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  • Writer's pictureDr Kiran Chitta

High performance teams are not like families


It is common for us to hear from clients that the people in their organization are 'family' or their business is like family - 'our XYZ <insert company name> family' being a common use of language. This makes sense in some ways, and not in others.

For many, the word 'family' implies love. It may imply mutual sacrifice. It may imply respect for elders - or not - depending on the culture. It may imply duty. It may imply fun. It may imply tradition, patriarchy and engrained hierarchies. Or for many modern families it might imply entirely the opposite. In short, 'family' implies all kinds of things which are entirely dependent on one's own experience, on one's cultural context, and several other factors.

What is more normal is that family life is supportive, beautiful and enriching at times if one is fortunate, while also being deeply complex, sometimes fraught at other times. For some people - again one hopes in a minority of cases and again hugely dependent on context - family life can be horrible, even catastrophic to their mental and physical health. Families can be very troubled, and troubling in their behaviour. They are often paradoxical and full of subconscious 'dynamics' - the study of which has given rise to the entire field of psychoanalysis for one thing. In this sense, they do have a fair bit in common with organizations. However, that is not usually what people mean when they say 'we are like family' about their workplace.

So it seems strange that the idea that people at work are like family is used sometimes as a badge of honour, even in a slightly disingenuous way. High performance teams pursue common goals in productive and creative ways, in service of a shared purpose. They are built on a foundation of trust, accountability, mutual respect, timely performance feedback, honest dialogue, and a track record of hard choices. People who are unable to meet the required technical or behavioural standards tend not to last in their roles. Some families - especially successful multi-generational family businesses - might well be capable of meeting this standard and have worked very hard at it. Even so, my hypothesis is that only a tiny minority of families are consistently like high performance teams.

Some organizations in certain cultures or sectors might unconsciously treat 'the bosses' like stereotypical father or mother figures. This can create problems for all parties concerned. A senior leader of European origin in a large global business operation's in a South East Asian country once shared in a programme I was running, that the people who worked in South East Asia, which he had led, were like children. He believed that he had to be directive, authoritative and paternalistic to earn their trust and respect, to ensure they performed well. At the time this struck me as an overtly colonial attitude, and a very unhealthy trap for all concerned. His comment started a challenging but essential conversation.

In most instances, when building high performance teams at work, we are in certain respects looking to incorporate some of the positive aspects of healthy and functional family life, such as care for each other's wellbeing. We might also regard a healthy attitude to authority as a prerequisite for success in high performance teams. At the same time we are stopping the more corrosive and damaging aspects of an unhealthy and dysfunctional family's life, such as dominant, over-bearing pseudo-parental behaviour (from managers), or internal competitiveness (which might emulate sibling rivalries). At work, most people benefit from mature and open adult relationships, in which people respect each other, and they respect each other's roles, not parent-child-sibling psychological games.

Ultimately, high performance teams exist to get really hard stuff done. High performance teams - like high performing individuals - are goal-focused in general and solution focused when there are obstacles. They are not too internally focused. 'Family traditions' matter less than results, especially in teams striving to be agile and innovative.

There may be some routines or rituals built up over time which work teams consider sacred, and are non-negotiable, because they carry deep symbolism. But they only survive because they are conducive to an outcome oriented work climate and pursuit of excellence. If a team tradition, routine or ritual became unproductive, such as a fixed weekly or daily meeting at a certain time, or a certain way of sharing information, a high performance team would surface this source of dysfunction, and change it.

High performance teams that work in agile ways have four key attributes: shared aspiration even if immediate tactics or even strategic priorities can sometimes be up for debate; emotional alignment (even when they disagree about solutions); a collective need to accelerate progress towards goals, not slow it down; and, ways of ensuring achievement of desired outcomes for the benefit of their customer.

In this sense, all teams can aim to be high performing, and exhibit agility in the way they work. Some (and I stress the word 'some') individuals who might not be 'rated' or judged high performing as individuals, might find that they up their own game in a high performance working environment. In teams, the whole is other than the sum of its parts, after all. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things if they work together in the right ways. An optimal mix of interests, talents and capabilities for the challenge at hand, coupled with decent line management and strong collaboration can make all the difference.

The benefits for individuals and organizations of building high performance teams and creating organizational mechanisms to reinforce high performance are clear: speed to market for new product; rapid service improvements and responses to service failures; customer centricity; pride and satisfaction at work. The benefits for individuals and businesses are very clear to those who are in a high performance team at work.

As ever, the first step is to ensure that all line managers of teams are aware of their own accountability for building high performance teams. It is their job to create a psychologically healthy working environment in which people do their best work. There are also many systemic factors such as rewards, cultural reinforcers, recognition programmes, healthy organizational structures, adequate resources and operational tools. However, without line managers who are aware of what it takes to build high performance teams, and monitoring their own approach to this, all the other mechanisms can very easily be wasted.

So, maybe let's spend less time in teams, as some families do, engaging in social rituals that may be comforting, even fun, but might also help us sweep the most difficult issues under the carpet. Let's start with deepening managerial accountability for team climate and awareness of team dynamics. Then it is possible also to identify all the ways in which high performance teams can be supported, and enabled by the structures and systems which promote high performance culture.




For HR practitioners, managers, business leaders, and intact teams

Targeted business outcomes: better retention of talent, greater efficiency, speed, learning and innovation; faster, less bureaucratic decision-making processes.

-        Clarify a team's mission, purpose, goals, and desired ways of working.

-        Meet operational demands while also driving transformation.

-        Build agile teams without needing to adopt strict 'Agile' methods - the heart of

change-ready, innovative, agile organizations.

-        Make optimal use of hierarchy to work creatively, and flexibility with adequate risk



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