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Have you ever sat in a meeting and had a point to raise but felt unable or unwilling to raise it? Have you ever litigated a case where a witness caves in, an expert significantly changes their opinion or someone on the team suddenly gets cold feet? Have you ever worked on a project where something has nearly gone wrong and been corrected just in time, or gone unnoticed until it is too late, and in the aftermath everyone has pointed the finger of blame at each other? If so, one of the reasons for your experience – whether you care to recognise it or not – may well have been a weakness in the functioning of your team.
The team performs differently to its members
Anyone who follows team sport knows that a team is much more, and sometimes much less, than the sum of its parts. In business, the prospects of success in any task are increased if the team functions well. Conversely, the risk of failure and poor client service is increased if the team functions badly. A well performing team is a resource far stronger than a group of star individuals who cannot work together.
Without team building, the members can undermine the team
Unless time and effort is spent building good team dynamics, the team risks being undermined by its members.
Let’s take a simple example of three members of a team.
Freda, a newly qualified lawyer, is super bright. In the past this has led to her being rejected by others who feel inferior to her, and to her experiencing feelings of isolation. She has learnt to downplay her abilities and hold back through fear of rejection. As a newcomer, she is keen to fit in with the rest of the team.
John, an expert witness, is deeply insecure as a result of controlling parents who told him he was never good enough. He defends his opinion and his abilities vigorously if challenged, and feels that nothing should be beyond him.
Lionel, the senior partner, is the youngest of three siblings in his family, and so is skilled in mediation and strategy. This makes him a popular leader, but it also means that he is fearful of conflict and of offending those around him.
At a meeting, Freda thinks she has spotted a major problem with John’s expert report that no one has thought of, but she does not raise it because she fears her contribution may be unwelcome and might be seen has her stepping out of line. John is overworked and needs support from a colleague, but he feels he ought to be able to cope and he does not want to appear inadequate. He pretends he is on top of everything. Lionel senses that John needs support, but he knows the client will argue with him about increasing costs, and since neither Freda nor John are saying anything is wrong he decides to maintain the status quo.
At trial John is ill prepared, the other side undermines his evidence with the point that Freda had spotted, and the client wonders what went wrong.
Who is responsible?
The answer is: none of them and all of them. Everyone has played their part to the best of their abilities; each has come to the team with their own pre-existing learned patterns of behaviour for dealing with other people, and has acted out their role in their own individual way. But while these patterns of behaviour may serve some useful purpose in helping each individual team member pass through life, if they are allowed to run free in a professional context they undermine the team and short change the client.
What can be done?
Building healthy team dynamics
To build healthy team dynamics the team needs to build a safe container to operate in. The container is the term coaches use to describe the ground rules and standards for communication and behaviour within the team. Rules and standards which support healthy team dynamics are those which make team members feel safe and valued.
These include practices such as: communicating and listening without judgment, avoiding personal criticism (focusing on the point rather than the person who made it), ensuring that space is made to hear everyone (no matter how junior), inviting views rather than requiring them to be volunteered, ensuring there are no “taboo” subjects, maintaining confidentiality, providing constructive feedback and expressing gratitude for contributions, and ensuring that points are followed up by actions where appropriate.
By creating a safe container, the individuals can function as a team: their relationship, the system that they form by coming together, is being supported to work in an optimal way. In this way, the team minimizes the risk that its members will default to their individual learned behavioural patterns whenever a challenge presents itself. In this way, the members can collectively move beyond the fear of conflict and the fear of not belonging, into a zone of reflection and creative flow.
From this position, the full resources of the team can be harnessed, and problems are more likely to be identified and resolved successfully and in a timely way. There are many coaching exercises that can be undertaken with the team and team leaders to cultivate and maintain healthy team dynamics.
Spend time building the team from the outset
Often, no time is spent team building at the outset of a venture. Instead, people are left to grow into a team organically over time. This approach relies on the false assumption that everyone has the skills and resources to operate effectively in a team context. In some cases the team might get by left to its own devices, but in many others this assumption will lead to unnecessary failure and almost always to suboptimal performance. Failure will only be known with hindsight. Suboptimal performance may never reveal itself, meaning that countless opportunities are repeatedly squandered invisibly over time.
Remember: it is always better to train the crew before setting off on the voyage. That way you get the best performance out of the ship. And on a long journey, the smallest of changes in plotting the course can make the difference between reaching landfall safely, or being lost at sea.
If our three team members had operated within a safe container, Freda would have realised that her contribution would be valued, and she would have spoken up; John would not have feared being judged for asking for support, and would have raised this need; and Lionel would have built a strong, rational consensus focused around meeting the client’s objectives, which would have made his task of asking the client for more resources much easier and more likely to succeed. What’s more, the experience of overcoming this challenge would have engrained trust and cohesion within the team, enhancing its performance moving forward. The case would have taken a different course.
The authors welcome feedback from anyone who is affected by the matters covered in their articles. James Pereira can be contacted @JamesPereiraQC. Zita Tulyahikayo can be contacted @LifeTherapyZita. Her guided meditation “Create Success” is now available on iTunes.
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