5 Strategies for Leading a High-Impact Team
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Careers Leadership Jul 1, 2016

5 Strate­gies for Lead­ing a High-Impact Team

Why teams are not cock­tail par­ties,” and oth­er words of wisdom.

Leadership of a high-impact team requires strategy

Michael Meier

Based on insights from

Leigh Thompson

Nobody sets out to lead an inef­fec­tive team. In fact, lead­ers ago­nize over fos­ter­ing teams that work well togeth­er and deliv­er smart solu­tions time and time again — the kind of teams that, in Leigh Thomp­sons words, go through the var­i­ous storms, the suc­cess­es, the fail­ures, and keep com­ing out alive.”

The only prob­lem? Many of the strate­gies lead­ers have adopt­ed to improve team­work, while well-inten­tioned, are not all that effec­tive. Thomp­son, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at Kel­logg and an expert on team­work, clears up five pop­u­lar mis­con­cep­tions. In the process, she offers a roadmap for build­ing and main­tain­ing teams that are cre­ative, effi­cient, and high-impact.

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1. Teams are not cock­tail par­ties: don’t invite everyone.

When build­ing a team, busi­ness lead­ers often fall into two traps: they make the team too big and too homogenous.

Try­ing to be over­ly inclu­sive leads inevitably to a team that is too large. One strat­e­gy for man­ag­ing team size is to con­sult spe­cial­ists only when their exper­tise is required rather than keep­ing them on full time.

Adding some flu­id­i­ty to team mem­ber­ship can also help with the prob­lem of homo­gene­ity. In team sports, you hear a lot about the impor­tance of team chem­istry — that innate under­stand­ing that leads to the no-look pass or the intu­itive hit-and-run. While build­ing a team of like-mind­ed indi­vid­u­als may cre­ate a safe and com­fort­able envi­ron­ment, it also elic­its a nar­row­er vision and less pro­duc­tive fric­tion than a team that is diverse both in per­son­al­i­ty and function.

We found that chang­ing the mem­ber­ship of a team — tak­ing out one mem­ber and putting in a new mem­ber while hold­ing every­thing else con­stant — actu­al­ly leads to an increase in cre­ative idea gen­er­a­tion,” says Thomp­son. This process also pre­vents so-called cog­ni­tive arthri­tis,” which hap­pens when sta­t­ic teams start to think along well-worn men­tal ruts.

For more insights on lead­ing effec­tive teams, enroll in the MOOC.

Kel­logg has also devel­oped a sub-hour Team­work 101 course for managers.

2. It is pos­si­ble to set ground rules with­out sti­fling cre­ativ­i­ty. Some struc­ture may even spark creativity.

For team lead­ers, nail­ing the bal­ance between offer­ing free­dom and pro­vid­ing struc­ture is nev­er easy.

I think one of the biggest mis­takes that lead­ers of new teams make is that they say some­thing like, our rule is that we have no rules,’” says Thomp­son. This rule-less approach attempts to give teams auton­o­my, but it gen­er­al­ly back­fires. What tends to hap­pen is that each per­son waits for some­one else to take action, cre­at­ing paral­y­sis, or worse, dysfunction.

Though it may seem like a drag on cre­ativ­i­ty to spend time estab­lish­ing ground rules, teams func­tion bet­ter over the long term with an explic­it writ­ten char­ter. This doc­u­ment iden­ti­fies — ide­al­ly in one sen­tence — the goal of the team, estab­lish­es the rules of oper­a­tion, and defines where respon­si­bil­i­ties lie.

Teams do a pret­ty good job of eval­u­at­ing or expand­ing on ideas, but they don’t do a good job of gen­er­at­ing ideas.”

Teams that devel­op a char­ter end up being more nim­ble, hav­ing more proac­tive behav­ior, and achiev­ing their goals more than teams that don’t both­er,” says Thompson.

Even the process of devel­op­ing a char­ter can improve team cohe­sion and effec­tive­ness. Thomp­son describes how a team of doc­tors at a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny over­came what she calls their analy­sis paral­y­sis” — a habit of weigh­ing every pos­si­bil­i­ty to such an extent that noth­ing was ever decid­ed. The team final­ly com­posed a char­ter using a sin­gle flip chart and sev­er­al pens. These sci­en­tists end­ed up col­lec­tive­ly writ­ing some­thing that they could get on board with because they were all authors and they knew it was a work in progress.”

3. Drop the pride talk. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty can be a good thing.

Cor­po­rate retreats tend toward the cel­e­bra­to­ry. Man­agers high­light progress and rec­og­nize employ­ees of the year. Such praise aims to act as a kind of cul­tur­al glue, bind­ing teams togeth­er through shared accom­plish­ment and optimism.

This is pride talk,” says Thomp­son. But does pride talk actu­al­ly improve teamwork?

Thomp­son ran a series of stud­ies in which some teams were told to share accom­plish­ments with each oth­er while oth­er teams shared embar­rass­ments. To her sur­prise, Thomp­son found that team mem­bers who talked about an embar­rass­ing moment gen­er­at­ed more ideas in sub­se­quent brain­storm­ing ses­sions. Embar­rass­ment, not pride, spurred cre­ative and effec­tive teamwork.

It’s some­what unin­tu­itive that putting out our worst moment in the last six months can actu­al­ly help our team,” says Thomp­son. Almost all of our intu­itions are wrong.”

4. You may be able to cut your meet­ing time in half — if you are smart about it.

In the­o­ry, meet­ings are designed to increase team effi­cien­cy — a pur­pose they rarely live up to in prac­tice. Most teams meet too infre­quent­ly and for too long, says Thomp­son. Research has demon­strat­ed that, giv­en a two-hour meet­ing, peo­ple will work to fill it; but meet­ings that are half as long are usu­al­ly just as pro­duc­tive. It is bet­ter to have four hour-long meet­ings than two two-hour meetings.

What can lead­ers do to make the most of a short­er meet­ing? Teams do a pret­ty good job of eval­u­at­ing or expand­ing on ideas, but they don’t do a good job of gen­er­at­ing ideas,” Thomp­son says. So to opti­mize meet­ing time, she rec­om­mends a facil­i­ta­tor solic­it con­tri­bu­tions relat­ed to the agen­da before­hand to serve as the start­ing point for discussion.

Facil­i­ta­tors are also respon­si­ble for encour­ag­ing full par­tic­i­pa­tion. After all, the diver­si­ty of a team is only valu­able if that diver­si­ty is giv­en voice. Stud­ies have shown that on a team of eight peo­ple, one or two mem­bers often do up to 70 per­cent of the talking.

Thomp­son rec­om­mends speed storm­ing” — think of it as brain­storm­ing meets speed dat­ing” — as one way to get the entire team involved. This exer­cise briefly pairs team mem­bers for one-on-one dis­cus­sion and ideation ses­sions. After pairs have talked for a short peri­od, peo­ple shift seats and begin again with a dif­fer­ent partner.

5. It is pos­si­ble for teams to get along too well. Agree to keep disagreeing.

Some teams are too polite,” warns Thomp­son. They don’t chal­lenge one anoth­er because they’re afraid that they will dri­ve a wedge in team cohe­sion.” But prop­er­ly man­aged dis­agree­ment helps teams avoid group­think while prob­ing the strengths and weak­ness­es of any idea.

Thomp­son gives the exam­ple of an exec­u­tive who lament­ed that peo­ple in her com­pa­ny were being too polite dur­ing meet­ings and then engag­ing in pas­sive-aggres­sive water-cool­er talk lat­er. The exec­u­tive hired a debate coach to teach her team to make debat­ing issues part of the meet­ing, rather than allow­ing dis­agree­ments to become the fall­out afterward.

The chal­lenge for lead­ers lies pri­mar­i­ly in sow­ing pro­duc­tive dis­agree­ment, which means cre­at­ing an envi­ron­ment where every­one feels com­fort­able voic­ing their own opin­ions and chal­leng­ing oth­ers’. And the dis­agree­ment must remain free of per­son­al attacks.

You’re hard on the prob­lem and respect­ful of the peo­ple,” says Thompson.

In prac­tice, elic­it­ing this kind of respon­si­ble feed­back” can be dif­fi­cult. So Thomp­son offers a tip: have team mem­bers write down rather than vocal­ize their opin­ions and rec­om­men­da­tions. Stud­ies of brain­storm­ing indi­cate that teams often nev­er make it past the sec­ond idea before they sup­press their con­cerns. How­ev­er, when ideas are chal­lenged — with­out being assault­ed — this can often spur tru­ly great ideas.

When team mem­bers are think­ing through dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble cours­es of action, then every­body can be writ­ing cards that talk about a pro and a con. This helps build a bal­ance of feed­back,” says Thomp­son. Let’s talk about the pos­i­tives; then let’s talk about the negatives.”

Featured Faculty

Leigh Thompson

J. Jay Gerber Professor of Dispute Resolution & Organizations, Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Dylan Walsh is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Connecticut.

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