In the agile, startup-infused culture of most workplaces today, it is increasingly likely for managers to find themselves responsible for new teams that have never worked together before. The members of the team may be entirely new to the organization, or they may have been brought together from other teams. They may have varying levels of familiarity with one another and with their manager. The manager may themselves have more or less experience in their role as a leader—if they happen to be a new manager responsible for a new team, the pressure is really on.
No matter what each team member’s background, the goal is the same: to get everyone working together in this new arrangement as effectively as possible, as soon as possible. There is a lot to consider. Who is everyone? What are their responsibilities? Who is working with whom? Who is reporting to whom? What will the general flow of work be like? What are the standard operating procedures for recurring responsibilities? What are the team’s priorities? What is the first goal? It can be difficult to know where to start, particularly when everyone is anxious to get the ball rolling, make their mark, and deliver some results.
The Four Common Stages of Team Building
Thankfully, a new team has no baggage. Nothing is broken. It is a clean slate, an opportunity for everyone to start things off right, refining and maintaining that system over time. That doesn’t mean the process will be without its complications. But the key is that these complications will be identified early—before anyone has had a chance to develop bad habits—and therefore resolved early.
Team building happens in four commonly accepted stages, first put forward by Dr. Bruce Tuckman:
1. Forming. The earliest stage when everyone is getting to know one another, the organization, and the work itself.
2. Storming. The stage when conflicts and complications are most likely to arise, as everyone is testing their new working relationships. This is the most crucial time for managers—without their guidance, the issues that arise now will become part of the team’s culture.
3. Norming. After initial conflicts have been worked through, the team begins to truly develop and become a cohesive unit. Upward spirals of performance that have been facilitated by the manager from day one start to gain momentum.
4. Performing. This is the ultimate ideal state of any high-performing team, where members manage the work and working relationships effectively day to day. Managers can now place more focus on helping team members grow and develop. But it is also imperative that managers continue to refine and adjust the team’s working dynamics as time goes on and changes occur.
Even when broken down into its component parts, building a new team is a daunting challenge. It requires rigor and discipline in order to get it right. If managers can avoid the pitfalls and commit to the process, some simple strategies will set up everyone for success from day one.
Team Building Pitfalls to Avoid
While the storming stage is where most managers fall short, the forming stage makes the difference between building a high-performing team in eight weeks or in eight months. This is the stage at which most teams engage in some form of “team building” exercise, usually with the goal of making everyone more comfortable with one another.
But too often, managers don’t have much of a team-building goal beyond this. Putting the team at ease is important for opening communication and establishing everyone’s commitment. But it fails to address the details or provide the structure necessary for a team to sustainably produce the best results.
Here are three primary team-building pitfalls to avoid.
1. The “hit the ground running” approach. This is usually an approach taken by new or inexperienced managers who have heard some form of the common “hire good people and get out of their way” wisdom. These managers offer little to no real team building, instead relying on the team to naturally figure things out in the process of working together. It’s a tempting choice, particularly in organizations with a reputation for hiring superstar talent. Often, managers see it as a shortcut for establishing trust and giving team members ownership over their roles and responsibilities. But the biggest issue with this approach is that, even with the most superstar talent, people will inevitably go off in their own directions without any coordination or alignment.
2. Forming bonds by focusing on the personal. This is another shortcut usually promoted as some kind of “engagement” measure—the thinking goes that if employees have a friend at work, they will be happier, or more productive, or generally easier to work with. The team may be encouraged to go to lunch together, get drinks after work, or go jogging on the weekends. Bonds indeed may form around hobbies, interests, or experiences. But when coworkers form bonds that are primarily personal, it usually becomes more difficult to address the work, especially when problems arise.
3. Nonwork team-building activities or exercises. Forms of nonwork team-building exercises abound, from building houses to relay races to the classic trust fall. These are usually, at best, ice-breaking distractions. Team members may leave feeling invigorated, inspired, or at least with a better understanding of whom they will be working with. But these activities rarely provide much context for how employees will really be working together day to day, or even the particular culture and values of the organization. Why delay? What is most important for everyone to focus on at the outset is how to engage in the work together. What they really need to know is what their relationships with their coworkers are like in the context of the real work they will be doing together.
So what are the goals of good team building? Beyond relieving anxieties and making the team more comfortable with one another, what should managers aim to achieve in the critical forming stage?
The best initial team building should establish the norms and procedures of working together; set expectations for communication, feedback, and accountability; and set the manager’s tone as the leader. Having a “Who I Am at Work” meeting is a great way to achieve all three.
Day One: The “Who I Am at Work” Meeting
What everyone on the team wants to figure out on day one, and what most find awkward and unfamiliar, is whom they will be working with and how they will work together. If left to their own devices, people will facilitate these conversations on their own, of course. But these conversations are so much more effective when they are facilitated by the team’s manager.
Holding a “Who I Am at Work” meeting on day one is a great way for managers to get their teams thinking about how to best work together. But, like with all meetings, it requires some amount of preparation in order to be effective. Self-assessments, whether formal or informal, are usually a good starting point. The only requirement of the self-assessment used is that it provides insight into an individual’s working styles or preferences. Simpler is typically better. And of course, data is most useful if everyone on the team uses the same self-assessment.
Once self-assessments have been completed, a good Who I Am at Work meeting includes three components:
1. The resume-style introduction. Everyone must introduce themselves—with a focus on the work. Managers should encourage each team member to make their introduction as though they are submitting a job application and resume. This includes the basic information such as who they are and their role in the new team. But it also should include some past work history, past accomplishments and achievements, skills and strengths, and the working style and preferences identified in their self-assessments. It also doesn’t hurt to ask team members to consider what their professional goals are or what commitments they would like to make to the rest of the team as part of this introduction.
2. Identify what will help you work better together, before you’ve even begun. In a new group, it’s common for people to either hide or minimize their shortcomings. Everyone wants to make the best possible first impression. But this results in a lot of unnecessary friction down the line once people really start working together. Of course, they should present their best selves. But it’s important to be authentic and honest. Don’t allow the team to set itself up for broken promises or unmet expectations. Instead, managers should ask everyone (yes, including themselves) to speak up about what will help others work better with them. Some people might work better with written checklists. Some prefer everything summarized in an email. Some might rather collaborate on an app. Whatever it is, get it out in the open now.
3. Identify what you don’t yet know that will make the team stronger. The primary mission of this first meeting is intelligence gathering, to find out as much as possible about every person on the team and make a smart working plan based on that information. Ironically, this process will reveal a whole lot about what the team doesn’t yet know about working together. Don’t simply rely on hypotheses and speculation. Managers should identify what those unknowns are, in concrete terms, as information to be tracked down and adjusted for in subsequent team-building meetings. What doesn’t the team know that they need to know in order to make a smarter work plan?
After Day One: Defining Roles and Responsibilities
Early on, managers need to clarify individual roles and responsibilities for every single member of the team. Of course, these roles will be more or less preestablished by title and position. But it is the manager’s responsibility to leverage the strengths of each person on the team and identify where roles or relationships are not working.
Yet again, this is a process that will be substantially more effective if the manager does their due diligence ahead of time. They should gather as much information as possible on each member of the team before day one: resumes, letters of recommendation, project reviews, and examples of past work product. Ideally, the manager will review a robust paper trail for each team member in advance of managing them.
Whether or not this type of paper trail is available, any team-building effort will fail if it is not supported by routine, ongoing, one-on-one conversations between the manager and direct reports. One-on-ones are where managers get to know their team members best, where they can provide individualized guidance and support, and where upward spirals of performance are created. High-structure, high-substance one-on-ones are a manager’s secret weapon, especially when it comes to new teams.
There’s no reason to wait to start having those one-on-ones. Immediately after the first team meeting—the Who I Am at Work Meeting—is often the best time. This allows the manager an opportunity to establish how they will work with each team member right from the start.
These are the questions that managers should addressed with direct reports during those first one-on-ones:
- What is your role on the team?
- Whom will you be working most closely with?
- What information do I need from you, as your manager?
- What information do you need from me, as your manager, in order to do your best work?
- What resources or support do you need to succeed in your role?
- How often should we meet? (It is advised that managers meet one-on-one with each person at least once every two weeks.)
- How long should our meetings be? (The sweet spot for most one-on-ones is between ten and fifteen minutes.)
- What unanswered questions will help us work better together?
After meeting with every person one-on-one, the manager should know whom they are dealing with and exactly what human capital assets they have to work with. At this stage, it may seem wise to leaders to back off a little and see what unfolds. However, this typically backfires. Following the intensity and structure of the first day or week, the change in dynamic may be confusing at best, or appear to have been a meaningless exercise at worst. It is important that a new manager set the tone of their leadership style and maintain it.
By about the third or fourth team meeting, there needs to be a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities. It should be 100 percent clear what role each person is going to play. Who owns which tasks, responsibilities, and projects or project components? Who is expected to do what, and exactly how, where, and when? Armed with the information gathered in the first team meeting and every subsequent one-on-one, the manager will be in a much stronger position to make these decisions and justify them.
Team Building Is an Ongoing Process
No matter how well a team is set up for success, it is important to remember that team building is an ongoing process. Every new project, task, or responsibility presents another opportunity for the team and the team’s working relationships to adjust and restructure. It is up to the manager to maintain that ongoing process.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that team building can only occur in team meetings. Some managers may come to believe, over time, that the work is too complex and interconnected to be discussed one-on-one. So they forego the process in favor of team meetings. But the biggest problem with this approach is that it is too easy for individuals to hide in a team setting. Problems, and the potential solutions, go unnoticed under the radar for weeks or months at a time, until it is too late. Being a highly connected team does not mean there is no place for those one-on-one conversations.
Managers should keep in mind what team meetings are best for—communicating information that is relevant to every single member of the team—and try to call them only in those circumstances. A manager may find that, over time, circumstances have changed so much that another Who I Am at Work meeting is necessary. Revisiting that conversation can be helpful, even when the same team members have been working together for a long time.
But the manager must never forget that ongoing one-on-ones are where all the action is. That is where they spell out expectations, follow up, provide feedback, troubleshoot, keep score, and correct course when necessary. But it is also where they are able to learn more about their team members, their goals, their strengths and skills, and how those strengths and skills might compliment someone else’s. Things change over time and people change over time. In order to account for these changes, managers cannot let one-on-ones fall by the wayside.
Managers must continue asking:
- Who needs to be managed more closely?
- Who needs more responsibility and autonomy?
- Who needs help navigating the complex, ever-changing workplace?
- Who needs help with the fundamentals of self-management?
- Who needs performance coaching?
- Who is likely to improve, and who is not?
- Who should be developed and invested in?
- Who are your best people?
- Who are your real performance problems?
- Who deserves special accommodations and rewards?