How do you evaluate how well a team is functioning? A key indicator is energy. Energy is a quality of the interactions going on in the room the team is working in, a quality that you feel when you’re in the room with them.
There are a variety of types of energy. A team may have intensity caused by anger or by competitiveness; or it may have high enthusiasm expressed by outbursts of joking and fun. There may be quiet most of the time, interspersed with interactions that express appreciation or admiration (the wow! factor). Or there can be a sullen tone in a team that resents its mission or its management. Sometimes, a team pulls itself together and generates camaraderie because it is facing a common enemy – its management.
The energy of a team is a good predictor of its effectiveness. The best teams have at least occasional bursts of intensity, and they maintain respectful, if joking, relations with each other.
As leader of teams, part of your mission is to sense the energy of the team and to intervene when things are not going well. Unhealthy interactions are an early predictor of decay in a team. You should be ready to make necessary adjustments when you see things unraveling.
Energy-related things you can do as leader
Here are some things you can do to keep team energy positive.
Most teams we work with have people from diverse backgrounds. Rather than cover over the differences in culture and style among the team members, call upon those differences in an appreciative way. For example, if one of the team members comes from a culture, such as the Philippines or Thailand, in which harmony is the supreme value, ask that person review the team’s interaction ground rules. While many Americans relish confrontation and argument, others may prefer that the ground rules keep them from having to argue in a contentious way.
You should encourage everyone on the team to call on members who typically have different views to get feedback about a proposed technique, method or solution. In this way you help the team to revel in diversity and appreciate their differences, rather than viewing differences as being in the way.
A few years ago, I was facilitating a team of business and IT specialists who were working to overcome their history of finger-pointing and frustration with each other. We had a dozen people in the room, and they quickly took to the task of listing what was working, what was not working, and prioritizing the actions to fix their dysfunction. As the process entered the second full day, I noticed that one person had not yet said anything during the group work. I began to wonder why the leaders had included this person.
Normally I would go out of my way to be sure that everyone’s voice is heard, no matter how briefly. However, in this case I let the process continue without intervening. Several hours into problem-solving, the team was looking for ideas to deal with how to communicate certain technical details between their offices, 750 miles apart. Suddenly, the previously quiet person spoke up with a proposal. The suggestion was brilliant, and the team quickly adopted it. The lesson for me was to trust the team and the process – the leaders knew this person had something to contribute, and they knew he would speak up when he had something to say.
Make space for the team
You have a responsibility to guide the energy of the team. You can do this in a positive way by doing these things:
1. Create a common space – common ground – where the team can interact informally, even if they do not inhabit a common room when they’re working. This is where they can trade stories, post items of interest on the walls, and find out what’s going on with the team. Put key information there, but leave a lot of room for their own preferred items.
2. Set the tone for the team by being a good listener, appreciating the work of each individual, and providing honest feedback about what you observe. Don’t indulge in disrespectful humor or gossip. And keep your own energy up, so that you don’t need to draw energy from the team.
3. Get out of the way. Most of the team interactions don’t need your guidance. Check in with what’s happening at various moments through the day or week, but don’t try to guide everything. If you give your team permission to try out and adopt processes that aren’t necessarily pre-defined, they’ll generate their own enthusiasm and will often surprise you with their creativity.