– The basis for thriving, delivering and growing together –
Written by Pascal Kruijsifix and Stephen B. Carman PhD.
When you are part of a team, you quickly determine whether this team experience will be a good one or a strained one. Even as you read this, a recent team experience is probably flooding your mind as you reflect on the positive energy and are still in awe of what was produced. Or, maybe what comes to mind for you is the opposite experience. One that still pains you to recall the tension and difficulty that was generated from the team, and not much more. Too often we take for granted that the team dynamics are the way they are and we do not understand what can be done to change it, other than removing yourself, or another team member from the team.
Understanding team space
Strained relationships and inadequate interactions are often reasons why many teams underdeliver, underperform or prematurely have to say goodbye to team members. Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith describe what they call the Team Effectiveness Model (TEM) in their book, The Wisdom of Teams (1993). In their TEM model, teams pursue collective work products, performance results, and personal growth. Team members pursue these things simultaneously through their individual commitment, skills, and accountability. Patrick Lencioni adds to the body of team effectiveness in his work, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002). This is a helpful way to identify why a team may not perform to its potential. It’s not hard to understand that teams that experience an absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, or inattention to results will not deliver the experience or results that team members or organizations desire. Lencioni’s later work, The Ideal Team Player (2016) adds to the body of knowledge around teams when he describes what he calls three virtues team members must possess to be an “ideal team player,” including, humility, hunger, and smart (meaning people smarts).
What if there was a way that you could influence the team dynamic, experience, and results without necessarily exchanging one team member for another? What if you had a way to change your behaviour or influence the behaviour change in other team members to improve the experience as well as the results? We believe the elements of Human Fluency® can provide you with the levers you can use to do just that.
As a corporate anthropologist may say: look for what is happening between people and in their context in order to understand how a team (tribe) is being effective, happy and thriving, or not. It’s in the daily behaviour and interaction between members where it is determined how they relate to each other and their context, what they value and how they work together. In other words, the fluency of how a team interacts and behaves.
Frankly, it would not be realistic to expect that a team can be fluent all the time. Like with personal health you cannot be top fit your entire life even though many commercials make you believe you can. You inevitably encounter times of sickness and adversity that impacts your physical and mental fitness. The same counts for teams. What makes the difference, however, is how a team keep investing in its fluency, and creates ways to deal with the unavoidable more ‘unhealthy’ and challenging times. So keep eating apples and exercise.
Therefore, let’s have a closer look at how teams can invest in their human fluency. But first, let’s clarify what fluency of human interaction means.
Human Fluency – what is it
The Human Fluency model stands on the broad shoulders of a vast body of publicly available research, experience and knowledge related to communication, interpersonal skills and leadership. The Human Fluency lens offers a slightly different way of looking specifically at human interaction, helping people to practically examine and approach their own conversations with fresh eyes.
People who are humanly fluent bring a high level of DEPTH to the relationship and interaction, enabling them to truly connect with, relate to, understand and influence others. They possess the ability to DISCERN what is happening and what is required in the human interaction, its context and the situation in which it unfolds. They are highly DISCIPLINED in the interactional skills and behaviors required to elevate conversations to a higher level of meaning, connectedness and effectiveness.
Team Fluency – what is it
Human Fluency for Teams offers an additional lens to help increase or maintain your team’s effectiveness. It may help you ensure your team has all the attributes in place, in addition to aspects such as having the right members, the right tools, processes and resources, and (sufficiently) clear direction and objectives.
Teams that are humanly fluent have a culture where the attributes described above for individuals (depth, discernment, and discipline) are the norm. They tend to perform at high levels of effectiveness as a result of using those attributes. These teams are comprised of people, including their formal and informal leaders, who are able to purposefully organize, design, conduct and facilitate a range of recurring conversations necessary to use, nurture and develop human potential. Teams interacting in this way deliver their intended results and ultimately fulfil their purpose.
More specifically, humanly fluent teams actively own and manage their landscape of conversations. They purposefully invest in team culture, open & trusting relationships, and quality of their interactions. They care for each other and create a psychologically safe environment (Amy Edmonson, 1999) with little to no tolerance for behaviors that erode that care or safety. They are skilled in conversations with each other, have agreed processes for decision making, handling conflict and effective dialogue. They have an astute sense of discernment, individually and collectively, that enables them to adapt and address fluency issues before they become real problems.
Team Fluency – how we measure up
So, how does my team invest in its fluency? First, apply the Human Fluency model to understand your team’s strengths and opportunities. This does not necessarily require an extensive evaluation. What matters is that you are able to identify those aspects that have the greatest impact on the team’s fluency, and get aligned on what needs to happen to improve. Often it may not even be a surprise what these aspects are, but now you can address them as they are on the table for everyone to see. You can use the Human Fluency quick self-scan available to do this, below are some sample questions to consider:
Regarding your team’s Depth:
What is the state of our team relationships? Do we rate them to be transactional or personal?
How do we demonstrate respect to each other?
Do we interact on the basis “we are all equal, yet different” from who we are and what we bring?
Regarding your team’s Discernment:
Are we aware of which modes of interaction are most appropriate and effective for our team?
Are we aware of the interpersonal dynamics that may prevent our team from reaching our goals?
To what extent do we make adjustments to changing team needs, energy, or results?
Regarding your team’s Discipline
Does our team give full attention during the interaction without being distracted or discouraged when things get tough?
Does our team intentionally influence the energy to facilitate optimal interaction?
When conflicts arise, are we able to keep interaction flowing constructively and stay with the tension until it is resolved?
Become conversational landscapers
Next, purposefully create or reinforce patterns of interaction that will allow your team to thrive, grow and achieve your goals. You can do this by shaping your conversational landscape. This is a practical way to visualise the interactions your team needs to be effective and thriving. Start by identifying your needs (why do we need to talk?), and then see what recurring conversations/meetings will sustainably address these needs.
Examples of conversational needs:
- Creating, sharing and updating your purpose, vision, strategy
- Shaping and preserving your team culture
- Running operations, making tactical decisions, planning, obtaining commercial results
- Personal and team development, coaching, talent management
- Building and
maintaining relationships, offer care and support, nurture resilience
Be specific about what needs your team has, and be sure to address them in your conversational landscape. More than often we see teams leaving crucial conversational needs ignored and neglected because immediate needs fill up all their time. And that leads to issues over time.
Your conversational landscape typically includes:
- Conversations/meetings within the team
- Conversations/meetings your team has with other teams, departments, and internal stakeholders within your organisation.
- Conversations with parties outside of your organisation, such as suppliers, partners, customers, external stakeholders.
Fluent teams take care of their entire conversational landscape because their effectiveness depends on it. Hence, look at putting in place recurring conversations inside the team, outside the team and with parties outside your organisation.
Meeting rituals – do they serve your needs or rather hinder you?
Whenever you are part of a team for a longer period of time, you notice that your team usually follows a certain ritual when it comes to (virtually) meeting together. This ritual has a set frequency, a standard agenda and elicits recurring dynamics between team members. Tip: have a look through David Kantor’s ‘four-player model’ lens in his work Reading the Room (2012). Usually a new member on the team can easily point out these aspects, and what is good and less good about them.
Meeting rituals serve a purpose and are important in creating a so-called rhythm or heartbeat of team life. They should however be reviewed periodically, to avoid them becoming hindering artefacts that nobody appreciates anymore. Recently, COVID-19 has dramatically shaken up meeting rituals of teams all over the world and new ones had to be formed. Checking if your meeting rituals still serve your needs is good practice, because before you know it, they may dictate your work schedule with diminishing value or exist even at the detriment of team morale in extreme cases.
Fluent teams build their conversational capability
The ability of a team to fluently interact with each other requires continuous investment. You may say that this investment is required at two levels: 1) each team member, and 2) as a team.
Each team member can invest in raising his/her ability to interact with others. What sometimes is said: ‘One person can dramatically raise the quality of a conversation even if others in that conversation cannot.’ Therefore, invest in becoming more fluent as an individual as it will help the team in becoming more conversationally capable too. For example, growing one’s skills of attentive listening, asking high quality questions, checking for assumptions and expressing one’s perspectives and feelings in a way that others can (at least) understand them, are fundamental conversational skills that most of us have not yet mastered fully, if at all.
Teams can also grow together in how they interact. By agreeing team practices on how to work together and what optimal interaction looks like, a team paves the way to consciously growing these together. For example, if a team agrees to having everyone’s voice is heard at all times it can, consequently, more easily self-correct when this is not happening. Another powerful avenue that fluent teams have paved into their conversational repertoire is the ‘meta-conversation’ or ‘habit of zooming in & out’. In essence this means that any team member, at any time, can call for a time-out. When this happens, the conversation at hand is stopped and instead the team reflects on what is happening in the team and the conversation it is having. For example, a team member shares the observation (or maybe even frustration) that some voices are not heard. This observation is followed by a (often short) analysis of the team on why this is happening and what they should do differently going forward. This habit can both happen ad-hoc as well as planned (i.e. the last 5 minutes of every meeting) so that it becomes the team’s second nature.
Other examples of how teams increase their fluency are learning together on how to handle conflict together, or learning to apply practical conversational methods or processes. A simple, tested and tried method that has helped many teams is the ‘team check-in’. Recently, because of COVID-19, many teams have discovered this simple method of bringing more attention for the human side to virtual meetings. But also think about methods of having strategy review sessions together, or negotiation preparation meetings using a specific process.
Fluency is a constant process, not a final destination
Let’s face it, teams can be energizing and can generate ideas, results and growth that far outpace what can be done by individuals. Teams can also be frustrating and draining. Human Fluency for teams provides a way for team members to improve the experience, enjoyment and results of their teams. In the end it benefits the individual, team, and organization.