30+ Practical Ways to Help Your Team Improve

Think back to the best team experience you ever had.  Why do you remember it fondly?  Was it because you completed the deliverables on time?  Or because you felt a sense of purpose and camaraderie with those you were working with?  What did you, your teammates, or team leaders do to make it a successful experience? 

As practitioners, we may only have a vague sense of what works and what doesn't on teams. Given the importance of teams to successful implementation, my aim in this series is to help you sharpen your understanding of teamwork and specific ways you can foster it in the teams you work with.  In Part One,  I outlined the difference between teamwork and taskwork, and introduced nine things to consider when thinking about teamwork, based on a research summary produced by Eduardo Salas and colleagues. (The nine are: Cooperation, Communication, Coordination, Conflict, Cognition, Coaching, Composition, Context, and Culture).   It's important to understand what these nine things are, what they are not, and how they can help you understand the big picture of teamwork. I cover all of that in the first article.  If you haven't already done so, I encourage you to review it.  It's a quick read. 

In Part Two, this post, I offer more than 30 practical things you can do to help your team improve, based on research related to each of the nine areas introduced in the first part of these series.  It's important to remember that research offers us guidance, and sometimes just an informed suggestion, but no guarantees for success. Figuring out what's best for your team and situation usually requires the integration of research with your experience and knowledge. Finally, this list of actions is not exhaustive or definitive.  I suggest thinking of it as a starting point, not an ending point, for your explorations into ways to improve teamwork. With that in mind, let's get started!

COOPERATION 

As an implementer, I like how Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman of BGC describe cooperation:  “...directly taking into account the needs of others in creating a joint group output” (2014). ( My article on the role of the integrator in implementation is based, in part, on that idea.)  Researchers often refer to cooperation as the attitudes and beliefs that motivate people to work together. When people believe in the importance of teamwork, trust in one another, are committed to their team's goals and confident in their ability to achieve them, they seem to work better together (Salas, 2014).  What does better mean? Specifically, they ”exert more effort, take more strategic risks, perform better and are more satisfied" (Salas, 2014).

While some team members may come to the team with a natural desire to work collaboratively, there are a number of specific actions that may improve cooperation on your team, such as:  

  • Discuss past experiences as a team. This can familiarize team members with the abilities of their colleagues (Salas, 2014).  People tend to evaluate one another’s trustworthiness based in part on an assessment of competence (Mayer, 1995).  (In addition, we tend to evaluate benevolence and integrity.) 
  • Structure work to provide the opportunity for early wins to build the team's confidence in their collective ability (Tasa, 2007), and;
  • Remain non-defensive and welcoming of questions and challenges to help foster a "safe environment" (Edmonson, 1999). 

COORDINATION

When team members depend on others to complete their work, coordination helps them to avoid downtime or rework, e.g., ensuring that when Joyce needs something from Bob, it is ready for her and vice versa.  (More technically, coordination refers to "orchestrating the sequence and timing of interdependent actions" (Marks, 2001).)  Research indicates that coordination is associated with team performance, particularly for knowledge work (Stewart, 2006). Lack of coordination has been associated with increased errors and misunderstandings on teams (Salas, 2014).  

So, how do you support better coordination on your team? 

Teams that establish clear routines, and roles and responsibilities often have better coordination. This may be because routines and clear roles help the team save time and energy — everyone already knows what to do and who is going to do it (Gersick, 1990). However, when routines or roles are too strict, they can inhibit the team from adapting to changing circumstances or addressing flagging performance. It's a good idea to allow some flexibility to allow the team to adapt, as well as to adopt a practice of regular team debriefs to identify required changes (Salas, 2014).   For more on how to conduct a debrief to improve team performance, check out my article on the topic here

COMMUNICATION

If you've ever had a "Who's on First" experience on your team, you know that failed communication is a lot less humorous when it's happening to you, than when it's being performed by Abbott and Costello. As evidenced by the rising emotions in the comedy routine, communication relates to both information sharing among team members, as well as the influence that information has on the team (Salas, 2014).  It's also important to remember that communication can be both explicit (a conversation) and implicit (non-verbal cues).

Teams, by definition, are made up of multiple individuals, all of whom may possess unique experiences, skills or information.  For that reason, teams may have an advantage over a solitary worker, if they communicate effectively.  However, a meta-analysis of 65 studies on teamwork, found that although communication is a “clear driver of team performance,” colocated teams tend NOT to share the unique information that would benefit them most (Mesmer-Magnus, 2009). (Perhaps this is because they assume that everyone else already knows what they know.)  Conversely, virtual teams have been found to mostly share unique information.  As a result, virtual teams can lose the social context that may help to support team cohesion and better understanding (Mesmer- Magnus, 2011).    

To promote effective information sharing, actions such as structuring conversations (Mesmer-Magnus, 2009), confirming receipt of messages (Salas, 2014) and influencing the types of information shared, can be helpful. In particular, colocated teams may benefit from encouragement to share their specialized skills and experiences (Mesmer-Magnus, 2009). To help virtual teams develop a shared social context, (associated with cohesion and trust), researchers suggest that managers  "ought to create opportunities for teams to meet in-person periodically and provide access to a variety of virtual tools," e.g., video-conferencing in addition to email (Mesmer-Magnus, 2011).  

CONFLICT

"Can't we all just get along?"  When it comes to teamwork, sometimes the answer is "No." (Sometimes it's, "NO!!!")  Conflict happens when a person feels her views or interests are incompatible with those of others. Researchers often segregate team conflict into several categories, including relationship, task and process conflict. Understanding the difference between them is worthwhile because different types of conflict have been found to have different relationships with team performance (deWit, 2012): 

  • Relationship conflict: Tension between individuals due to interpersonal issues. 
  • Task conflict:  Differences of opinion about the “content and outcomes of the task being performed.”
  • Process conflict:  Disagreements on how work is carried out, such as “the delegation of tasks and responsibilities.”

On one hand, conflict may disrupt the factors that help the team to function.  Conflict can break up a sense of team cohesion, reducing team members' willingness to unite around team goals (Tekleab, 2009). It can inhibit trust, increase stress and decrease satisfaction of team members (de Wit, 2012), in addition to distracting the team from the work at hand. However, at least some research on conflict and teams indicates that conflict may not always be a bad thing.  While most research indicates that relationship and process conflict are detrimental to team performance (Salas, 2014; de Wit, 2012), some have found that task conflict can benefit team performance, if relationship conflict is low — meaning, if teammates get along well as people, disagreeing about the objectives of their efforts may be helpful  (de Wit, 2012; Salas, 2014, Tekleab, 2009).  

As the research reflects, conflict is complicated stuff!  That alone can tempt us to ignore it or wish it away.   However, research indicates that enduring conflict can be harmful to the team (Salas, 2014). So, doing nothing is probably not the best strategy.  In fact, teams that set explicit norms about how they will discuss and resolve conflict, and put them into practice, have been found to enjoy improved team cohesion (Tekleab, 2009) and an increased ability to “create healthy, open and constructive environments the enhance team performance” (Salas, 2014).  Conflict management strategies include things such as,  “communication, problem-solving, dealing with emotion, and understanding [your own and other’s] positions and perspectives (Behfar, 2008).  Lastly, because conflict can be so tricky, don't be shy about asking for help, such as training or specialized assistance from your HR department.

COACHING (LEADERSHIP)

Coaching, which refers to what we may more commonly think of as leadership, is about setting goals and a vision for the team and providing support to help the team achieve those aims.  More simply put: "At its most basic level, 'team' leadership is about what the leader or leaders do to facilitate team performance" (Burke, 2006).  

Team leaders, who may be in formal or informal leadership roles, are well positioned to help the team develop the processes and norms aligned with team success, as well as to identify and troubleshoot challenges (Salas, 2014).  Research indicates that the actions leaders take do make a difference in team effectiveness and productivity (Burke, 2006).  Also of note, a meta-analysis on leaders and teams found that passive leadership (waiting to act until something is wrong) is negatively related to leadership effectiveness. The authors of that study suggest that when put in a leadership position, you should “proactively assume [your] leadership responsibilities,” noting their findings suggest that “even engaging in suboptimal leadership behaviors is better than inaction” (Derue, 2011). 

There is a vast body of research on leadership and teams from which we can draw practical insights. In this article, I focus on the work of Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman, which outlines five conditions a leader can aim to establish for her team (2004). The five conditions are: 

  • Create a real team.  This means a team that has clear boundaries (you know who is on it), whose members are dependent on one another to complete work, and which has some degree of stability of membership. 
  • Articulate a compelling direction, which should be “challenging, clear and consequential.”  For more tips on how to set goals to improve performance, see my post on the topic here.  
  • Establish an enabling structure.  This includes ensuring tasks are meaningful, allowing teams autonomy to complete their work and providing feedback on progress.  Establishing norms for team behavior and processes, and selection of team members is also involved.  
  • Provide supports/resources to the team, beyond what's minimally needed to complete the effort. Specifically, the researchers suggest creating a "reward system" that reinforces exceptional team performance, an "information system" that provides the team with needed information, and an "educational system," which offers opportunities for sharpening or learning new and relevant skills.  (The authors note providing these supports is not always easy to do! )
  • Be a coach, particularly at the team’s inception, at the midpoint or during periods of transition/change, and at the end. Specifically, leaders can aim to help the team and team members to maximize effort (coordination, motivation), try new ways of working, and share their unique skills to benefit the team.  

COGNITION (SHARED KNOWLEDGE)

If you've experienced a sense of "mind meld" with your teammates, finishing their sentences or thoughts, then you have some understanding of what cognition is about.  For those who haven't, cognition refers to the shared understanding or shared knowledge on the team about things such as: “roles and responsibilities; team mission, objectives, and norms; the situation within which the team is operating; and familiarity with teammate knowledge, skills and abilities” (Salas, 2014).  Cognition has been linked to team performance, as well as communication, coordination and team norms (Salas, 2014). In fact, authors of a 2010 meta-analysis on the subject wrote:  “Cognition positively and meaningfully impacts team performance regardless of how performance is tracked and how cognition is conceptualized” (Dechurch, 2010).  

Practically speaking, researchers have found that expert teams, which have developed an accurate, shared way of viewing their work, their environment and one another, can often “coordinate their behavior without the need to communicate.” (Dechurch, 2010).  If you are thinking, “Cool! How do I make that happen?” — research doesn’t offer a lot of guidance.  Salas and colleagues note:  “...less is known about the development of team cognition because of the difficulty in studying the phenomena.”   

Research has found that team longevity, diversity of skills, training and leadership behavior are all associated with cognition (Dechurch, 2010).  For instance, researchers have observed that teams that train together tend to perform better than teams whose members are trained individually (Dechurch, 2010; Hollenbeck, 2004).  Some methods of facilitated debriefing, such as “self-correction,” where teams are responsible for identifying and solving problems on their own, have been associated with the development of more accurate shared mental models on the team (Salas, 2014).  Cross-training (learning tasks usually performed by other team members) has been related to greater team performance when there is a high workload (e.g., when teams need to work quickly) (Canon-Bowers, 1998) and for tasks that are not too complex (Salas, 2014).  Finally, some experiments have indicated that when leaders provide higher quality information in briefings, (e.g.,  information on risks, opportunities, and priorities)  teams develop more accurate, shared mental models and are better able to adapt them to changing circumstances (Marks, 2000). 

COMPOSITION

Composition is about who's on the team and what they bring to the table, specifically related to their individual characteristics, such as knowledge, skills, attitudes, and diversity.  The central message from research seems to be that when creating a team you should thoughtfully consider attributes of team members beyond their technical abilities or availability (Salas, 2014).  

Some things to consider include personality (e.g.,  conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, emotional stability and openness to experience), orientation towards teamwork, diversity (experiences and backgrounds), position and status, and competence (knowledge, skills and abilities) (Mathieu, 2008).  

In terms of the ideal mix for your team, there is no recipe for that.  However, research indicates that team leaders should select individuals who like to work on a team (Bell, 2007).  Such individuals “will be more likely to work toward the greater good of the team and to contribute to the effectiveness of...coordination and communication” (Salas, 2014).   Some research suggests aiming to choose individuals with a variety of knowledge, skills and abilities, but more similar values and beliefs (Harrison, 2002).  This research indicates that time may affect the influence of diversity on the team.  It suggests that the influence on team performance of "visible factors", (e.g., age, gender and race), tends to decrease over time, but “deep-level factors” such as beliefs, tend to become more influential as times goes on (Harrison, 2002).  

CONTEXT

If you took a high-performing medical team from a hospital in New York City and sent them to work in Haiti after the recent hurricane, do you think their performance would be impacted by their new circumstances?  Probably!? Research indicates that environmental and situational factors such as the degree of uncertainty, available resources, level of autonomy, as well as one's physical working environment, are all related to team performance (Salas, 2014).  The supportiveness of policies and practices related to teamwork in the organization (or lack thereof) have also been found to influence teamwork (Salas, 2014).  (Have you ever tried team-based work in an organization that prized and rewarded individual achievement?  Not easy!)  Context can pose challenges to a team, because it is outside of the team's control and sometimes even beyond the influence of team leaders.  Under such circumstances, what can you do?  

Here are some possibilities to consider. 

  • Adjust standard practices or expectations in light of changing circumstances (Salas, 2014). For example, in times of crisis, bi-weekly meetings may need to be adjusted to weekly meetings or daily check-ins.  For small, short-term projects, organizational project management standards may be relaxed to an appropriate minimum.
  • Leverage norms and processes for stability.  You may not control the world around the team, but you and the team can control what happens within it.  Emphasizing existing knowledge, routines or norms may provide a degree of predictability that allows the team to continue making progress despite external instability. In their work on the leadership of teams, Hackman and Wagemen refer to this as “elaborating the shell” of the team (Hackman, 2004).   (Of course, you’ll want to make sure you and the team are not clinging to familiarity to avoid necessary changes.) 
  • Aim to influence.   If organizational policies, a lack of resources, or unclear directives from leadership constrain your team, that’s not likely to change quickly.  Again we can draw from the work of Hackman and Wagemen (2004), who suggest that team leaders prepare themselves to advocate by identifying specifically what changes are needed and developing necessary political skills. They also recommend developing patience…change is often a long-term play. (You may also be interested in my article on the role of patience and persistence in implementation.)

CULTURE

Culture can be considered the “driving force” behind team members’ norms, values, beliefs, and assumptions (Salas, 2014).  Whether you view culture narrowly, as associated with one’s country of origin, gender, or race, or more broadly to include differences in views that arise from education or professional affiliations, you probably have experienced culture’s influence on your team. Researchers have identified relationships between culture and many aspects of teamwork, including communication preferences (directive vs. indirect) preferred leadership style (strong vs. collaborative), decision-making practices (data-driven vs. relationship-driven), among other things (Behar, 2006).  Some research indicates cultural influences may be more strongly related to some factors (emotions) than others (job performance) as well as matter more in “tight” cultures (e.g., Pakistan, Singapore) versus “loose” cultures (e.g., United States, Hungary) (Taras, 2010).

In their work on multicultural teams, Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behar, and Mary Kern identify methods used by diverse teams to overcome challenges presented by cultural differences.  They include strategies taken by team members themselves, (e.g., adaptation, which involves acknowledging and working around differences) and by managers, (creating sub-groups, unilateral decision-making, setting team norms, or leveraging higher-level leadership.)  The authors suggest that adaptation may be the most advantageous strategy, because with this method the team solves its own problems and learns through the process of doing so (Brett, 2006). 

Other research suggests leaders can work with the team to create a "hybrid culture", choosing appropriate norms, values and expectations through interaction with one another (Salas, 2014). Additionally, leaders can help teams bridge cultural differences by setting overarching goals around which the team can unify (Mannix, 2005; Pinto, 1993), as well as establishing norms to provide space for minority viewpoints to be expressed and considered (Mannix, 2005).

BRING IT ALL TOGETHER

As you set out to make a great team, keep in mind that the nine factors highlighted in this series are interconnected.  They exert influence on one another in a dynamic way.  So, it’s important to think of them as a comprehensive whole, rather than a hierarchy or an ordered process where you do X, then Y, then Z to get an optimal result.  At the end of the day, I've found that developing and supporting teams is a bit of an organic, even messy, endeavor.  However, to help organize your approach, Salas and colleagues encourage practitioners to consider using the team lifecycle.  Identify actions you might take during start up, as the team is in the throes of its efforts, and as it is winding down (2014).  

Finally, it's worth repeating — research indicates proactive team leadership matters. If you feel your team can or needs to improve, even if you are not in a formal leadership position, do something to contribute to its betterment.  You've now got at least 30 ways to get started!

 

REFERENCES

If you are interested in going deeper into any of the research that informed this paper, you are in luck! I was pleasantly surprised that most of the research used is available for free download. See links below (for articles that are not available for free, I provide a link to the abstract.)

Behfar, Kristin, Mary Kern, and Jeanne Brett. "Managing Challenges in Multicultural Teams." Research on Managing Groups and Teams National Culture and Groups (2006): 233-62. Web.  Read the article here.

Behfar, Kristin J., Randall S. Peterson, Elizabeth A. Mannix, and William M. K. Trochim. "The Critical Role of Conflict Resolution in Teams: A Close Look at the Links between Conflict Type, Conflict Management Strategies, and Team Outcomes." Journal of Applied Psychology 93.1 (2008): 170-88. Web.  Read the article here.

Bell, Suzanne T. "Deep-level Composition Variables as Predictors of Team Performance: A Meta-analysis." Journal of Applied Psychology 92.3 (2007): 595-615. Web.  Read the the article here. 

Brett, Jeanne, Kristin Behar, and Mary Kearn. "Managing Multicultural Teams." Harvard Business Review Nov. 2006: 84-91. Print.  Read the article here.

Burke, C. Shawn, Kevin C. Stagl, Cameron Klein, Gerald F. Goodwin, Eduardo Salas, and Stanley M. Halpin. "What Type of Leadership Behaviors Are Functional in Teams? A Meta-analysis." The Leadership Quarterly 17.3 (2006): 288-307. Web.  Read the article here. 

Cannon-Bowers, Janis A., Eduardo Salas, Elizabeth Blickensderfer, and Clint A. Bowers. "The Impact of Cross-Training and Workload on Team Functioning: A Replication and Extension of Initial Findings." Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 40.1 (1998): 92-101. Web.  Read the abstract here

Dechurch, Leslie A., and Jessica R. Mesmer-Magnus. "The Cognitive Underpinnings of Effective Teamwork: A Meta-analysis." Journal of Applied Psychology 95.1 (2010): 32-53. Web.  Read the article here. 

 Derue, D. Scott, Jennifer D. Nahrgang, Ned Wellman, and Stephen E. Humphrey. "Trait And Behavioral Theories Of Leadership: An Integration And Meta-Analytic Test Of Their Relative Validity." Personnel Psychology 64.1 (2011): 7-52. Web.  Web.  Read the article here

Edmondson, Amy. "Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams." Administrative Science Quarterly 44.2 (1999): 350. Web.  Read the article here.

Edmondson, Amy C., and Diana Mclain Smith. "Too Hot To Handle? How to Manage Relationship Conflict." California Management Review 49.1 (2006): 6-31. Web.  Read the article here

Gersick, Connie J. G.  and J. Richard Hackman. "Habitual Routines in Task-performing Groups." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 47.1 (1990): 65-97. Web.  Read the abstract here.

Hackman, J. Richard, and Ruth Wageman. "When And How Team Leaders Matter." Research in Organizational Behavior 26 (2004): 37-74. Web.  Read the article here. 

Harrison, D. A., K. H. Price, J. H. Gavin, and A. T. Florey. "Time, Teams, And Task Performance: Changing Effects Of Surface- And Deep-Level Diversity On Group Functioning." Academy of Management Journal 45.5 (2002): 1029-045. Web.  Read the article here

Hollenbeck, John R., D. Scott Derue, and Rick Guzzo. "Bridging the Gap between I/O Research and HR Practice: Improving Team Composition, Team Training, and Team Task Design." Human Resource Management 43.4 (2004): 353-66. Web.  Read the article here

Mannix, E., and M. A. Neale. "What Differences Make a Difference?: The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations." Psychological Science in the Public Interest 6.2 (2005): 31-55. Web. Read the article here.

Marks, Michelle A., Stephen J. Zaccaro, and John E. Mathieu. "Performance Implications of Leader Briefings and Team-interaction Training for Team Adaptation to Novel Environments." Journal of Applied Psychology 85.6 (2000): 971-86. Web.  Read the article here. 

Marks, Michelle A., John E. Mathieu, and Stephen J. Zaccaro. "A Temporally Based Framework and Taxonomy of Team Processes." The Academy of Management Review 26.3 (2001): 356. Web.  Read the abstract here.

Mathieu, J., M. T. Maynard, T. Rapp, and L. Gilson. "Team Effectiveness 1997-2007: A Review of Recent Advancements and a Glimpse Into the Future." Journal of Management 34.3 (2008): 410-76. Web.  Read the article here

Mayer, R. C., J. H. Davis, and F. D. Schoorman. “An Integrative Model Of Organizational Trust.” Academy of Management Review 20.3 (1995): 709-34. Web. Read the article here.

Mesmer-Magnus, Jessica R., and Leslie A. Dechurch. "Information Sharing and Team Performance: A Meta-analysis." Journal of Applied Psychology 94.2 (2009): 535-46. Web.  Read the article here

Mesmer-Magnus, Jessica R., Leslie A. Dechurch, Miliani Jimenez-Rodriguez, Jessica Wildman, and Marissa Shuffler. "A Meta-analytic Investigation of Virtuality and Information Sharing in Teams." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 115.2 (2011): 214-25. Web.  Read the article here. 

Morieux, Yves, and Peter Tollman. Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review, 2014. Print.  Find the book in your local library!

Pinto, Mary Beth, Jeffrey K. Pinto, and John E. Prescott. "Antecedents and Consequences of Project Team Cross-Functional Cooperation." Management Science 39.10 (1993): 1281-297. Web.  Read the article here. 

Rosen, Michael A., Wendy L. Bedwell, Jessica L. Wildman, Barbara A. Fritzsche, Eduardo Salas, and C. Shawn Burke. "Managing Adaptive Performance in Teams: Guiding Principles and Behavioral Markers for Measurement." Human Resource Management Review 21.2 (2011): 107-22. Web.  Read the article here

Salas, Eduardo, Marissa L. Shuffler, Amanda L. Thayer, Wendy L. Bedwell, and Elizabeth H. Lazzara. "Understanding and Improving Teamwork in Organizations: A Scientifically Based Practical Guide." Human Resource Management 54.4 (2014): 599-622. Web.   Find the article here.

Stewart, G. L. "A Meta-Analytic Review of Relationships Between Team Design Features and Team Performance." Journal of Management 32.1 (2006): 29-55. Web. Read the abstract here.

Tasa, Kevin, Simon Taggar, and Gerard H. Seijts. "The Development of Collective Efficacy in Teams: A Multilevel and Longitudinal Perspective." Journal of Applied Psychology 92.1 (2007): 17-27. Web. Read the abstract here.

Taras, Vas, Bradley L. Kirkman, and Piers Steel. "Examining the Impact of Culture's Consequences: A Three-decade, Multilevel, Meta-analytic Review of Hofstede's Cultural Value Dimensions." Journal of Applied Psychology 95.3 (2010): 405-39. Web.  Read the article here.