The term ‘leadership’ is what we call an umbrella term that covers a wide range of concepts with no singular definitive definition, yet we can all agree that, as the saying goes, “if you’re leading a team and nobody is following you, you’re just taking a walk”. Our success as leaders ultimately relies on the success of our team. If the team fails, we fail too.
The past 15 months have seen a lot of teams transform overnight from co-located teams, constantly rubbing shoulders in open-plan offices, to remote teams, with team members working from their makeshift ‘home office’ and communicating solely over digital media at specific points in time during the day or week.
Throughout this period, as team leaders, we have taken it upon ourselves to ensure that we compensate for this physical distancing by scheduling regular one-to-one, online meetings with the individual members of our team. We check in on them regularly, see how they are doing, what they need from us. We also scheduled online team meetings with the entire team to keep everyone abreast of what is going on. Yet, as they return to the workplace, many are noticing that what was once a team is now simply a group of individuals. The team is suddenly unrecognisable. What went wrong?
It is easy for us to think that just because we have been ‘in touch’ regularly with the team members, that we have maintained the cohesive nature of our team. What has been missing over the past 15 months is not so much the formal, planned communication with their team leader (as individuals or as a group) but the informal interaction with each other. As a result, we have become the sole focus of the team in terms of accountability.
As Patrick Lencioni identified in his highly influential book The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, highly effective teams are those that develop mutual accountability where the team members do not hesitate to confront one another about performance and behavioural concerns. This occurs when the distaste of letting the team down is greater than the fear of punishment or rebuke from the team leader. Clearly, this was much easier to do when we were stepping on each other’s toes at the office; it is nigh on impossible when we are out of sight of each other.
As we return to our offices (or a hybrid system of some sort), the challenge for leaders is far from over. This is the start of our next challenge; a re-start if you like, where our teams go back to what Bruce Tuckman refers to as the ‘forming stage’. This is where we need to reinvest our efforts in re-forming our teams by blocking significant chunks of our time and dedicating it to rebuilding the connections among our team members.
This might sound disheartening to leaders who have meticulously tended their teams to reach the stage of high-performing, cohesive teams. The development of a team is, however, typically cyclical not linear in nature, and just like our populations are now better prepared to face the inevitable next wave of the pandemic, so too can our teams use this opportunity to evolve into even stronger, more resilient teams than ever before.
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