Building High Performing Teams – Does the Team Have the Right Support?

  • Leaders cannot assume that just because they have a team, that all the conditions are present for it to be an effective and high performing one. The nearly 20 years of research conducted at Harvard University by Drs. Ruth Wageman, J. Richard Hackman and Erin Lehman can help leaders ensure those conditions are in place.
  • As we approach the end of our exploration of the three essential and three enabling conditions that drive up to 80% of a team’s effectiveness, we’ll focus this month’s piece on the second of the three Enabling conditions: Supportive Context

An important team enabling condition that doesn’t always receive a lot of focus is the supportive context that it operates in, meaning the team has the structures and systems it needs to effectively accomplish its work. These supports are often overlooked, and when focused upon, are sometimes leveraged in inefficient and frustrating ways. The research of Hackman, Wageman, and Lehman found three key supportive enablers were impactful in helping teams be more effective[1]:

1. Rewards – The team is recognized for its efforts and its accomplishments; this is significantly different than individual members of the team being recognized for their individual efforts and accomplishments.

2. Information – The team has access to the right information it needs to accomplish its work, and it’s available when it’s needed

3. Education – Continuing development and training for team members is available and outside professional consultation is available for complex tasks and issues outside of the team’s expertise

4. Support – The team has the material resources – computers, office space, time, funding, etc. to accomplish its work

We’ve probably all experienced moments in our professional lives when one or more of these supports is lacking. I recall moments when peer military leaders ended up competing with one another in an almost unhealthy way because each leader was ranked and rewarded based on how much his or her unit contributed to achieving the larger organization’s goals. Similarly, I recall the angst and frustration with some of the Army’s automation systems that just never seemed to produce the right information or in a timely enough manner to help make critical decisions.

On the plus side, I appreciate to this day the Army’s education and professional development pathways. It is truly one of the few organizations I’ve ever known about that invested resources to provide continuing professional and leadership training and education opportunities to ensure its teams functioned at the highest levels possible. Similarly, I appreciated the material support the Army provided to its teams so they could accomplish their very complex and dangerous missions. Except for a few, yet pivotal moments in my career, my experiences reflect a nation that goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure its fighting men and women have the supplies and equipment they need to function as effectively as possible.

As I reflect on the support provided during my military leadership journey, I’m left with these takeaways for today’s organizational leaders: 1) Make a point of ensuring the less obvious yet critical support requirements that your team needs to be effective are present, and 2) Constantly evaluate the supports you have in place to ensure they’re truly what’s needed to help your team accomplish its mission.

[1] Wageman, R. (2008). 2. In Senior leadership teams: What it takes to make them great (pp. 139-157). essay, Harvard Business School Press.

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