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Optimizing Team Dynamics

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Some teams just have the flow. They deliver. People generally like them and they usually click with clients. Some of them see each other outside of work. You know the type. And you wonder - How come my team isn't like that? Why does it always seem like they’re all just biding time until 5 o’clock arrives? What’s the secret sauce? 


Well, there are a lot of factors that influence how individuals thrive in any workplace, and a lot of the time it’s about great team dynamics. Team dynamics is the subjective stuff that’s difficult to put your finger on. It’s what makes one team more satisfied and productive than another in the same organization. It has to do with how an individual team member’s role and behavior affect others on the team and comes down to unconscious psychological factors. 


So maybe you’re shrugging your shoulders. If it’s largely unconscious, what can you do about it?


If you want to optimize team dynamics you have to create conditions within the team that build a foundation for trust and cooperation. Each team member needs to understand the parameters of their role and responsibility and how it relates to the rest of the team, as well as how their team relates to other teams within the organization. Team dynamics is about helping staff to better understand the relationship of interdependency that exists between team members and taking the focus off individual power plays for the sake of common goals. There are considerations and tactics you can look at to help build the conditions which make putting the team first a truly viable dynamic.


How Can You Manage Team Dynamics?

Positive group dynamics are defined by trust. 


If team members trust each other, they can work toward collective goals and achieve collective outcomes.  This directly affects a team’s productivity and effectiveness. If teams are suffering poor dynamics from a lack of trust, conflict, and prioritizing of individual goals rather than collective gain, it can create a myriad of problems. Time and energy might be spent by putting out fires, overcoming obstacles, and dealing with personality clashes as opposed to successful decision-making and execution of plans.


Good dynamics not only affect the team’s satisfaction at work but also affect customers, third-party stakeholders, and the bottom line. 


So what do you do about it? How do you ascertain your team’s dynamics and how you can improve them?


Improving Performance

Firstly, teams need to assess where they are. Leaders might already have clocked certain issues and incidents regarding team dynamics, but some thorough investigation is needed, like a health check, to appreciate the situation across the whole team, not just the most vocal members.


An analysis can be a combination of direct observation and also a survey. The survey should involve asking team members questions about their safety in the team. 

How safe do they feel to:

  • speak up and share their ideas
  • disagree with others
  • collaborate with others


How confident do they feel about relying on other team members to-

  • deliver work when they are supposed to
  • contribute as opposed to stealing other people’s work or time
  • provide them with information
  • support them and not undermine them


You can also ask team members how easy it is for them to communicate with each other and also how easy it is for them to focus - are there any barriers that make it difficult to focus?


When the results are in, it’s time to look at reasons why team members are feeling the way they do. Discovering how the problem arises is the first step to finding solutions and mapping out improvements.


Only you can truly appreciate the particular challenges and context of your organization. However, as a general guide, here are 4 common causes of poor and dysfunctional team dynamics.


Weak Leadership

Weak leadership can pose a number of challenges in terms of team dynamics. If a leader is weak, there is often a team member who steps up to take control and upsets the balance of power. Or there is a void where no one feels supported and without recourse when problems arise. Strong team leaders are integral to healthy team dynamics. A strong leader can not only tackle people’s conflicts and complaints but can positively impact a team’s attitudes and interactions. 


Decision-making Processes

Ideally, there needs to be a balance between decisions made by management and those made with the participation of team members. If decisions are all imposed from above with little consultation and involvement of staff, team dynamics can be adversely affected as staff feels resentful for processes and workloads they feel are imposed on them. People might lack motivation and the understanding of why decisions have been made. Or it can develop a culture where the team consistently defers to authority instead of giving their own input and ideas. 


To the other extreme, if decisions are always protracted affairs taken only after lengthy discussion and consultation with everyone, this can affect team dynamics as people can get frustrated with the process and the same loud voices can end up dominating the process while others stay silent for the sake of consensus, valuing group agreement over their own opinion. 


Team dynamics are healthiest when there’s an appropriate amount of involvement in decision-making processes, team members are being heard, and there is strong trust in leadership to make the hard calls where necessary.


It’s also important a team understands their goals how their individual roles achieve those goals as well as how team goals relate to the overall strategy and objectives for the organization.


Team leads often assume this is clear, when in reality staff often struggle to see the big picture. Moreover, if people aren’t crystal clear on their responsibilities, it creates problems with accountability and insecurity around relying on teammates. When people are uncertain, they get tense. Less ambiguity will result in less tension and allow staff to feel safe and thrive in their roles instead of second-guessing.


Destructive and Disruptive Behavior

Often surveying and observing staff will reveal if there are negative behaviors that are impacting communication and group trust. They can be overtly negative like attention seeking, aggression, taking advantage of others and free riding, inappropriate jokes, and comments, or more subtle, like passive-aggressive patterns of withdrawal.


So what can you do once you’ve identified problem areas?


1. Coach Leaders

Make your team leads strong by giving them the support and training they need to lead. It’s not enough that team leads have specialist expertise in any given practice area. If they are a team lead, they need to have the people and leadership skills to manage people and positively affect team dynamics.


2. Address Problems Quickly

If you have identified any problem behaviors, be alert to instances when they rear their ugly head and raise it immediately with whoever is involved. Addressing conflict and negativity early is important to minimize the negative impact and start to reverse poor behaviors into more productive ones.


3. Create a Team Charter

For tackling behavioral issues in the long term and not continually be putting out fires, it’s important to address what kind of behaviors you want to cultivate as a team and which ones won’t be acceptable. For example, you could create a team charter where the whole team has an opportunity to define responsibilities, outcomes, expectations, and importantly, the kind of values and behaviors to prioritize. This can be really motivating for teams to take ownership over their direction collectively. It also helps team leads to set clear standards for which to hold team members to account.


4. Team Building

Be proactive in fostering good team dynamics. Allotting team-building activities and days to the schedule is always worthwhile. For teams with poor team dynamics, it’s an essential element to help turn the culture around and for even well functioning teams, it helps keep teams on track with the right behaviors and values. On team days, work on activities that build trust and good communication. Take the positives with you and build into your day-to-day culture-making tweaks to processes and how you run meetings to create as inclusive, empathetic, safe, and respectful dynamics as possible.


5. Information Dissemination

Take a closer look at how team members get the information they need from each other, from team leads, and from other teams or departments and make sure there is a free flow. So many problems and poor dynamics result from a lack of the free flow of information and sometimes it takes some detective work to figure out where the breakdowns are and what kind of behaviors are behind it. 


Are people being territorial and controlling information in an attempt to have more control themselves or make themselves ‘indispensable’ in some way? Do they block information flow because they are dismissive or patronizing of the staff or departments that need the information? Are they always too busy with other tasks to respond to requests? Are they trying to sabotage an outcome for their own gain? There is a myriad of human weaknesses behind the breakdown in information flow, but they can be really destructive to team morale and dynamics so find out what’s going on and fix it.


6. Write It Down

When making plans and decisions at meetings, write them down. Follow up on conversations with some next steps and who is responsible for what. This helps reduce ambiguity as people often quickly forget what’s been said in a meeting or conversation. Putting it in writing is important to not only jog people’s memory but to refer back to and hold each other to account if things are not delivered as agreed upon.


7. Organizational Structure

If team dynamics are particularly poor, it’s worthwhile looking at reshuffling the team. Some people might be better suited to another team, or if there are some serious personality clashes, it can be worthwhile reorganizing to separate people. Restructuring is always stressful and should be a last resort, but is sometimes worth the effort since in some situations, it might be the only fix.


Team dynamics are a flexible thing that shifts as staff comes and goes and as the organization evolves, but team leads can do a lot to promote positive team dynamics. 


By understanding how team dynamics work, that they are dependent on how an individual’s role and behavior impacts fellow team members, then team leads can start to troubleshoot both issues and incidents involving individuals while at the same time, fostering positive group behaviors. 


In this way, improving team dynamics is a two-pronged approach. While team leads always need to look to specific incidents and people, they need to more generally cultivate the conditions for good dynamics within the team. This means plenty of team-building activities and processes that encourage trust, being able to rely on each other, have access to information and provide information freely, understand each other’s responsibilities and accountability. 


People do not have to be best friends. They don’t have to like the same TV shows or share the same backgrounds. They just have to be able to respect and trust each other enough to be able to cooperate and collaborate freely. 


If a team lead rewards team members that contribute, put the team ahead of self-interest, and share knowledge freely, that can go a long way to building the values over time which will, in turn, result in the behaviors that make for strong team dynamics.

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