A large real estate company in Ontario recently noticed some serious problems among its field leader team, a group whose job was to inspire, advise and supervise a small staff of realtors under them. But there was a lack of ‘esprit de corps’, decreased productivity and little communication among the leaders and their realtor groups.
The challenge for the field leaders, each responsible for about eight to ten people, was this: the team members worked out of different offices throughout Ontario and had high levels of autonomy. The field leaders were trying to build a cohesive leadership unit in spite of these factors.
Despite their efforts, the year-old team hadn’t gelled the way the company had hoped.
Teams of the past generally had more in common than they do now, housed in the same office building and possessing similar backgrounds, age, gender, educational and cultural backgrounds.
Not so anymore. To be competitive, companies are having to find ways to build teams separated by geography, cultural differences and even age disparity – 20 year olds working along side 50 year olds.
Yet many leaders feel ill equipped for the team-building task. Optimizing performance requires knowledge of how teams typically function and the ability to generate mutual goals, including ways of working together as a team. Member accountability must also be present for a smooth running team.
In our practice, leaders benefit from knowing that teams go through three general phases: belonging, conflict and mutuality. Internationally recognized psychologist and theorist, William Schutz first identified these phases.
At first, concerns about belonging to the team dominate its attention. Just because people are told they are on a team doesn’t mean they feel they are true team members. That concern generally motivates team members to bond, find common ground and try to feel included. This is an important and pleasant phase, characterized by a lack of disagreement, a seeking of similarities and a necessary but somewhat superficial cohesiveness. Team members at this stage are striving for acceptance by their peers. This makes them appear agreeable, affable, accommodating, and reluctant to challenge one another. Failing to attend to this fundamental need for belonging can prevent the team from moving beyond the appearance of a well functioning team.
In our experience, teams stuck at this stage tend to readily agree on a direction in order to keep the peace, or they spend time in meetings chatting, joking and easily getting off task. Team members remain reluctant to give each other constructive feedback, preferring to focus on only the positive. However, once team members obtain a sense of inclusion on the team, the conflict stage can begin.
This stage is characterized by team members’ desires for autonomy. During this stage there are often disagreements, power struggles and battles for control. At first, it seems attempts to exercise individuality might threaten the team. Sometimes the team becomes alarmed when the rule of the first phase, “we should all get along”, appears broken. The danger here is that the conflict may be shut down by a nervous team or team leader. Or worse still, the conflict is mishandled and becomes so destructive that it damages working relationships.
Shutting conflict down prematurely, or allowing it to become destructive, generates mistrust, suspicion and guardedness in team members. If the team stalls at the conflict phase, it will be unable to move on to the third team phase. Instead, the team will need to go back and repair the fragile trust and feeling of safety built up in the first phase.
Knowing that the conflict phase is crucial, difficult, unpleasant, temporary and normal helps assuage fears that all is lost.
By understanding the conflict phase as normal and necessary, teams tend to become aware that they’ve entered the stage. Team members during an intense period have observed that arguing is fine as long as everybody gets input.
When team members find themselves complaining that their team requires suffocating conformity or is mired in unresolved conflict, it may be an indication that the team has run aground in either the belonging or conflict stage. If this occurs, it is important that the team leader address the grumbling by asking, “What is it about the team right now that either shuts down dissent or uses meetings to settle grudges?”
This phase weds team inclusiveness with respect for the individual. It offers team members the freedom to choose to agree as well as the chance to disagree without threatening their role on the team, their competence or the team’s overall effectiveness.
Having worked through conflict openly, honestly and constructively, team members find they can exercise individual uniqueness and be team players at the same time.
Mutuality offers members a voice in decisions and the sense that the relationships they have created aren’t superficial but can weather challenge. They can feel crisis without the threat of dissolution or unresolved hard feelings.
Being one’s own person on the team is essential to high performing teams, especially given the importance of dissension for creativity, problem solving and the avoidance of group think.
At the same time, it’s true that “two or more heads are better than one,” making collaborative team membership key in creating new products, strategies and increasing productivity.
In the end, the real estate team navigated the three phases successfully, shifting from a disparate group located in different offices and cities to a team motivated to create cohesiveness, share a common sense of direction and commitment to new directives.
Now they meet more frequently, ask for help more readily and heed each other’s advice more often. They disagree with one another more freely, listen to opinions different from their own and give feedback spontaneously. And that helps the overall health of the company.
Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.