If you’ve ever been on one, you know what a team that works well together looks like. Individual strengths complement each other, members have each other’s backs, and a positive, uplifting culture makes going to work a pleasure. Unfortunately, this kind of team is rare. Many teams struggle to work well together as personalities clash.
“Great teams tend to happen by happenstance as people come together,” says Linda Adams, coauthor of The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor, and Authenticity Create Great Organizations. “They start with expectations around how people will perform, engage, and get their work done. In teams where expectations around behavior aren’t clear, people are left to show up and decide how they want to engage with each other.”
In her work as cofounder of The Trispective Group, a Denver-based management consulting firm, Adams and her partners found that teams are either saboteurs or loyalists, with varying levels of each. Some come together in trust, while others gather with internal conflict and strife, says Adams. “Teams find themselves in the saboteur space by accident,” she says. “To get to highest level, teams must do it with a lot of intentionality.”
Adams and her coauthors identify four types of teams, their traits, and how they impact a company’s success:
1. Saboteur Team
This team is focused on personal wins, and failure of others is the path to success. Members have a “watch your back” and “get them before they get me” mind-set. Behaviors include providing blaming others, engaging in one-upmanship, creating drama, and constantly point out what is going wrong without acknowledging what’s going right. This is the most toxic kind of team, and they can’t deliver results because morale suffers and good people quit.
2. Benign Saboteur Team
Members of this team are focused on self-preservation and survival. There is a false sense of harmony, with a “live and let live” mind-set. Behaviors include withholding feedback that could be helpful to others, staying within silos, delivering only on defined commitments, and being highly skeptical about the possibility for successful change in the organization and with each other. This kind of team isn’t productive because there’s little risk taking, and artificial harmony keeps real issues from being discussed.
3. Situational Loyalist Team
The members of this team are focused on keeping things moving in the right direction. There are pockets of trust, and people are given the benefit of the doubt, but there are weaknesses that keep the team from achieving high performance. Members carefully consider the impact of feedback before providing it, and they aren’t always candid. Strong alliances exist, but not equally across the team, and this team is often leader-centered, which means the leader is essential to accountability and decision making. This kind of team isn’t as productive as it could be, because members settle for good enough, and they rely too heavily on the leader.
4. Loyalist Team
Members of this team are focused on the organization’s success, and the success of others is viewed as a success for all. This group believes “we win together; we lose together,” and they have a strong commitment to each other. Behaviors include proactive and candid feedback, actively engaging in productive conflict to the get-tough issues out in the open, sharing accountability for decisions and results, and helping others maximize their strengths.
Looking at your team, identify the characteristics that most apply to the behaviors you see every day. “Once you have an understanding of what key behaviors are from each of the different team types, you can use that as your baseline,” says Adams. Unfortunately, the first three types of teams can derail productivity.
Changing Team Dynamics
Leadership matters in the team’s level of loyalty or sabotage, says coauthor Audrey Epstein, who is also a founding partner with The Trispective Group. “There is almost always a strong correlation between team dynamics and leaders,” she says. “There is a predictable pattern of how teams can be formed, and what it takes to drive high performance, effectiveness, and efficiency. A lot of leaders don’t have a process or a methodology to build teams, and they build teams based on what they’ve seen or how they’ve been led during their careers.”
It’s possible to move your team from saboteur to loyalist, but it isn’t a quick fix. “There is this idea that if we go to a ropes course, paintball, or another kind of offsite, those skills will magically be transferable to our workspace,” says Epstein. “It’s like going to the doctor and not getting specific about your ailment.”
Instead, you need a plan and an agreement, says Adams. “The plan will help address issues, such as the nature and quality of team meetings, relationships that exist between team members, and the impact a team leader has on managing effectiveness,” she says.
Getting an agreement can be tricky, adds Epstein. “Sometimes you have a player who doesn’t want to go along with you, isn’t willing to extend trust, can’t get past their ego, and puts their personal agenda in front of the team’s,” she says. “You have to have lots of tough conversations with team leaders. You get what you tolerate.”
Start by changing your attitude. “When things aren’t clear, there is a tendency to give negative assignation to behavior, assuming there is another agenda,” says Adams. “If you are able to give others the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intent, you can stay in the conversation, extending and granting trust. Many people believe trust has to be earned, but it takes a long time to earn it.”
Be willing to have tough conversations. “There are no elephants in the room with a top team, no non-discussables,” says Adams. “Top teams have good conflict. It’s not nirvana, but they can have conflict because they come from an assumption of positive intent. They don’t believe there is a hidden agenda.”
Make giving feedback a team requirement. “You see a much more rapid adjustment when the people around you are invested in your growth,” says Epstein. “We see a lot of failure in companies because individuals fail, and the people around those individuals have seen them on decline but haven’t stepped up.”
When people feel challenged but not afraid, they do their best work, says Epstein. “You have people who have your back, and when you are risking and trying new things, you’ll make mistakes,” she says. “It’s a lot harder to do that when you feel the people around you are there to shove you down. When you feel supported by others, you’re willing to work harder, smarter, faster, and to try new things to innovate in a way you haven’t done before.”
Everyone deserves to be on a loyalist team. “Unfortunately, that’s not how many people live their work lives,” says Adams. “We spend so much time at work, why would we ever settle for anything less? Not only does everyone deserve a great team; every team has the potential to be great. They have the opportunity and choice around how they show up.”