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Enhancing Teamwork

Are you satisfied with the teamwork you have experienced when you've worked closely with your colleagues or with others in or outside your organization? These articles focus on how to create and maintain cohesive, supportive teams.

Are You a Team Player?

It may seem like a contradiction, but you can view yourself as a team player and still impede your team's ability to function successfully. Consider one team that I observed during a problem-solving session. The group had about four hours to try to come up with a solution.

Moments after the group gathered, a personable, outgoing fellow volunteered to facilitate the group's effort; at that, he jumped up and positioned himself at the flipchart, marker in hand ready to take notes. This chap had previously told me with pride that he was a team player, and he truly saw himself as one. He wanted his team to succeed and was highly motivated to contribute to their shared effort.

But once at the flipchart, he did as much to obstruct the team effort as to support it: For example, he dismissed several ideas that differed from his own, and discounted some suggestions without trying to understand the reasoning behind them. He seemed unfazed when several people spoke simultaneously. As the effort proceeded, he failed to notice expressions of annoyance on the faces of some team members - or if he noticed, he did nothing about them.

This fellow's heart was in the right place. He was a team player. How could it be otherwise, given how strenuously he wanted the team to succeed. Yet from the way he worked, it was as if he'd been directed to see how many ways he could come up with to make the problem harder to solve than it actually was.

The same was true of other participants - team players all. For example, one participant stated that she was good at listening to many simultaneous speakers; then moments later, she misstated a key point one of them had just made. Another said he'd support any solution, as long as the session ended quickly. Then he continually inserted ideas that prolonged the discussion. None seemed aware of how their behavior was counteracting the very success they wanted the team to achieve. Under the pressure of time, they acted in a manner that ensured their effort would need more time rather than less.

Frayed nerves and ruffled feathers

As the team's energy level plummeted and their team spirit began to disintegrate, no one seemed to think it worthy of attention. Partway through the problem-solving session, I asked participants to describe their reactions to their team effort. Several said they were frustrated, impatient, or disappointed. Yet they said nothing until explicitly asked.

Did they solve the problem by their deadline? Yes, they did. But they could have solved it with fewer frayed nerves and ruffled feathers if they had build a foundation of respect and caring as their starting point. When time isn't spent up front in building a strong foundation for working together, even more time is inevitably needed to repair the foundation when it cracks. The mark of a successful team is not just that it achieves a successful outcome, but that team members enjoy working together and would be happy to continue doing so.

A team that destroys itself in the course of accomplishing its mission is no team at all. Even if everyone is a team player.

Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Forging Partnerships

A man started work at a new company, and without waiting for anyone to arrange it for him, he went to the technical support group and introduced himself. As a result, the members of the group came to know him before he had a specific need for their services, and they in turn had a chance to explain their services to him. Members of the group said this was the first time anyone had ever approached them like this.

It's clear that this fellow had the insight to recognize that smooth and effective relationships develop neither automatically nor instantaneously. He also appreciated that a relationship stands more chance of evolving smoothly if the first contact isn't in the form of "Gimme, gimme" or "I need it yesterday" or "Help! I'm stuck!!" His actions raise some questions that can be worth thinking about:

  • When a new manager joins your company, do you pay a visit to introduce yourself, describe your services, and seek ways you can be of assistance? Are you proactive in establishing a relationship that may serve both of you well later on?

  • When an employee moves into a management position, or a manager transfers from one department or business unit to another, do you stop by and suggest ways you might be able to help smooth that transition? Do you use the opportunity of this individual's new role to strengthen your existing relationship or to initiate a new relationship, if it's someone you don't yet know?

  • When you joined your company, did you visit some of the other departments to introduce yourself and learn a little about what they do? If not, can you do so the next time you move into a new position or move on to another company? And if so, can you do so now with departments you're not yet familiar with? Can you also take steps to develop a meeting of the minds with those in nearby boxes on your organization chart?

Forging partnerships is an active process that doesn't happen independently of someone paving the way. If you take the initiative to get to know those who may eventually have a bearing on how successful you are, and if you do so at a time that is unpressured by I-need-it-now demands, you'll build goodwill that can serve you well when you need it most.

The aforementioned individual who set a precedent by dropping in on the technical support group developed an excellent relationship with the members of that group. He quickly came to understand their issues, pressures and priorities. They, in turn, became eager to support him and to ensure that he didn't get lost in the shuffle of the million other demands on their time. Because he is easy-going and friendly, it's possible that a strong relationship would have developed even without his initial "How d'ya do." But it certainly didn't hurt.

Whether you're the new kid on the block or paying a call on the new kid on the block, what could be easier than dropping in to say hello?

Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Conducting a Temperature Reading

My spell-checker claims that "appreciations" isn't a word. My spell-checker is wrong. Appreciations are part of one of my favorite team-strengthening techniques called a Temperature Reading. This technique was created by Virginia Satir, a family therapist whose models and techniques have been found to have significant applicability in organizational settings. A Temperature Reading can help workgroups reduce tensions, strengthen connections, and surface information, ideas, and feelings that might otherwise be suppressed.

A Temperature Reading consists of five segments:
  1. Appreciations. During the frantic workday, members of a workgroup often overlook or ignore the positive things they've experienced or observed. In this first segment, everyone in the group who would like to can express an appreciation to one or more others in the group. An appreciation takes a specific form:

    "I appreciate you because ..." or "I appreciate you for ..."
    In other words, speak directly to the person ("I appreciate you"), rather than to the group about the person ("I appreciated when she . . ."). An appreciation can be for anything, whether large or small, and whether critical to the group's efforts or simply a kind gesture. Although you may initially feel awkward giving or receiving appreciations, over time you may be surprised at how satisfying it can feel both to give and to receive.

  2. New Information. Often, members of a group have information that other group members may be unaware of, may need to know, or would find interesting. Anyone with such information can offer it during this segment.

  3. Puzzles. In some work settings, admitting that you're confused is risky. The Puzzles segment provides a sanctioned opportunity to describe something you've found unclear, confusing or puzzling and would like explained. If it's a matter that others can clarify quickly during the Temperature Reading, they can do so. Otherwise, defer the clarification till afterwards.

  4. Complaints with Recommendations. Most workplaces suppress or discourage complaints. By contrast, this segment explicitly invites complaints. However, to keep the gathering from lapsing into a gripe session, the person voicing the complaint offers a recommendation for addressing the complaint or requests recommendations from the group: "My complaint is . . . Do any of you have a recommendation?" Pairing complaints with recommendations enables grievances to be surfaced in a constructive manner.

  5. Hopes and Wishes. In this final segment, group members who would like to can express a hope or wish pertinent to the group, its members, or issues of interest to the group.

Guidelines for running a Temperature Reading

  1. Have a facilitator lead the Temperature Reading. Any member of the group can serve in this role. In some organizations, the role of facilitator is rotated among group members, so that each can gain experience guiding the activity.

  2. Conduct the Temperature Reading in the sequence shown here. This sequence is deliberate. For example, Appreciations open the Temperature Reading in an upbeat manner, and Hopes and Wishes close it on a high note. New Information may resolve a confusion that might otherwise be a Puzzle.

  3. Spend as much time as the group would like on each of the 5 segments. A full Temperature Reading takes anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour or more, depending on the size of the group and its circumstances. If time doesn't permit a full Temperature Reading, focus on Appreciations and skip the rest.

  4. Aim to conduct a Temperature Reading regularly. Some groups devote a portion of every staff meeting to it. Others do it monthly. Some do it at the end of a project, as well as at key milestones during the project.

  5. Don't feel obligated to wait for a Temperature Reading to express an appreciation. Do it when you think of it. It can become a wonderful habit.

Copyright © 2003 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Taking Time to Talk

When your department runs into snags in working with other departments, how do you resolve the situation? Getting together to talk can help not only to rectify the current problem, but also to minimize future problems.

Consider, for example, the four departments whose customer support responsibilities required them to interact, but whose relationships with each other were tense and conflict-driven. Each department saw the other three as trouble-makers and helpless, hopeless hindrances. To reverse these perceptions and help them build harmonious relationships, the division head asked me to facilitate a meeting with the four departments. I had them divide into small groups, with each group comprising people from all four departments.

As they formed groups, I heard many introducing themselves to each other. Clearly, some members of the four departments had never even met — a situation I’ve found among many groups that are quick to find fault with each other.

I asked them to talk with their group-mates about a series of issues that revolved around the challenges their customers posed for them. After they discussed each issue in their small group, we gathered as a full group so they could report their insights and recommendations.

Once they started conversing, they realized how little they had understood about each others’ responsibilities and activities. In short order, they discovered that certain problems they had blamed each other for had valid explanations, such as ambiguous standards, unspoken expectations, and priorities each department had that the others were unaware of. Some of their problems, they discovered, could be readily resolved with a tweak or two. Even some of their larger problems had solutions that were far from insurmountable.

Their discussions of their shared needs and frustrations led them to a clear conclusion: In terms of their customer support responsibilities, they had a lot in common, and could accomplish more by collaborating than by fuming and finger-pointing.

To conclude our session, I asked them to discuss what they’d like to do next to improve their relationships. Foremost on their long list of possibilities they came up with was that they wanted to continue their conversations through regular gatherings. Other suggestions included spending time in each other’s areas as observers, creating a repository for capturing shared concerns, and committing to discuss rather than stifle frustrations that involved their interactions with each other.

This session was brief, yet most participants left with a more positive perception and a deeper understanding of the other three departments. Certainly, these initial discussions were just a starting point in smoothing the bumps in their relationship. Yet, they had accomplished a lot simply by taking the time to talk.

Might you and the groups you interact with benefit by doing the same?

Copyright © 2006 Karten Associates, www.nkarten.com

Karten Associates
Randolph, Mass., USA

Copyright © 2006 Karten Associates. All rights reserved.