Teamwork + Pressure: 5 Factors That Help Teams Win

Unexpected emergencies. Family obligations. Diverse work styles. Competing needs. Context changes. Emerging requests.  And of course, the usually over-packed schedule which normally doesn't allow for rest time, or catching up with loved ones. These were just some of the realities and challenges my colleagues and I faced as we worked together to create a learning experience for a group of leaders on the ground in South Asia. And what was the headline? We were a damn good team!

So what makes the difference in these situations?

Many of the clients I've worked with over the years face similar issues and challenges in that they lead or are members of a team who are working under immense pressure. Let’s face it, no team is perfect all of the time. With that said, there are some teams that seem to stay in a rut, particularly when under pressure, while there are other teams that seem to survive and even thrive. With nearly twenty years of experience working with leadership and change, and my recent experience in South Asia, I have identified five key factors that make the difference between teams that work well under pressure, and those that falter. Below are what I have discovered to be the 5 Factors for Effective Team Working Under Pressure:

1. Be relentlessly clear on purpose and outcome

Some of the key questions at the beginning and throughout our team effort were versions of 'what is the purpose’ and 'what are we aiming to achieve together?’ Being clear about purpose and outcomes makes it much easier to respond to the unexpected. As needed, we adjusted the how, when, and specific 'what' in relation to the emerging need while continuing to move toward achieving our goal. When the destination and 'why we want to get there' is clear and agreed to, team members are free to make adjustments and can navigate the terrain including refocusing when paths go astray.

2. Clarify contribution upfront and throughout

Almost no one wants to be the person sitting on the bench while the team is going for the win. Taking time to define and agree what each team member will contribute upfront allows for individual and team-assisted preparation. It is also useful to have periodic real-time check-ins to quickly evaluate whether the joint effort is meeting the purpose and outcomes. When everyone in the team collectively knows what’s working and what’s not, everyone becomes poised to build upon successes and adjust when there are set backs.

3. Give support and challenge to each other

Bringing out the best attributes of the whole team requires two things: each person brings their talent in service of the team’s goals and the rest of the team helps that person to do their best work. It is essential to proactively support colleagues so they have the resources needed to do good work. In addition, challenging colleagues to keep focused on purpose and outcomes, as well, to stretch and receive help when needed, fortifies the whole team. Teams that are too supportive of one another tend to lapse into conflict avoidance; they often fail to surface and deal with risks, and can experience ‘groupthink’ where consensus is prized and critical evaluation and debate are minimized. On the other hand, teams that challenge each other too much can leave team members feeling defensive and cautious. In our South Asia experience, our ability and willingness to offer support and challenge to each other helped us achieve our goal, which resulted in feelings of personal and collective satisfaction and accomplishment.

4. Keep connected and communicate

The benefits of formal team actions like group meetings, status updates, and group lunches, etc. are apparent to most of us. It’s the real-time, often informal connecting and communicating that can catapult a team from good to great. In the context of working with others, non-verbal actions like occasional eye contact and hand signals (e.g. waving), short walking conversations to share information and give support & challenge, and team members reaching out / stepping in real-time to fill unexpected gaps are all examples of useful informal communication and connecting. Such activity builds on the joint effort to maintain a collaborative and thriving team. In addition to short ‘huddles’ where we would spend a few minutes discussing observations and emerging needs, we identified a person to be the primary ‘orchestrator.’ This person was our quarterback of the day - ensuring the plays and players flowed. They made sure we were communicating, we were aligned on time and task, and all of us were making contributions that helped us to achieve our outcome.

5. Do team reviews to identify learning and confirm / adjust the forward plan

Putting together an initial plan is easy for most teams. However, having the discipline to review in order to learn and then adjust the plan as needed is more difficult, and happens much less. Having a formal time and a simple process for a team review helps to keep it focused. Reflecting on what happened, evaluating what worked and didn’t in relation to the goal and in terms of how the team worked together, and then deciding what and how the team will adjust the plan (or not). Rather than simply following the planned agenda, allowing oneself to be open to learning from insights gleaned from disciplined reviews sets the stage for the team to re-calibrate and align to better achieve the results they are aiming for.

The simple reality is that teamwork takes effort. As an expert in leadership and organization development that has consulted with countless of teams and as someone who has worked on great and not-so-great teams alike, I know that working with others can be hard. This can be the case especially when the road gets bumpy, and or when colleagues get tired and are feeling less patient. I find that following these practices - as one team - leads to great success and satisfaction.

Kendra Coleman, Consultant
Sheppard Moscow, Chicago
April 2017
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