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Transform Your Lone Wolves Into Team Players

“Transform Your Lone Wolves Into Team Players”

Instill teamwork by listening and modeling selfless acts.

In theory, you love teamwork. You want employees to collaborate enthusiastically and sacrifice their self-interests for the company’s success. As a result, you seek opportunities to create project groups and watch them bond. How gratifying!

In practice, however, teamwork comes at a cost. You must assemble the right mix of people, manage team dissension and keep the group motivated. How exhausting!

What’s worse, fast-growth entrepreneurs may lack experience as team players. Possessing the drive to turn an idea into a thriving business doesn’t require teamwork as much as it demands commitment and perseverance.

Yet after a few years of rapid growth, you may employ dozens or even hundreds of people who must work in sync to produce results. That’s when teamwork takes center stage.

Building Team Trust

You cannot encourage cooperation by giving rosy speeches about "working together" and "feeding off each other’s effort." Talking about teamwork won’t make it happen.

In truth, many employees have grown weary and cynical of bosses who trumpet the beauty and benefits of teams. They may prefer to be left alone to perform their jobs, rather than drag a do-nothing team along with them.

Your job as leader is to instill trust — quietly. Rather than preach about teamwork, create an environment where everyone lends a helping hand:

  • Chip in. Model the behavior you want employees to emulate. Stop and answer phone calls alongside your customer service reps. Help your shipping clerk unload boxes. Cover for an employee who rushes out to a doctor’s appointment. When your staffers see your willingness to jump in and help out, they’ll do the same.
  • Ask for help. Appeal to employees to rescue you from hassles, setbacks and your own mistakes. You’ll gain trust by showing occasional vulnerability and letting others "come through in the clutch" as saviors.
  • Match jobs with expertise. Break big projects into pieces and put in-house experts in charge of tasks that tap their know-how. Express faith in each expert to contribute to the team’s success. Example: Say, "With Sam handling the accounting, Janice managing the publicity and Chris running the show, I’m confident we’ll have a winning team."

Beware of 3 Trust-Busting Traps

You can sabotage your teamwork efforts by:

  1. Micromanaging. Inserting yourself into team meetings and making "suggestions" will turn free-thinking team members into order takers.
  2. Finding fault. If team members fear that you’ll criticize every move, they’ll avoid true collaboration or risk taking.
  3. Playing favorites. Employees will trust you if you apply fair, consistent performance standards. But if you only talk to certain team members or choose groups consisting of your friends, others will grow suspicious.

Once you establish trust, use clear communication to foster camaraderie and prevent office politics. Employees at all levels must feel like participants in your company’s success. That’s why open-book management often breeds teamwork.

Craig Yarde, owner of fast-growing Yarde Metals Corp. in Bristol, Conn., attributes the high degree of teamwork among his 425 employees to his monthly "grand huddles," where everyone gathers for an update on the company’s financial performance. By sharing the profits with every worker, Yarde encourages cooperation and collaboration among all levels of employees.

Effective listening also sets the stage for teamwork. Get in the habit of asking questions and prodding others to voice their opinions. By striving to understand employees’ views and welcoming different perspectives, you create a climate of mutual respect that’s ideal for teamwork.

Though you can’t insist that employees sacrifice themselves for the team, you can influence how they communicate. By emphasizing the need for members to develop their listening skills and adopt a cooperative, can-do approach to problem solving, you can create an environment where employees aim to make each other look good.

Take these three steps to turn reluctant collaborators into thriving team players:

  1. Enforce a "no interruption" rule. Teams work best when each participant has a chance to speak. If quiet individuals get ignored or less assertive folks fight to make themselves heard over more vocal colleagues, then teams will lose their cohesiveness. Demand that every employee (including you) wait for a speaker to finish before responding. Warn motormouths to limit their comments to, say, three sentences or 30 seconds at a time. Encourage listeners to jot down comments so that they can listen without forgetting what they want to say next.
  2. Praise healthy disagreement. Whenever a team recommends actions or produces its findings, play devil’s advocate. Ask why other options were rejected and what impasses the team faced. Teams that reach consensus too quickly may lack the fortitude to grapple with tough issues, so prod participants to think independently, raise concerns and politely challenge their peers.
  3. Watch your pronouns. If you’re always talking in terms of "my company" or making "I want" or "I need" statements, you may discourage team members from speaking up. Note how many times you say "I," "me" or "my" in a typical day, compared with the number of references to "we," "us" or "our."

Energize Your Team

Many teams will lose their focus after an initial burst of excitement. Keep groups motivated and eager to produce results.

Telltale signs of sputtering teams include declining attendance at meetings, lethargic interaction and lack of debate about previously controversial issues.

If you suspect that a team is starting to crumble, take action:

Establish urgency. Present new developments that drill home the importance of the team to come together and deliver up to its potential. Examples might include an abortive round of financing that’s led to a cash crunch, the emergence of a competitive threat or the purchase of new technology that’ll affect internal operations. Give the team a deadline to deliver, and participants may respond by ramping up their commitment.

Invite guests. Teams may benefit by meeting people who can lift them out of their funk. Arrange for a high-priority customer or one of your firm’s investors to attend a team meeting. An outsider with clout can lead team members to try harder, take risks and reignite their passion.

Enlist change agents. Add one or two dynamic individuals to the team who’ll inject fresh energy into the group. Tell them to introduce a change in mindset so that the team brings more focus and determination to its work.

Guiding Teams to Manage Change

Like most fast-growth companies, you’ve probably led your employees through rapid changes in direction. Repeated upheavals can disrupt team chemistry and exhaust even the most energetic employees. Maintain your team’s edge and redirect its focus while minimizing undue hardship or even panic.

It’s tough enough helping individuals weather organizational change. But when you’re trying to keep a team together in the midst of sudden shifts in business, the challenge grows trickier.

Communicate change as a positive to the team. Emphasize what you and your employees can control, rather than factors beyond everyone’s control. When groups feel empowered to influence the course of events, they’ll treat their responsibilities more seriously and avoid lapsing into hopelessness or cynicism.

You can always disband the team, but you might lose the camaraderie its members have built up. It’s often better to apply this three-step process to keep the group on track:

  1. Emphasize how the changes will ultimately benefit the team and the organization as a whole.
  2. Isolate specific, narrowly defined challenges that the team must conquer. By identifying bite-size projects for the group to sink its teeth into, you make the changes more manageable.
  3. Step back. Resist the urge to reassure groups prematurely when you’re still uncertain what will happen next. Gain credibility by updating the team on key developments and then allowing the group to grapple with them.

Bridging the Gap

Many companies face built-in animosities among different sets of employees. Three examples:

  1. High-tech firms. Marketers may fight with technicians (such as computer programmers and engineers) over timetables for launching new products, customer support and billing systems.
  2. Financial services. Underwriters and salespeople often clash over the type of business that the company will accept.
  3. Human services. Administrators often bicker with front-line employees (such as child-care providers, school teachers and social workers) over personnel issues.

The effective leader must bring opposing camps together. That means reinforcing shared interests over turf battles, seeking ways to achieve mutual understanding and recognizing informal teamwork that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Take these steps to stamp out divisiveness:

  • Cross-pollinate your teams. To prevent teams from turning into cliques, choose diverse individuals who each bring particular expertise. Open up the group to participants at all levels — from senior executives to support staff.
  • Let adversaries reward each other. It’s hard to dislike someone who praises and rewards you. Consider how Bruce H. Smith, head of fast-growing Safety Vision, a video-surveillance distributor in Houston, handled complaints from customer service reps that salespeople earned all the glory. Smith gave each salesperson a poker chip to award to a customer service clerk who demonstrated exceptional effort in closing a sale or helping a client. Those who received a chip qualified for a drawing for prizes, such as free dinner certificates and fountain pens.
  • Stay neutral. When employee disputes arise, don’t reveal your biases. Even seemingly harmless comments such as, "You know how those bean-counters are" or "The IT folks are a little prickly" can come back to haunt you. Instead, remind team members that they need to find ways to work together and resolve differences.

Even if you spread harmony among warring factions, you may face another challenge. Project teams in fast-growth companies often ask employees outside of the group to provide help, data or other resources. These teams often find themselves in the awkward position of making demands or seeking compliance from peers who may resent not being included in the group.

Anticipate such problems and head them off. Make teamwork a critical part of every employee’s performance review. Evaluate to what extent every worker collaborates with others. Holding people accountable for putting self-interests aside for the greater good can motivate everyone to pull together.

Writer: Morey Stettner is a management writer and trainer in Portsmouth, N.H. He is the author of "Skills for New Managers" (McGraw-Hill, 2000) and "The Art of Winning Conversation" (Prentice-Hall, 1995).