[ Theoretical Background ]
Benchmarks of Team Excellence
Developed by Jesse Stoner, Ed.D.
Teams Are Everywhere (and They’re Not Going Away)
According to a study reported by Training Magazine (October, 1995), 78% of employees in US organizations are members of a working group identified as a “team.” Work groups are so pervasive, nearly anyone who has worked in an organization has been part of a team (Hackman, 1991). Jon Katzenbach (1993) explains this phenomena: “In any situation requiring the real-time combination of multiple skills, experiences, and judgments, a team inevitably gets better results than a collection of individuals operating within confined job roles and responsibilities.”
Teams are the platform for many complex change efforts such as the quality movement, reengineering, work redesign, and “flattening” organizations. The pressures for profitability and results have forced many people to move out of their “silos” and to work in cross-functional teams. The increasing complicated demands for quality, service, and speed make teams an attractive alternative to the idea that one person has all the answers and can do it alone.
As our world becomes more complex, the need for teams will continue to grow. And, because teams are so essential, we must understand the characteristics of effective teams so we can recognize them and support their development.
Definition of Team
It is important to start with a definition of the term “team” in order to distinguish between a team and a collection of individuals. Also, defining “team” creates a common understanding of what we are talking about as we examine the characteristics of effective and excellent teams.
A team is: a group of people who are committed to a common purpose, whose interdependence requires coordinated effort, and who hold themselves mutually accountable.
Characteristics of Effective Teams
In early studies of teams, researchers such as Douglas McGregor (1960), Rensis Likert (1961), and others developed long lists of characteristics of effective teams. These lists generally included effective team processes (such as shared leadership, open and clear communications, conflict resolution, supporting norms, clear decision-making), a positive atmosphere, and clear goals and assignments. They reported that these characteristics correlated with higher levels of individual and team satisfaction.
R. B. Lacoursiere (1980) reported his findings of two key interdependent variables for team effectiveness: productivity and satisfaction. This research is supported by subsequent studies such as Ancona and Caldwell’s (1991) findings that “smooth internal team functioning without meeting organizational objectives is as costly as a team that meets its objectives but results in all key members leaving due to their [negative] experiences on the team.”
Beyond Productivity and Satisfaction; Beyond Effectiveness
In the early 1980s, public interest turned toward teams that were more than effective — teams that produced spectacular results and had team members that were excited, even passionate, about being a member. These teams and organizations achieved wide-scale recognition with the publication of Tom Peters’ In Search of Excellence in 1984. Today, the terms “excellence” and “high-performance teams” are universal and the focus of intense interest. Books on this topic continue to flourish on bestseller lists.
Those who have studied excellent, high-performance teams say these teams are rare. According to Katzenbach and Smith (1993), “teams occasionally emerge that outperform all reasonable expectations as well as all other similarly situated teams. These high-performance teams surprise even themselves.” It is important to identify the distinguishing characteristics (or indicators) of excellent teams so that we can learn how to nurture their development. With this knowledge we can create excellent teams, not just wait for “magic” to make them happen. Benchmarks of Team Excellence identifies and measures these distinguishing characteristics so you can start the process of creating excellence in your organization.
What Makes an Excellent Team?
The ability to sustain outstanding results over time is the most obvious characteristic of an excellent team. In fact, team members are strongly focused on results. According to Schaffer and Thomson (1992), they are “results-driven.” These teams and organizations are constantly seeking to improve their results (Collins and Porras, 1994). For these teams “good enough never is.” Team members don’t sit back and take a rest. Instead, they constantly strive for improvement and better performance.
Another important characteristic is alignment around a common purpose. Kiefer and Stroh (1984) describe excellent or high-performing organizations as ones where all members are aligned around a powerful, unifying vision. They assert that these organizations are capable of inspired performance and have attained the highest levels in both organizational performance and in human satisfaction. An aligned organization “operates with a conviction that it can shape its own destiny.” They state that the unifying principle of these high-performing organizations is that “individuals aligned around an appropriate vision can have an extraordinary influence in the world.”
However, alignment alone does not produce excellent teams. To sustain outstanding results over time, team members must gain something for themselves and grow as a result of their membership, both as a team and as individuals. According to Richard Hackman (1991), the criteria for team effectiveness includes productive output, enhanced capability of members to work together in the future, and fostering the growth and well-being of members.
Another characteristic of excellent teams is the emotional experience of the team members themselves. Alignment around a shared vision is only powerful to the extent that it elicits an emotional response throughout the organization. Katzenbach and Smith (1993) distinguish between “real” teams, which function well, and “high-performance teams,” which significantly outperform all other teams and outperform all reasonable expectations. In describing the characteristics of these teams, they state “every high-performance team member we met described their teams as special and their experiences as having participated ‘in something bigger and better than myself’... [the teams] created an aura of excitement and focus that sustained the growth of new capabilities and openness to change... [team members] are deeply committed to one another’s personal growth and success.” They care about each other, as well as the goals of the team.
Other researchers and authors who have studied high-performance teams, excellence, and learning organizations (e.g., Peters, 1988 and Wick, 1993) use strong emotional descriptors in their writings. These descriptors include: positive, energized, high aspirations, high level of trust, noble purpose, feeling empowered to function according to their purpose, intense commitment to one another and to their mutual cause, a sense of fun.
The interplay of all of these characteristics can be summarized as follows:
When a team understands its purpose and shares a commitment to that purpose, amazing things begin to happen, almost magically. A tremendous amount of energy becomes suddenly available. People experience deep fulfillment as they achieve results that are really important to them. The team becomes a partnership; each person offers something important and contributes in his or her own way. Members see themselves as part of a larger whole. They see they are not so different from each other and thus enjoy a more comfortable relationship with each other. Team members are all quite clear about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it relates to their values. Because they consciously share the same goals, each member can meet those goals in his or her own way, without fearing what others think. Leaders need to do less managing because team members manage themselves and each other.
Knowing that they share a common purpose and values, team members naturally trust and support each other. Because of this level of trust, there is more room for expression of differences. When conflict arises, it is addressed directly instead of hidden. People can differ without fear of erupting into damaging personality conflicts or being ridiculed and excluded. There is a higher level of commitment because team members are conscious that the purpose of the team resonates with their individual needs, dreams, hopes, and values (Stoner and Zigarmi, 1993).
From this research into the characteristics of excellent teams, we have identified six specific indicators of high-performance teams and organizations (Stoner, 1988):
- Alignment — a deep sense of vision or purpose that is shared among team members.
- Team Effectiveness — strong internal processes that allow coordinated efforts, such as shared values, trust, open communication, flexibility, and decision making.
- Empowerment — feeling empowered to do what is necessary; personal and collective power.
- Passion — high and sustained levels of energy, enthusiasm, excitement, and confidence.
- Commitment — deep commitment to the purpose of the team and to each other.
- Results — accomplishing outstanding results based on high standards.
Descriptions of the Six Indicators
The Alignment indicator measures to what degree all members are moving in the same direction. In excellent organizations, team members see themselves as moving in the same direction, toward the realization of a common purpose or vision. Personal and team goals are related to the purpose of the team and organization. Members are clear about what their goals and job responsibilities are. There is a strong and clear connection between all activities and the purpose of the team or organization. The following diagrams illustrate how powerfully alignment affects a team or organization.
- The first diagram illustrates a team member whose individual purpose is aligned with the team’s purpose.
- The second diagram illustrates two team members who do not share a common vision. This type of situation often is perceived as a “personality conflict” between the two members. When this happens, problem-solving efforts focus on resolving the conflict at a micro-level — that is, focusing on personal relationships. However, people can have personality conflicts and work quite well together when they share a common purpose.
- The third diagram illustrates a typical team — individuals generally heading in the same direction, with the exception of a few people who are heading “off into the woods.”
- The next diagram illustrates what happens when individuals in a typical, unaligned team are empowered. The problem here is that individuals can impact the organization more powerfully as they move in different directions.
- The last diagram illustrates a highly aligned team or organization.
*These diagrams are reprinted with permission from the article “A New Paradigm for Developing Organizations” by Charles Kiefer and Peter Stroh, Transforming Work, 1984, Miles River Press.
The following items in the assessment measure Alignment:
- Item 1 There is a common mission/sense of purpose for this team.
- Item 7 I can clearly describe the major purpose of this team.
- Item 13 I am clear about the goals and priorities for this team.
- Item 19 People in this team are committed to a common mission or purpose.
- Item 25 Goals and priorities are related to the mission of this team.
- Item 31 I am clear about how my job responsibilities relate to the mission of this team.
The Team Effectiveness indicator focuses on whether the team possesses the characteristics of effective team functioning (i.e., how well members of the team work together). Excellent teams demonstrate strong internal processes that promote coordinated effort. Team members demonstrate complementary skills in three categories: technical or functional expertise, problem-solving and decision-making skills; and interpersonal skills, such as open communication (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993). Leadership is assumed by various members in response to obstacles and opportunities as they arise (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993). Another essential process that enables coordinated effort is flexibility and the ability to anticipate and adapt to change (Carew, Parisi-Carew, Stoner, & Blanchard, 1984).
Coordinating action is also made possible when team members’ individual values are clearly aligned with their individual goals and also with the values and goals of other team members. Typically in teams and organizations, members are not clear that their individual values and beliefs are part of their goals. Goals tend to be expressions of unstated beliefs. When team goals are not obviously related to individual members’ values and beliefs, team members feel fragmented and uncertain of their team’s purpose. Team members must first articulate a shared vision that reflects their values and beliefs. Then they can set goals that are clearly connected to both the vision and their individual values and beliefs. When team members’ individual values and goals are in sync, a deep level of trust develops throughout the team. With trusting relationships, team members can more openly and easily share ideas and reactions, which enhances communication and coordinated efforts. They also begin to experience team cohesiveness and a sense of community. Team members recognize each others’ contributions and take pride in the work of each member and the group as a whole.
The following items in the assessment measure Team Effectiveness:
- Item 2 There is a feeling of cohesiveness/sense of community here.
- Item 8 There is a high degree of confidence and trust among members of this team.
- Item 14 My values and the values of this team are very similar.
- Item 20 People’s goals in this team are compatible.
- Item 26 People in this team take pride and satisfaction in their work.
- Item 32 People in this team coordinate their efforts when necessary.
The Empowerment indicator measures to what degree team members experience a sense of personal and collective power to do what is necessary. When alignment exists, empowerment is essential for the success of the organization (Senge, 1990). Empowerment is defined as “recognizing and releasing into the organization the power that people already have in their wealth of useful knowledge and internal motivation” (Randolph, 1995).
The excellent companies described by Tom Peters (1984) encourage autonomy and entrepreneurship. These organizations have a climate that encourages practical risk-taking and recognizes that mistakes are an unavoidable part of the creative process. However, according to Randolph (1995), “Empowerment does not mean abandonment. Giving people permission to do something differently is not helpful if they are unable to do it.” To feel truly empowered, people must feel that they have the ability to develop needed skills and that the resources needed to accomplish the task will be available. They also need to know what is expected of them and to feel that they have the ability to meet those expectations.
Feelings of empowerment positively reinforce the strong, positive emotions of commitment and excitement. Extensive research has demonstrated that the more members feel empowered, the greater the organizational effectiveness and the greater the member satisfaction will be (Kouzes and Posner, 1987). Empowerment positively affects the quality of the work and the morale of members.
Members of excellent teams and organizations describe feeling empowered and having a sense of personal and collective power. They feel in control of their own destinies and in charge of determining what they need to do to get the work done (Kiefer and Senge, 1984). The organization recognizes that the team knows what needs to be done and how to do it, thereby empowering the team to act freely on its own accord and to do what it believes is correct and necessary.
The following items in the assessment measure Empowerment:
- Item 3 In order to meet job-related expectations, I have to do things that seem wrong to me.
- Item 9 People in this team give up when the work becomes frustrating.
- Item 15 I feel powerless here.
- Item 21 Morale is rather low here.
- Item 27 I have the freedom I need to use my own judgment.
- Item 33 I am confused about what people expect me to do in my job.
The Passion indicator measures the presence of a “passion for excellence.” Members of excellent teams and organizations describe strong feelings of excitement about the work they are doing and the way members work together. They have strong feelings of accomplishment, inspired performance, and team pride. They are excited about the possibilities for great achievements and are optimistic about the future.
Members of excellent teams feel inspired and able to perform at levels they never before imagined possible. They experience confidence in themselves and in the ability of their team to overcome obstacles. Jerry Neely, former CEO, described this level of excitement at Smith International, “The employees were willing to take a chance because they felt part of something magic and they wanted to work that extra hour or make that extra call, or stay that extra Saturday” (Bennis and Nanus, 1985, p. 216). The observable excitement is also described in Karl Albrecht’s Northbound Train (1994) as he contrasts the levels of energy and excitement at Microsoft to IBM.
According to Katzenbach and Smith (1993), excellent teams create an aura of excitement and focus that sustains the growth of new capabilities and openness to change. Failure does not deter them, nor does “organizational hostility or indifference, limited resources, insufficient compensation, or . . . even freezing weather.” High levels of excitement and passion encourage team members to grow and assume greater responsibility for the success of the team (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993).
The following items in the assessment measure Passion:
- Item 4 Working here inspires the very best of me in the way of job performance.
- Item 10 I have strong feelings of accomplishment related to our work.
- Item 16 I am proud to be a member of this team.
- Item 22 I am continually learning and seeking new ideas as they relate to the work of this team.
- Item 28 I feel we can overcome almost any obstacle here.
- Item 34 I am excited about the work we are doing here.
The Commitment indicator measures the level of dedication members feel toward each other and the team’s purpose. Not only are members of excellent organizations excited, inspired, and motivated to excel, they also are deeply committed to the purpose of the organization, to the goals, to the team, to each other, and to accomplishing the work that needs to be done, regardless of the effort required. They know what they need to do and they will find a way to do it. According to Katzenbach and Smith (1993), what sets high-performance teams apart is the degree of commitment, particularly how committed the members are to one another.
In describing the passionate commitment of those who worked on the Apollo Moon Project, Charles Garfield (1986) says, “I had never seen such a group of people work with such absolute focus and fervor as those people who saw it as their own personal mission to send astronauts to the moon. They worked incredibly long hours, under intense pressure, and they loved it.”
The following items in the assessment measure Commitment:
- Item 5 The goals of this team are important to me.
- Item 11 When my job requires working independently, I do it well.
- Item 17 I am willing to put in a great deal of extra effort beyond what is normally expected in a job.
- Item 23 I am committed to helping the team meet its goals.
- Item 29 I am committed to completing work even when it’s frustrating.
- Item 35 I am determined to meet whatever challenges arise here.
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