By the 1980s, we had learned to recognise that a group with a boss who told individuals to shut up and do what they are told is not a team. It is a work group. While a team may have someone that the people on the project governance board regard as its leader, from the inside their role is more egalitarian. Or should be.
Professor Amy C. Edmondson’s research over the past twenty years has hammered home the point that high-performing teams create provide high levels of psychological safety for their members. Team members learn that they are expected to share ideas, feelings and hunches; ask questions and reach out for help; raise issues and point out mistakes; admit mistakes and learn from them; and give and receive constructive feedback. In this context the competent leader is the approachable listener who models behaviours that enable everyone to learn and grow in ways that are aligned with creating value for their external stakeholders; and in the best teams most or all of the members behave in those ways.
These kinds of teams can manage the inherent risks of diversity and leverage individual differences to create ways forward that none of the individual members could have created on their own. The individuals take significant personal and professional development with them when they move on.
In work groups with low levels of psychological safety, paradoxes occur. For example, hospital wards with very low or nil rates of reported errors in administering medications can have very high rates of patient death and morbidity from errors in administering medications. At the centre of this paradox we may encounter a boss person who complains how hard it is to get good help. These kinds work groups not only work against the interests of their customers, they degrade the confidence, competence and motivation of the members who don’t move on.
Prof Edmondson has recently suggested that the comforting construct of a stable, bounded team with a well-understood, enduring task is, in our era, looking increasingly like nostalgia for a simpler world.
She’s documented the emergence of more open, dynamic work systems that display ‘teaming’ behaviours across organisational boundaries, professional disciplines and cultural differences. We’re seeing APS leaders who get this, and are working to create teaming cultures in their organisations that can collaborate in nimble ways and reach across boundaries for help. Digital transformation looks like a learning and development opportunity from this perspective.
WHH has been walking the talk about finding ways to get the best out of diverse sets of people in complex projects for decades. Whether you’d like a coach at the margin of a team, a consultant to help you create a team-of-teams architecture across boundaries, or someone who can bring a package of skills as a managed resource to fill gaps in your in-house capabilities. you’ll find we’re a capable partner.