From IEDC Now
By Joy Wilkins, CEcD
For all the attention that it has received over the years from scholars, coaches, teachers, and the media, teamwork is as elusive as it has ever been within most organizations. The fact remains that teams, because they are made up of imperfect human beings, are inherently dysfunctional. But that is not to say that teamwork is doomed. Far from it. In fact, building a strong team is both possible and remarkably simple. But it is painfully difficult.
– Patrick Lencioni
Whether you’re talking about a major city or rural township, the most successful communities are those whose leaders are rowing together in the same direction and in harmony with each other. Because this is somewhat unique, these communities are often viewed in our profession as special. There are even some communities that do not have any inherent reason to be successful in economic development (such as location, infrastructure, or natural resources) that have become communities of choice because of good, cohesive leadership.What is perhaps the leading barrier that prevents communities from reaching their true potential? In a word, leadership. Or to be more exact, leaders who aren’t working together effectively for positive change.
“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology,” writes executive coach, consultant and author Patrick Lencioni, “It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”
This is especially true in the team sport of economic development. How can we work to develop great teams in the communities and organizations we serve? In his 2002 book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” Lencioni outlines the reasons why teams fail and even successful ones struggle, and provides specific measures for addressing these problems.
Absence of trust
The absence of trust makes teamwork impossible, explains Lencioni. Trust is the foundation of all great relationships.
To build trust, he suggests that we find ways to truly get to know each other, and this includes letting others see our vulnerabilities. By showing our true selves, we can connect on some fundamental truths: As humans, we are each flawed, we each make mistakes, and we can each do better than we did before. We can also forge trusted relationships within our teams where people accept each other, no matter what, and go out of their way to help each other.
“In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group,” says the author.
What does a trusting team look like? According to Lencioni, members of such teams do the following:
- Admit weaknesses and mistakes
- Ask for help
- Accept questions and input about their areas of responsibility
- Give one another the benefit of the doubt before arriving at a negative conclusion
- Take risks in offering feedback and assistance
- Appreciate and tap into one another’s skills and experiences
- Focus time and energy on important issues, not politics
- Offer and accept apologies without hesitation
- Look forward to meetings and other opportunities to work as a group
As economic developers, building this type of trust among our team members can be challenging, given the sensitive and competitive dynamics in which we often operate. These dynamics can result in being political and strategic in our interactions and can sometimes hinder real conversation.
We are also in a fairly transient profession, so there may be legitimate concerns about whether we can maintain trusted relationships in one place after moving on to another place to serve. However, it can and has been done. Many successful economic development leaders have been able to establish and maintain trusted relationships in several communities in which they have served. As the author points out, building these relationships does not happen overnight, but takes considerable time, ongoing engagement with each other, and a great purpose to rally around.
Fear of conflict
Because managing conflict is challenging, we may be tempted to avoid it altogether. However, as Lencioni and others point out, not all conflict is bad. “All great relationships, the ones that last over time, require productive conflict in order to grow,” he says. Here, he is referring to productive ideological conflict, rather than conflict of a destructive or personally harmful nature.
Open and honest discussions about important concepts can help teams reach the right conclusions more efficiently and save time and energy, the author notes. This is especially important in economic development, given the number of complex and fast-paced issues we deal with each day. These issues can best be addressed through the kind of vetting that allows for healthy conflict. Where there may be concerns about hidden agendas or special interests behind proposed ideas, these concerns can be alleviated when there is trust and an agreed-upon focus on the collective good, Lencioni’s work shows.
Lack of commitment
In economic development, given the public nature of the work we do, we often seek consensus before making important decisions. In reality, total agreement is often not possible. However, Lencioni explains that great teams find ways to achieve buy-in regardless; they make sure that everyone’s ideas are genuinely heard and agree to support whatever decision is made by the majority.
Another factor that slows or halts decision-making, according to the author, is uncertainty regarding whether a decision is correct. This is especially the case in our profession, given the many unknown factors affecting the possible outcomes. In addition, the common fear of making a mistake may be exacerbated in economic development given the broad impacts a decision can have on the community as a whole. As a result, communities may find themselves in a state of data paralysis, continually studying matters rather than taking action. However, great teams, explains Lencioni, commit without perfect information; they tap into the collective wisdom of the group and make decisions based on trust in this wisdom.
Avoidance of accountability
Though it can be tempting to defer to top leadership to hold team members accountable, each of us serving on a team bears this responsibility. However, we often don’t act on it.
Why? Team members often wish to avoid interpersonal discomfort, difficult conversations, or anything they view as potentially harming a relationship, explains the author. It can also be a struggle for members of cohesive teams to hold each other accountable where strong personal relationships exist, he notes. However, such avoidance will prevent a team from reaching its high-performing potential. And not addressing counterproductive behavior can eventually foster friction among team members, Lencioni points out, leading to resentment among team members, mediocrity, and missed goals.
Helping our peers see opportunities for improvement is good not only for the team, but ultimately for them as well. When someone is not performing to his or her optimum, not only does the team feel it, but the person feels it and it can affect his or her self-image. By constructively advising that person from a place of respect, he or she may be better able to incorporate changes that will bring out their productive best, and likely feel more fulfilled as a result.
Inattention to results
In order for a team to be truly successful, there must be “an unrelenting focus on specific objectives and clearly defined outcomes,” says Lencioni. In other words, the team must stay results-driven.
In our world of increasing distractions, this can be particularly difficult to do. The author also points out that team members sometimes may focus on personal needs or care more about status (such as being on the team or being in a certain position) than about reaching outcomes for the greater good. This can be a particular issue in economic development, given the high-profile aspects of many of our initiatives. However, this can be mitigated by taking the time to ensure that team members are not only rallied around the mission, but formally committed to doing their part to completing the mission and held accountable along the way in fulfilling their commitment.
Achieving any level of success in economic development depends upon the contributions of many partners working in tandem. When community leaders focus on developing a culture for collaboration and becoming a great team, they can achieve the extraordinary for the communities they serve, even in the most challenging of circumstances.
In summary, Lencioni identifies five approaches that members of great teams take the time, discipline, and persistence to develop:
- They trust one another.
- They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
- They commit to decisions and plans of action.
- They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
- They focus on the achievement of collective results.