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Growing Great Teams

Andrea Buczynski shares her insights on team development
What phase is your team in?

“A team is a group of people committed to a common purpose who choose to cooperate in order to achieve exceptional results.”

Pat MacMillan

Great Teams Don't just Happen!

When I think of teams I have been a part of, there are several pictures that come to mind, but none as sweet as the first–four of us singing “Rejoice the Lord is King!” in four part harmony in the car on the way home from campus. Two months after I arrived for my first assignment, my director and his wife left staff. The following three months were full of questions as each of us who remained considered what the Lord wanted for and from us. Our task was so big, and we knew so little about what needed to be done. We only knew we needed a director and a vision.

The practical necessity of teams is so clear; yet the development of the attitudes that support great teamwork is challenging. Ephesians 4 (NLT) says:

“Therefore, I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace. For there is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism…However, he has given each one of us a special gift through the generosity of Christ…we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of His body, the church. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.”

These are the attitudes that form the basis for cooperation toward a common purpose. Dr. Sue Jones, in her book Developing A Learning Culture, reinforces these thoughts by identifying three attitudes in leaders that promote learning, leadership and teamwork:  humility (absence of arrogance) about one’s own knowledge and skills, respect for others and their knowledge and skills, and trust in others and their abilities.

These three attitudes are the basis for the ability to

  • encourage and listen to others’ views, ideas and suggestions
  • be open with others
  • take open feedback and criticism
  • avoid personally judging others and be tolerant of differing and opposing views
  • avoid personally judging others and be tolerant of others’ mistakes

Why are these attitudes so challenging? On most teams I’ve been a part of, there has been someone with whom I have a philosophical disagreement or some kind of quirky personality thing I wish were different. The question is–how big a deal will I let those things become?

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In Philippians 2: 3-4, we read,

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Peter tells us in I Peter 2:17, “Respect everyone, and love your Christian brothers and sisters. Fear God, and respect the king.”

As soon as I acknowledge that I don’t know everything or even enough about how to move forward, I’m ready to hear others’ ideas about it. When I treat others with honor and respect, there is the possibility of going forward together because there is space for us to explore our opinions. When I listen to others’ ideas with interest, I respect what they bring to the table. If I will look out for my teammates the way I would look out for myself, we have the possibility of owning and achieving our goals together.

The opposite of these attitudes tend to create problems when people work together. “I” becomes more important than “we.” Pride or arrogance says, “I know what I’m talking about and you can’t tell me anything I don’t know.” When you say it out loud like that, it sounds silly. Yet that is what happens when we dismiss others’ ideas or cautions without thought or when we are defensive to feedback. If I come to the table with a self-righteous attitude and judge others’ ideas or behavior, cooperation is almost impossible. We get stuck in our attitudes and cannot move toward each other when we’re holding on to our positions, whether in anger, judgment or pride.

These internal conflicts frequently become the battle line, instead of the real battle together toward our common mission. The more time and energy we invest in fighting these battles with each other, the less time and energy we have to invest in our calling from God. Our collective energy is diffused and less powerful. The evil one’s strategy to steal, kill and destroy is working.

So what can you do to preserve the unity of the Spirit as a team leader or as a team member?

  1. Be filled with the Spirit. “You can bear no fruit apart from Me.” (John 15)
  2. Lead by example. Model the behavior that you want to see. How do you want to model humility, patience, respect, forbearance and love? Repent from behavior that is destructive to the team and trust God for new attitudes and actions.
  3. Help the team form guidelines for how they want to behave with each other (norms).
  4. Reinforce the norms when people slip up. If someone on the team shares a struggle and another team member responds harshly or unkindly, what will you do?
  5. Don’t let gossip or conflict become a problem.
  6. Focus the team on God and the mission to which He calls us as a higher aim than simply getting our way.

We are both saints and sinners. Each of us has immature parts of our character that need to be grown up. Those immature parts will show up on a team. Each of us has strengths that are necessary both in relationships and in our task; yet, none of us is sufficient. Great teams choose to cooperate because they see the wisdom and fruitfulness of working together. Great team members will commit to their common mission over their individual preferences.

Whether your team sings together or not, the key issue is that you become a team leader or team member who will choose to cooperate in the power of the Holy Spirit for the advancement of the gospel and for the glory of God. We can do no less in light of God’s calling to us.

Questions to consider:

What is your favorite team experience?  What is God teaching you about effective team building? 

And we were praying for both, God supplied the vision before He supplied the director, and when the director came, we were ready for him. The resulting team became so close-knit in our passion for that campus, that city, that we would do whatever God showed us. The hymn, “Rejoice, the Lord is King!” became a sort of theme song; singing it together was a symbol of our unity and commitment. No matter what the obstacles, we would trust the Lord and step out in faith together. We were committed to the same vision and committed to each other.

Teams are necessary when the work required–whether in complexity or scope–is beyond what one person can accomplish. Teams can yield powerful results when people commit to the same goal. The formation of teams to accomplish a task is a move from working independently to interdependence. What “we” are able to accomplish together becomes more important than what “I” accomplish by myself. A leader or an organization recognizes the need to work together in light of a great vision and mission. Certainly, when we think about “movements everywhere” and helping to fulfill the Great Commission, the need for teams and partnerships is obvious.

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“This doesn’t seem biblical AT ALL!” said one team member. I was sitting in a training session which had gone along very well, when suddenly the group began to ask questions from a more argumentative and adversarial position. The leader of the session calmly took each question one by one. However, the group became more agitated as we went along. I felt like things were blowing up right before my eyes.

Since the training continued into the next day, I was more than a little concerned that we had to do something about it. After expressing my concerns to the facilitator, the session leader turned to me and said, “Oh no, don’t worry. This is exactly what needs to be happening right now!”

The session leader went on to explain that every group needs to go through a conflict stage in order to really form. In training scenarios, that kind of questioning means that people are taking things seriously and testing them. So as each one took in what was being taught, they literally processed and tested the ideas out loud. Sure enough, when we came back the next day, the group settled into a kind of comfortable place with the facilitator, and we finished on a very positive note.

When teams come together, they experience a similar process. At first everyone is polite and positive. Then differences start to emerge, and people want to engage each other to test the differences. Typically, the team finds a way to work through those conflicts and becomes effective in working together. This pattern, identified by Bruce Tuckman in 1965, has four stages of team development labeled as:

  1. Forming
  2. Storming
  3. Norming
  4. Performing

For a team to really perform at a high level, both relationally and in task-effectiveness, that team needs to go through the first three stages. What does each stage look like?

FORMING happens when a team first comes together. Typically, people anticipate something good coming out of the time together. They are on their best behavior. People are polite and tend to believe the best. Similarities are most noticeable. We find common ground with each other.

At the forming stage, the team is a fun place to be.

It’s a discovery stage. They’re learning things about each other and the mission of the team. Team-building activities like life maps, Myers-Briggs, DISC or Birkman can help a team get to know one another a bit better by supplying some additional insights for discussion. Strategic planning or project planning lays the basis for the work of the team. Agreeing on basic guidelines for working together is established.

STORMING begins when a team begins to find out that people have differences of opinion, practice or conviction. When people begin to feel comfortable on a team, more of their real selves emerge. They feel the freedom to express differences. The work and the team matter to them, and they will press for their points of view. Conflict may surface about processes, the actual mission, or how the team relates to each other. In a sense, the differences in values, experience and points of view become more evident and can result in serious conflict.

What you may have assumed to be true in the forming stage appears not to be true. The team must navigate this stage well in order to achieve its full potential as a team. It is the place where the future of the team will be determined. It is also the place where our immaturity or insecurities will surface.

Navigating the storming phase is critical for team development.

We may get stuck individually responding to someone on the team or the team itself in unhealthy ways. If a team does not learn to “storm” well, the collective trust and competence of the team doesn’t quite develop, and people tend to settle into their own ways as individuals. You can call yourselves a team but still work as individuals.

Team leaders must recognize that this is necessary and not something that has gone wrong. The differences that surface really reflect the diversity of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4 instructs us to be humble and gentle, bear with one another and preserve the unity of the Spirit at all times, not less when we’re in this stage. It is not the time to judge one another. It is the time to explore what those differences mean and what particular insights need to be crafted into a good solution.

Team members is need to really listen to one another and bear with one another. What are the differences telling you? This is the place where we listen for understanding and meaning. Reflecting back to each other what you thought you understood is a good practice.

Each team member bears a responsibility to deal with personal conflict seriously. If in the heat of a discussion, you say something that may have given offense, go to the person and apologize. If you notice a reaction, ask the person if indeed you have given any offense. These are the things that build teams up. In this stage, be mindful to “let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth.” There are good ways to disagree.

When “storming” happens, our natural tendency is to shut it down. We can tend to see it as a negative experience. This goes against what the team needs. The team needs to be able to express differences and come out the other side with a solution that serves the purpose and mission of the team. As teams repeatedly solve these kinds of dilemmas, they enter into the next stage. Revisiting the team’s norms, vision and purpose can be very helpful during this time.

NORMING happens when the team learns how to deal with their differences in constructive ways. As a team repeatedly solves the problems they encounter, the members have a greater sense of confidence and trust in one another. That “we can do this” feeling becomes more normal. The team usually develops processes for handling conflict, making decisions, allocating resources and evaluating their effectiveness. This stage is a more comfortable one for a team. The differences are there, but there’s a way to work through them, for the sake of a common mission.

The mission becomes more important. The team tends to want to discuss things more and will spend more time in decision-making. If a team does not allow for dissent at this stage, there is the risk of groupthink. There needs to be a balance between ways to work together well and room for dissent in a healthy way. As the team improves its processes, the team leader or facilitator may need to take a stronger role in keeping the team on task.

A team that learns as it goes has the best chance to reach the PERFORMING stage. Typically, the differences you can see with teams that are very effective and teams that are nominally effective is their ability to learn from what they experience, improving their practice together. These teams regularly evaluate their own effectiveness with a tendency to look for ways to increase it. These teams will actually change what they are doing, not just their strategies, in order to be more effective. They are proactive and intentional; they own their work. They are able to solve their problems, anticipate the obstacles and move forward on their own. They are self- correcting.

To do that, a team needs the humility to measure itself against its vision and objectives of the team. A team who does regular evaluation about their team function and process, as well as their effectiveness, has a good probability of improving their performance together. Evaluation of results is a must, but it is complemented by evaluation of team function. A team who wants to reach the performing stage does not look outside the team for this evaluation. They own it themselves.

High-performing teams display a strong accountability culture on the team. Giving account to one another for your work (or lack of it), enables a team to make traction on their plans.  On a team visit several years ago, I remarked to one of the team members about the high level of execution around their responsibilities.

The person looked at me and said,

“I never want to have to answer to the rest of the team about why I let them down.”

When a team member sees their responsibilities as really contributing to the team, and that their work matters, that kind of healthy attitude prevails. Granted there may be good reasons that work doesn’t get done, but the overall atmosphere of the team is “We’re counting on you!”

These stages are not quite linear in nature. As a team composition or strategy changes, it is likely that a team can go from norming back to storming or even to forming. As leaders, we need to recognize these stages as we lead teams toward launching spiritual movements and lead our team successfully through them. As team members, we need to participate well, “looking out for each other’s interests, as well as our own.” As unsettling as it may feel, it is worth pushing through the “storming” to get to effective “norming” in light of what God has called us to do.

We need every ounce of Spirit filled dependence, wisdom and courage to navigate these stages well, for the sake of God’s glory and the eternal destination of those who don’t know Him. So, let’s pray and take action in faith to build the kinds of teams that love each other well and work together well. Let this be part of our testimony to the world of the reality of Christ.

How have you handled any discomfort when differences in team members start to emerge?  What part do you play in helping reconcile those differences? 

Andrea Buczynski

Campus Crusade for Christ International
https://abreflections.wordpress.com/

On any given day you might find Andrea in a meeting, on a plane, or in some part of the world where she meets amazing people and sees just a few of the awesome ways that God is working. She serves as the Global Vice President for Leadership Development and HR with Campus Crusade for Christ International. When she’s home, she enjoy books, time with friends and occasionally gets to the beach. Visit her blog to read more.

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