognitive limitations and the communication overhead. These are aside from the issue of larger teams breaking down into sub-teams and the inevitable emergence of cliques which can be very damaging to effectiveness and relationships. The biggest issue in failing to deal with team size is communication overload.  The more members in a team, the more communication channels required to keep the team informed. A team of 5 people require 10 conversations to be fully connected and informed. This rises to 45 for a team of 10 and 91 for a team of 14. The reality of the situation is simply the larger team will not be able to manage or complete the communication required.   Organizations need to get their language and definitions right. A team is not a group, a department or a company if it is comprised of more than ten people. Once you go into double digits, I can assure you that there is more than one team in play.

There are many more assumptions but these three are the biggies.

Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

Why do we need to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ when it comes to teams? 

I think for too long the myths and assumptions surrounding teams in the workplace have been allowed to flourish and accepted as fact. It takes commitment, effort, consistency and a strategic approach. ‘Wake up and smell the coffee’ provides the path to team effectiveness at the organizational level in terms of providing insight to corporate team strategy, to the team leader in providing no answers, but all the questions they must ask of themselves and their team, and for team members provides a structured but easy methodology in a language that they can understand (little or no academic speak). And, finally I hope this puts to bed those infamous myths and assumptions about teams in the workplace.


Would you share just one myth and why believing in it is damaging to organizations? 

Again, there are so many options to choose from. Let me add to some of those previously discussed and address the idea that organizations and senior leaders are champions of teamwork. This is a myth for the most part.

The rhetoric of organizations and senior leaders tends to indicate they are champions of teamwork – the reality, however, points to a very different scenario.

I have yet to find an organization with a genuine and real team strategy. Strategies for everything else, but none for teams. If teamwork is so important you would think there would be a strategy.

Teamwork does not happen by accident. The organization, for the most part, operates through teams, yet all the systems and processes are designed for the individual – recruitment, compensation, performance management and general support, etc. The disposition of most organizations would suggest they believe in magic and just by calling a group of people a team they will become high performing. For teams to work and the real return to be realized, an organization must put a corporate team strategy in place. Anything less is to suggest that they do not believe in the power of teams. Anything less is a failure of leadership!

Show me an organization with a comprehensive strategy for teams, even a basic strategy, and I will see an organization that ‘gets it’ in terms of the importance of teams. Teamwork does not happen by magic. Nice words and empty values do not deliver effective teams. The day of the truly empowered team has arrived. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, organizations and senior leaders are not the champions of team work they would have us believe. Organizations and senior leaders need to get their act together.

Talk about the role of leadership. What do leaders need to consider when building strong teams across the organization?

Most of the trouble for the struggling team leader starts with the belief that teams are there to support their leader.

Nothing could be further from the truth and the converse is the needed reality – leaders are there to support their teams. This is what is referred to as the inverted hierarchy. Leaders are at the bottom of the pyramid supporting those in the team above them and not the other way around. This is a ‘get over it already’ moment. As a team leader the only means you have to success is in the success of your team. The more successful they are, the more success for you. Your job is to get all the barriers to team performance out of the way. You ensure that the team has what it needs, and you go to bat for the team always. Your job is to deliver strategy and structure for the team, and it is the team that delivers output, quality and customer satisfaction. The alternative is that you as leader do everything, believe that you have all the answers and the rest of the team become your audience while you perform.

Jack Welsh famously said, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”  Great team leaders intuitively recognize this. This means being prepared to delegate, to empower and then to coach and support as necessary. It also means that as a leader you must recognize that the team is comprised of individuals and that each has separate, unique needs and operates at differing levels of ability and confidence. Therefore, there is a need for a leader to have flexibility in leader style to develop the most appropriate overall style for the team, adjusting it to meet the needs of individual team members. Great team leadership is about creating the confidence in your team members to follow you by anticipating their needs and ensuring that all that can be done to enable each member of the team is done – so they can deliver.

An effective team leader will understand this requirement for flexibility, evaluating their performance, examining not only their leadership style but the appropriateness of that style. They must have the confidence to continually ask themselves and the team, “Is there anything I can do to improve my leadership of this team?”

Sounds complicated? Not really. Adopt the inverted hierarchy and see yourself at the bottom of the pyramid supporting the team members and their performance and not the other way around.

With such a disposition, the management of coaching, performance, goals, communications, up-skilling, planning and evaluation becomes the natural task of the leader. This in turn will lead to a natural adoption of the appropriate style of leadership for the team and its individual team members, driving overall performance. Finding that balance for the team overall and meeting the individual needs of members is a key task of team leadership. Remember it is not the team leader’s job to do all the team tasks, rather it is to enable and support the team members to deliver.


How to Deal with Conflict

What coaching tips do you suggest for a new manager who is dealing with conflict among team members?

Whether one is a new team leader or an experienced team leader, the approach to conflict is the same. First and foremost is to recognize that it is not the conflict that is damaging, rather it is the means by which the conflict is being managed that causes the breakdown.

WakeUpAndSmellTheCoffee_HRConflict is essential in a team. It is the source of innovation. Imagine the team that does not argue, debate and disagree at times. What hope have they ever to innovate, find better ways to do things, address problems and failures? How can a team possibly learn together if they do not have conflict? The team without conflict is a very ineffectual team and a very boring team at that. So, my first tip to the new leader is embrace the conflict – you need it.

Appreciate the fact that harmony is nice to have, but conflict is essential. Conflict can never be allowed to become personalized. There must be rules of engagement. There must be someone (you – the leader) acting as a facilitator to ensure that all ideas, disagreements, and debates are encouraged and resolved to the benefit of the team moving forward. If you have a team that exists in perfect harmony, you had better create some conflict or the team will be going nowhere. It is conflict of ideas, approaches and solutions that matter. Personalized conflict is an anathema and must be quickly eradicated.

Thomas and Kilmann (1974) identified five basic ways in which we respond to conflict: competing, accommodation, avoiding, collaborating, and compromising. All five are available to us as a response, but we tend to have a preferred or built-in response. A single response to all conflict situations is not a good thing. As with leadership style, everyone needs to flex depending on the situation and both the nature and importance of the conflict. In developing a progressive means to handling conflict with a group, one not only has to understand the overall team disposition to conflict, but ideally understand the preferred styles of those that make up the team. A good place to start is to address the questions below:

Does the team shy away from differences?

Does the team feel conflict is a negative reflection on them?

Does the team know the range of conflict sources in the team or organization?

Are the team members trained in conflict management?

Are there behavioral styles accentuating the naturally occurring conflict?

Are team roles contributing to the existence of conflict?

Hold a team discussion on what types of conflict exist in the team. Explore the pluses and minuses of conflict and look for examples of where it is in evidence and where it is not in evidence. Encourage the team to express differences openly, so they can be discussed and resolved.

Reinforce to team members that they should raise any issue that is causing concern to them and bring it to the attention of the leader or to the team in a group session.

Get the team to look at their styles in managing conflict and learn to appreciate other styles and be more flexible in their approach to conflict management. Deploy something like the Thomas and Kilmann modes-of-conflict instrument. There are a multitude of resources online. The use of this instrument really does help individuals understand the nature of conflict and their own reaction to it. It is a very useful approach to generating an informed discussion within the team leading to an agreed strategy for the team.

As in all discussions, and particularly in a discussion on conflict, ensure that team discussions are not dominated by one or two ‘loud voices’ without other team members having adequate opportunity to contribute.

Build awareness of the value of conflict in the team – better problem solving, greater creativity and innovation by implementing a review process at the end of team meetings. For example, get everyone to individually identify one thing that worked well for them at that meeting, and one thing they would like to see improved. Make sure ideas are always treated with respect and acknowledged, even if not acted on.

Sit down with team members who are not getting on with each other and agree how they will behave with each other – demonstrating dignity and respect at all times and stressing the importance of cooperating to achieve the team goals. Reinforce the team and organizational goals as the common agenda around which everyone must work. You cannot make everyone like each other, but in a team and organizational context we have to have respect that allows all to work to their fullest capacity.

Tips for Leaders of Remote Teams

Team members are more often than ever remote. They may be in offices around the world, from different cultures, and hopefully with diverse backgrounds. What tips would you offer a leader who wants to build a strong team in this situation?

Virtual teams can be very effective, but it must never be assumed that they are simply another traditional or project team. To maximize the potential from this type of team, one needs to develop a clear and unambiguous strategy that recognizes the uniqueness of the virtual team and that as a team type, it has very particular demands if it is to be successful. Enabling technology platforms alone are not the answer.

Recognizing the issues of size and that bigger is not better and managing membership creep is of paramount importance.  Assertively managing membership creep and developing rules and protocols for who should be at a virtual team meeting and why is an essential task and not a task normally associated with the traditional team or project team. The team composition must be continually reassessed for its suitability. When assembling a virtual team pay attention to the individual attributes required.

Clear goals and roles for the virtual team are essential. There can be no room for ambiguity. This is a leader responsibility, and not only must it be done at the outset, it must be continually reinforced and re-clarified. Goals must be compelling to maintain a sense of purpose and direction for team members. The traditional and project teams have the opportunity day-to-day to correct goal drift or wandering priorities. The virtual world can have days, even weeks without immediate contact, and drift is a real issue. While goal clarity is an important issue for any team it is even more so for this team type.

Leaders need specialized training to lead and manage a virtual team. This team type is not the same as regular collocated teams and requires a different mindset and approach from the leader. Advanced skills in delegation, fostering shared leadership, goal setting, role clarification, communication and performance management are essential for an effective virtual team leader. The leader must also be trained in all technology to be deployed and capable of understanding any issue that may arise. None of the foregoing are a given, and the organization must address them to have an effective virtual team. No one should be asked to lead a virtual team without the appropriate development and training.

With such a variety of high-end technology available to teams these days, the emphasis can often be on the technology at the expense of all other considerations and providing the most advanced and sophisticated available at that. Err on the side of the lowest common denominator. Respect that different geographic locations may not have the bandwidth or infrastructure to support the most advanced technology and that puts team members in these locations at a disadvantage. Many home workers are working through ‘domestic’ ranges of connectivity and can find it impossible to match the required bandwidth, particularly when it comes to upload speeds. Data sharing facilities form a vital element of the virtual team, particularly in helping address the issues of transactive memory and contextual knowledge. There are many choices, so pick the one that works best for the team involved. Whichever is adopted, make sure that all team members can not only access it both in terms of upload and download speeds, but also know how to use it. Equally the generation gap must also be respected in terms of technology deployed, which has implications for training and commissioning the team in the first instance.

Communication rules are essential. When the team needs to meet virtually is one thing and the rules of engagement are essential, but equally important is the direct communication between members via phone, email, texts and instant messaging. Standards are equally important to be established in this area – timely responses, content, sensitivity to cultural differences, recognition of time differences and many more.

There are key variables and stages that must be addressed for the virtual team to enable effective functioning. These are not ‘nice to dos’; they are essential. First and foremost, in assembling a virtual team, is the ‘kick off’ and socializing team members. Despite the virtual nature of the team, the team should come together physically, at the very least once a year and preferably once a quarter. This has a major impact on trust and esprit de corps for the team. This does have cost implications in terms of travel and accommodations, but the investment pays off in creating the team bond and allowing the team members to get to know each other. I would say this is an essential first step for any new virtual team. The more this can be done in the life cycle of the team, the better. Varying the location for the meeting geographically is also good practice, giving team members an opportunity to introduce and share their respective cultures.

Ensuring a robust induction process for new members to the team is an absolute, particularly where a new member joins and there is no planned physical meet. A mentor or buddy system and making time available for new members to meet with existing team members on a virtual-but-individual basis is essential.

Clarifying not only goals and roles, but also tasks and processes is something that must be scheduled for not only at a team level, but also at the individual level. If ever there was a need for the principles of inverted hierarchy leadership, it is in the virtual team. The leader must continually be cognizant of any and all possible impediments to a team member’s performance and check at both levels on a regular basis. Allied to this is the need to establish milestones embedded in robust planning and evaluation practices to enable a sense of progression and achievement and is a critical aspect for the virtual team.

Developing a set of rules of engagement together and committing to these rules without exception is critical for the virtual team. It is a major contributor to establishing a safe psychological environment, sets expectations on behaviors and goes a long way to mitigating the impact of minor or small transgressions of the psychological contract that could otherwise blow it all out proportion. It also helps to accommodate cultural differences and minimize misunderstandings.

Virtual teams by their nature require a greater focus on rules, protocols and regulations. These should be developed by the team and not imposed. The virtual team needs to be more formal in their operation. The collocated team has many informal opportunities to overcome the absences of any of the above, which are not available to the virtual team.

People are social in nature and when forced to work alone may struggle with isolation and miss many of things taken for granted in the traditional workplace. The sharing of information around the coffee machine or watercooler is denied to the virtual employee. This cuts them off from practically all informal communication processes of the organization. Our sense of belonging is not just derived from our team, but from the organization overall. Our sense of security and engagement along with our ever-present need to socialize (often taken for granted) is met by the informal environment of the organization and our place of employment. One should compensate for these factors and consciously plan to manage the many vagaries of the virtual world.

I’m curious about the coffee analogy and linking it to teams. How and why did you adopt coffee in the title and in the team context?

Simon Mac RoryThe title stems from my frustrations at times working with senior teams. Like many of the myths that surround teams, the idea that there is some magic formula or silver bullet that will deliver team effectiveness abounds. Effective teamwork is the result of hard work, a consistent approach and commitment. It is about getting the basics right. And yes, many senior teams do not have the basics right – they do not even know what the basics are!

Clarify goals and roles, lead the team appropriately (ask the team how they want to be led), ensure all participate equally and fairly, communicate what needs to be understood, check that it is understood and communicate it again. Develop rules of engagement and enforce them collectively. Deal with nonperformance and do not expect others to carry poorer performers. Equally give poorer performers the chance to improve which cannot be done without recognizing the issue in the first place. Organize and structure the team’s resources (people) appropriately and check regularly against the needs of the team’s goals. Build a psychologically safe environment that delivers trust and respect among the team members.

The only way these things can be delivered is through reflection and the team committing time to thinking about “HOW” they do things and not just “WHAT” they do.

I do not believe that this is beyond any team. With a minimal but consistent effort, any team can drive their effectiveness by up to 25%. Yet, when I am in the room with many teams, they are looking for the quick fix, the magic formula, the silver bullet. That’s when I am saying to myself (and sometimes out loud), “For Pete’s sake will you wake up and smell the coffee, it’s not rocket science, but you have to put in the effort. You must make the time to think about these things.”

With the title of the book imbedded in my head, I decided to use coffee analogies as aid memoirs for the key points I was making. I had great fun researching coffee and finding suitable analogies. There are over 40 in the book – some better than others, but my favorites are those applied to the team types in chapters 5 through 8.

I reckon I know as much about coffee as I do about teams at this stage and finally, I do love coffee – I drink very strong black coffee and way too much of it!

For more information, see Wake Up and Smell the Coffee: The Imperative of Teams.

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