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Let's Talk!

Team success is about effective communication. Here's how to get started.

Team success is about effective communication.

Here's how to get started.

How is your team doing? Do you get work done? Do people trust each other? Do you have fun at work? Do people go the extra mile when needed? If so, congratulations! You seem to be part of a functioning team and are most probably fulfilled at work. If not, chances are high you may be leading a team, or are part of a team, that would benefit from creating meaningful relationships amongst team members by communicating more effectively.

Many studies have shown it’s relationships that make our work meaningful, fostering innovation and overall team performance. Not only does good team collaboration have an immediate effect on people’s well-being and happiness, but it can also be measured in performance outcomes.

We all aim for that team in which trust is given, communication is open and transparent, and working with each other is enjoyable. But the reality is technology is more distracting than ever, trust is threatened by personal agendas, and a “team spirit” is often not present.

A friend of mine recently asked me what would I suggest if some team members do not feel they are part of a team. What if some team members feel less appreciated than others? What if some believe they must compensate for others by taking over their workload? What if there is conflict that isn’t addressed openly?

The answer is: Let’s talk!

A fun team building event is not enough to create effective team collaboration. Even though having a playful experience to create team bonds is a first step, we need to go farther. We need to create a culture of open conversations, honest feedback, and transparency in which everyone feels safe to share—especially the critical thoughts.

People want to feel heard, understood, and appreciated. I have seen many examples in my work with corporate teams where the resistance of a single team member can break the entire team’s morale.

Here are some suggestions to start a conversation that will create the trust and openness you will need if you want to thrive as a team.


As the team leader: Act as an example

In most teams, there still is a hierarchical structure in which a team leader is responsible for building and leading the team (some examples of self-managed teams without a leader are starting to develop). The team leader’s role is to provide clarity about goals, roles, how to work together, and how to accomplish tasks. Transparency and regular communication are main leadership responsibilities in every organisation and team, especially during times of change. Keeping up that constant communication through whatever channel is appropriate will create the trust and credibility needed.

The team leader needs to be aware of their importance of being a role model. People are watching. Team members will sense if their leader cares about them in an authentic way or if they are driven by ego. The use of “we” versus “I” can be a small but meaningful indication on how committed a leader is about a team and making achievements a common effort and success.


“Leaders are the ones who run headfirst into the unknown. They rush towards the danger. They put their own interests aside to protect us or pull us into the future” —Simon Sinek


Often in my workshops, I hear people trust those leaders who walk the talk, who do the work and show the behaviours they expect from their team members. They trust those leaders who also act as an example in showing integrity and open communication. If we want to create transparency and open communication amongst our team, this, of course, means it is on us as leaders to start.


Create purpose and celebrate success

People want to be part of a bigger picture and work on good things. Success and the appreciation that comes with it are some of the biggest drivers for the efficacy of a team.

I have often heard from teams that they didn’t even know what “they” (meaning upper management) had defined as a strategy and thus it was difficult to create commitment and buy-in within the organization. On the contrary, teams that are engaged usually have a clear view on the organizational strategy and vision, how this view affects their department, and how this view determines the work they are doing within their team.


“People want to be part of something they’re really proud of, that they will fight for, sacrifice for, that they trust.” —Howard Schultz


Creating and communicating purpose are two of the baselines for your team’s success. Talking about and celebrating success are two more.

Questions to ask are:

- What purpose and vision do our team, department, and organisation have?

- How much time do we spend talking about our jobs, frustrations, and aspirations?


Turn to one another

As Margaret J. Wheatley describes it beautifully in the first sentence of her book, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future:

I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again. Simple, honest human conversation. Not meditation, negotiation, problem-solving, debate, or public meetings. Simple, truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well.

We don’t turn often enough to one another these days. Yes, we do interact with each other daily. But what about the real conversations? The ones that show the other person we care. Not the ones about project deliverables, deadlines, workload, and resource availabilities. Conversations that involve the questions that matter. Like, “Tell me what you care about?”; “What are you dealing with, not only at work, but also in your private life?”; “What was the last thing you have truly been passionate about?”; “What are your fears?”

By making conversations personal, we connect on a deep human level that creates trust and a profound sense of belonging. Taking into consideration that development towards future workplaces creates true commitment and engagement, specifically for the younger generation’s needs, it seems to be evident that true conversations are a good place to start. Turning to one another is a prerequisite for creating a sense of purpose and belonging, as well as a value-driven culture.


Ask questions and listen attentively

“All people need to know is that they are being heard.” —Justin Lee

Not long ago, I was facilitating a workshop with a team that had a new team leader and was going through quite some struggles in their collaboration. One of the participants, a bright and experienced man who had been in the company for many years, was truly not convinced this workshop would lead to any result. When I was asking the team members to present themselves at the beginning of the workshop by saying who they were, his answer was, “I am a closed book.” Here it was, resistance. When I responded by asking, “So what do I have to do to open the first page?”, he said, “You need to ask questions.”

His answer was impeccable. Often, leaders and team members tap into the “performance trap.” We want to prove our competence and knowledge and, thus, tell everyone what we know to show how smart we are and that we truly deserve to be in our position or higher. But when we ask questions, we allow ourselves to show vulnerability , admit we may know less than the person we are asking. And often this is true. This is why we should ask questions instead of pretending we know.

It is a fact that we all depend on the knowledge of others, and it is not weakness but rather strength to admit this.In his book "Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling?" Edgar H. Schein calls this the “Humble Inquiry” . He shows the positive effect of acknowledging our dependency on others and how asking—specifically across hierarchical boundaries.

Here are some tips on how to listen actively rather than falling into a “telling” mode:

- Don’t talk. Sounds basic, but it is true. If you want to practice your listening skills, the first step lies in being quiet and focusing on what the other person has to say.

- Be aware of your body language: leaning forward, nodding, smiling, and eye contact. Again, some basic rules, but applying them will make all the difference.

- Don’t interrupt.

- Reframe what was said in your words and repeat the message as you have understood it.

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.” —Bryant H. McGill


Use technology for its best

Much has been written and said about the opportunities and risks of an all-time connected world. And yes, technology is helpful in bringing people together. Collaboration across the globe would not be possible without the technological capabilities we have created these days. At the same time, one of the challenges I hear most in organizations is building trust and effective collaboration remotely remain some of the biggest struggles. This is why, specifically at the beginning of a cross-cultural and/or cross-functional project, it is so crucial to at least meet in person once for a personal kick-off.

“I think technology really increased human ability. But technology cannot produce compassion.” —Dalai Lama

Even in teams that do not face the challenge of physical distance, technology remains the biggest boundary. Have you ever had that conversation with that colleague who was talking to you but was checking their phone or computer while doing so? Or have you even been that colleague? It is a matter of respect and true caring to not be distracted when talking to our colleagues. If you are—as many of us—a victim of constantly being connected, try disconnecting for a day. Leave your devices at your desk and check in with your team personally. You will be amazed by the difference in quality of your conversations.

Acknowledge emotions

“Let us not look back in anger, or forward with fear, but around in awareness.” —James Thurber

Creating true understanding also means acknowledging emotions. In times of change, for example, it is not enough to label “resistance” of a team member as such. What is important for the success of your team is to understand the emotions that lie underneath that displayed behaviour. Often, resistance results from fear. Fear of being left out, lacking capabilities for a new task, or sometimes even the fear of losing a job.

I ran into that trap myself a couple of years ago. My boss accused me of being emotional (at least it felt like an accusation to me at that time). My response was immediate: “I am not being emotional; I am being professional!” I exclaimed in an emotional outbreak. There you go. No matter how I was labeling the situation, I was truly controlled by my emotions.

Daniel Goleman has done groundbreaking work around emotional intelligence. Acknowledging emotions in ourselves and others and managing our emotions and those of others accordingly is another way one can have a recognizable impact on your team effectiveness.

Foster conflict

Especially when doing my work across North America, I have observed a common trend: teams shy away from conflict! They are being professional, polite, and in case there is an issue to discuss, this would be taken offline. People very often have negative associations with conflict, finding it difficult to engage in it mostly because they fear their relationship is being impacted in a negative way.

Conflict is inescapable. If you know how to handle it and move through it, your team will surpass themselves. Some of the most remarkable results I have seen in team workshops were based on an honest commitment to engage in conflict, to talk about the elephant in the room, and to deal with it in a constructive way. I am not saying this is always easy; however, teams that engage proactively in conflict will see and feel the benefit of it. Actively diffusing tension and friction in a relaxed and informal atmosphere will definitely do the work.

Depending on the level of conflict, it may also be a good idea to have a guided process through discussing the conflict.

An easy first approach can be found in “The four steps to nonviolent communication” by Marshall B. Rosenberg:

1. Observe without evaluating and recap

2. Describe emotions, not positions

3. Identify needs and take them seriously

4. Make a request

For deeper reading on how to get what you want by saying what you mean I recommend the work of Kim Scott in her book Radical Candor.

Allow vulnerability

How does your team deal with failure? Does the team deal with it as a matter of compliance where the person who has made a mistake gets blamed, or are team members willing to learn from failure and grow together?

Brené Brown (Dare to Lead), has made a remarkable contribution to honing vulnerability—not only in our private lives, but also in leadership.

Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.” —Brené Brown

In seeing vulnerability as strength rather as weakness, we set an example as leaders and team members to share not only the success stories but start to have conversations around our failures and fears, and how we can turn those into valuable learnings for the future.

Create and live an open-feedback culture

Research shows the most effective teams are those that have made providing each other feedback a rule. People will thrive and feel valued when appreciated on a regular basis. Directive or corrective feedback helps team members offer guidance not only on personal performance but also on how the business is doing. The ideal ratio between praise and criticism lies at 5:1 as a study conducted by Zenger/Folkman shows. The more team members receive feedback, the more likely they will be engaged.

Here are some practical tips to keep in mind for creating an effective feedback culture within your team:

- Make feedback a regular rule rather than an exception. Give and ask for it regularly.

- The leader has the role of giving the positive example first.

- Choose the appropriate moment and manner to deliver your feedback.

- Give both praise and criticism. Making praise a regular habit will help your peers to be open about criticism as well.

- Show people you care about their growth and personal development as much as the team’s performance outcome.

A simple feedback rule to use while delivering feedback is the SBI rule, which stand for: you should always refer your feedback to a specific Situation in which you have observed a certain Behaviour and describe the Impact this shown behaviour has had on you.

Applying this rule will help you to stay objective and avoid appearing to accuse the person you to whom you are delivering the feedback.

Following these recommendations will not assure immediate team success. However, if you want to work on building your team collaboration, starting with these suggestions will bring you closer to your goal. And staying committed to your team communication will definitely make the difference. After all, successful team communication is a constant effort of all team members. And for those who feel this sounds like hard work, I am convinced you will appreciate the fun part of open communication—humour is important too!


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