Is “being nice” the key to teamwork?

“After years of intensive analysis, Google discovers the key to good teamwork is being nice.”

group-are you happy?

Snappy headline, but a major oversimplification. The brief article speaks of a number of factors, summarising the key factor as being “psychological safety”. I accept this is a key enabler however, in my experience, there is much more required for effective team working.

I recently completed a piece of work with a multidisciplinary top team. They were in real difficulty. Suspicion was rife, and individuals in the group were antagonistic towards each other. This was displayed by making assumptions about what was motivating their behaviour and being critical of each others performance and motivations. To say it was a pretty dysfunctional team was an understatement. Things were critical. Organisational performance was threatened.

group wade through mud up hill-The Gauntlet 2 - 2013 - Mud Pit - 0684

I was asked to work with them to see if I could enable them to get ‘unstuck’ and turn around their performance as a team. Not being one to shirk a challenge, I agreed.

I met them individually to explore their views on what was needed to develop a more positive team performance. After these meetings, I created an agenda for an off site away-day to begin to investigate what they could do to work more effectively as a team. I did a benchmark questionnaire using a simple eleven question framework which I have used many times.

That initial awayday was difficult, but cathartic. We had a follow up session a few months later, and I also did some one-to-one coaching with the Director of the team.

Before we met for the debrief to review progress, I asked each of the team to complete a similar questionnaire to the benchmark. The results were very impressive indeed. On all eleven questions (on a scale of 1-6), the team had improved, some by less than one point, others by between two and three points. Of course, this is a self assessment, so I was interested to see how the team was when we met with the Corporate director responsible for the team.

The meeting was very powerful. Apart from the step change improvement in the numbers, the atmosphere in the team was completely transformed. The Director in charge said: “We haven’t changed, we’ve just learned about each other. We know each others strengths and weaknesses and we work much better to our strengths.” She went on to give an example: “I’m very task driven, so I knew that if I went into that meeting, I would have lost the plot. However George (not his real name) has really strong empathy, so I asked him to lead this session and it really worked.” By taking time to reflect on progress, a number of other examples were shared of the improvement in the teams functioning.

Apart from the scores, and some of these great examples, what I noticed was the shift in the atmosphere in the team from that first, very tense meeting. Now there was fun and banter – gentle teasing of each other. Team members made space for each other, and listened to each contribution with respect.

When it came to the Corporate director to speak, she said that she had never, in all her experience in coaching and team development, seen such a transformational change in a team. She had also noticed this in her interactions with the team and how the team was addressing some of the challenges facing the organisation.

So what made this happen? The article is correct in that one of the key enablers was psychological safety. Individuals in the team had to feel safe, to speak their minds. To give feedback, even if only tentatively to begin with. It took courage. To risk, to share something of themselves with their colleagues. And at the same time to have compassion for other team members. Just giving feedback with courage can be very destructive. However, if one only has empathy or compassion, then no one speaks honestly to issues and no change is possible.

Another key factor was they had come to conclude that this could not go on. They had to take responsibility for their contribution to the toxic dynamic that had developed in the group, and to change how they related to each other.

That’s a lot more than just being nice.


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