Exceptional individual performers frequently struggle in teams. Even seasoned leaders often cite the management of teams as the most challenging part of their job. For many, climbing over the back of your colleague is the most direct path to success. Game theory breaks down when you realize the greater good may have costs in your own career trajectory. Models of effective cooperation and productive conflict between rational decision makers require an unusual blend of sacrifice and delay of gratification. Utilitarian goals (the greatest good for the greatest number) run contrary to the standard recipe for individual gain.
Communication in teams begins with a different rule book. It starts with the understanding that teams are messy. Conflict is unavoidable. Dynamics flow with the unique circumstances, mindsets, and emotions of the members involved. Graduate programs routinely teach the Tuckman (1965) model of “forming-storming-norming-performing,” yet teams often skip key stages and regress under pressure.
The human element drives the culture of the team more powerfully than theory. It only takes a couple of actively disengaged teammates to start a mutiny. One distracted collaborator is capable of hijacking the agenda of a meeting. Selfishness disguised as altruism can undermine a mission.
Communication in team settings is cyclical. As the team evolves, communication domains shift to accommodate ever-changing circumstances. The cycle is anchored in the following principles:
- Take stewardship of team norms by owning the way teammates are treated.
- Achieve alignment with the team’s mission, vision, values, and goals.
- Sponsor mature, constructive conflict to elevate the strength of diversity.
- Demand respect in all interactions, especially during stressful interchange.
- Own accountability to agreed-upon norms, mission, and goals.
- Nurture connection between teammates as collaboration fuels a greater good.
- Empower the fuel of differences to spark creativity.
- Take the smart risks that support change and growth.
- Let go of the urge to keep things the same in honor of comfort.
- Embrace the re-energizing nature of new challenges.
Communication rules change when we move from a “me” to a “we.” Goals are co-owned. Trust is a fragile yet non-negotiable requirement. The stakes are raised by virtue of the precious cargo on board in the form of teammates. Change impacts the whole. Like a family, all transactions are exchanged with a clear understanding of the effect on each member. Together, we move forward.