Understanding the art and science of teams is vital to creating results for sustainability leaders. In today’s complex world, there are no simple answers – solutions to our most pressing problems aren’t offered in 140 characters. Instead, it takes teams of people to rise to a challenge, resolve issues and execute on strategy.

Think about the work you do today: how much of your time is spent in team meetings, gathering teams and motivating teams? Sustainability leaders often work with groups from diverse areas of their organization to create and execute programs that will meet enterprise-level goals. Thus, these leaders need to be able to quickly and efficiently create effective teams to build consensus and get results.

Are Two Heads Better Than One?

We all know the adage “two heads are better than one.”  If that’s true, then why do we see teams of really smart people make really dumb decisions? Or why do we sit through painful meetings where no one speaks up, raises difficult issues or solves any real problems?  The process begins to feel like a merry-go-round – we believe we’re making progress as the horse rises up but are then frustrated when we realize we just go around in circles and never get ahead.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, authors Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie discuss research illustrating the two main reasons why teams go awry.

The first is incorrect informational signals: people generally learn from each other but may pick up on the wrong signals within a group. Instead of correcting the group error, it becomes amplified – if enough people in the group are doing the wrong thing or have the wrong information, then others in the group will work off those assumptions, believing that they must be right because everyone supports it (a little like groupthink).

The second reason is reputational pressures, meaning that people will silence themselves or change their opinion to avoid some social penalty (real or imagined).

I’d like to discuss the second reason in more detail, because as a behaviorist, I believe that if you can solve for team behavior, then you can correct the first reason in turn.

What Happens In Teams

Most of the time, a team will come together and jump right to the problem at hand. There is some result, decision or discussion that needs to happen and the team immediately starts working on the problem.

Here’s the issue with this approach: only a few members of the team will actually contribute to the conversation, no one will stop and re-set the expectations for how the team is going to operate more collaboratively, and the group bulldozes forward to quickly wrap up the meeting.

As a recent New York Times article states, two characteristics of “smart teams” are team members who contribute equally to the discussion and are very adept at reading complex emotional states of other team members.

When a team lacks these characteristics, the result is silence and silos. Team members stay silent in an effort to avoid showing weakness, or they feel uncomfortable voicing their true thoughts and feelings because of possible repercussion. Silos then result because each team member is unwilling to give up their ‘turf’. Because they don’t understand the collective good of the team objectives, individuals instead avoid the loss of what they already have because they don’t realize what can be gained.

How to Create Powerful Teams

Exceptional leaders know that before they do anything else, they need to start first and foremost by building the collective EQ, or emotional intelligence, of the team. They build a good base of trust, from which anything can be freely discussed, everyone is expected to contribute, and established team roles are developed.

Trust has a dramatic effect on the EQ of a team. When trust is high, members pick up on the emotional cues from others in the group. They can sense when someone is uncomfortable, holding back or really excited about an idea. Using those cues, they collectively ensure everyone has a chance to be heard.

One of the most effective ways to build trust within a team is by enabling team members to feel more comfortable when being vulnerable with each other. They should feel secure about showing their weaknesses, making mistakes and sharing their fears. Individuals need to understand each other in a way that allows them to appreciate the unique contributions each team member brings.

One way to achieve this is by engaging the team in a behavioral profiling exercise. Using a personal assessment tool like DiSC, MBTI or others allows team members to explore each other’s personal working style, discuss differences in neutral language and understand the priorities and strengths of each individual.

This exercise can also help establish roles in team behaviors by uncovering who is naturally inclined to give authentic dissent; who has a knack for ensuring everyone is heard; and who will be willing to throw out an insane idea to get the group thinking about something different. As a leader, it’s your job to know the team well and leverage the strengths of the individual members in effective ways.

An Abundance of Perspectives Creates Holistic Solutions

Once a team is completely open with each other, they are no longer afraid to engage in passionate debate in order to get to the best solutions. At Paladino, we describe this as ‘debating the idea, not the person.’ Our abundance thinking approach tells us that the best solutions come from differing points of views and perspectives. We play to the strengths of our teams by actively engaging in conflict and not hesitating to challenge or question each other. We know we’re all trying to do the best thing. We look for and listen to emotional cues and then ensure everyone is contributing to the discussion.

For sustainability leaders who are working with people with varied backgrounds and conflicting priorities, appreciating and allowing for these different perspectives is critical to making lasting organizational change through team work.

Once the foundations of trust and actively engaging in healthy conflict are set, committing to agree upon actions, holding each other accountable and achieving results within a team will naturally follow.

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Julie Honeywell is Vice President of Talent Management at Paladino and Company.

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