Three Ways to Lead More Effective Teams
A Stanford expert on workplace dynamics shows why many teams fail.
Is hierarchy the best structure for a team? | iStock/Anchly
Team leaders often focus on product details. Founders obsess over fonts. Sales managers fixate on tough-to-wrangle customers and shop owners on the minutia of shelf displays. Yet, all too often, virtually no attention is given to the fundamental driver of business success: team dynamics.
Behind every choice in a startup, behind every client relationship, and behind the atmosphere of every retail shop sit teams that determine whether or not a product — or even a whole company — makes it.
“One of the clearest signs of an experienced leader is the attention she pays to her people and her teams,” notes Lindred Greer, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “Everything in a company is determined by the quality of team dynamics, and the ability to effectively lead teams is at the heart of managerial success.”
While most organizational research either burrows into the psychology of individuals or pans out to consider entire firms, Greer has spent her career studying the intermediate unit of teams, technically defined as “groups of three to ten people who work together interdependently toward a common task.” And from Greer’s research has emerged a deep understanding of what makes teams effective — insight that will not only help organizations achieve their goals, but ideally improve our lives. “The quality of our interactions at work,” she says, “fundamentally shapes the quality of our lives.”
From the broad span of her study, Greer distilled a few essential tips for building and managing effective teams.
Be Intentional in Recruitment and Guidance
In startup teams especially, where Greer has recently focused much of her attention, she routinely sees rash action betray the payoff of deliberate strategizing; the immediate existential threat of competition overshadows conversation on the structure of a team and its plan for reaching its goals. People are simply thrown together and handed a problem. But taking time to think through the composition of teams, as well as their specific tasks and operation, pays dividends down the road.
“As a planner myself, the lack of planning that happens in teams continues to mystify me,” she says. “Even just a little bit of willingness to sit down and see the big picture before charging forward can help.”
To begin with, Greer notes that teams should not coalesce around similarities. Rather, as a large and growing body of research demonstrates, teams should be diverse. Members should have different ways of thinking, different backgrounds and styles of work, different expertise. Bring optimists and pessimists together; pair risk-takers with risk-avoiders; balance genders. In other words, design a team around complementary but distinct attitudes and strengths.
This diversity in team members, though, must be yoked to a single understanding of the team’s goals and processes. “Management dramatically underestimates the amount of effort needed to create and maintain common vision for a team,” Greer says. “There is almost never enough alignment on this when teams are brought together.” Every team should take part in an orientation in which goals are stated explicitly, benchmarks are established, and responsibilities of each team member are made clear. Greer also suggests teams contemplate what failure might look like and how to avoid it, as those that do tend to perform better over time.
Explicit discussion of goals should be paired with equally explicit discussion of process: Left to their own devices, people possess biases and presumptions about how a team ought to work. Establishing details as small as how to run meetings prevents ambiguity and uncertainty from evolving into simmering disgruntlement.
Once a team has been established, the next step is to answer the fundamental question of structure: How will the team go about reaching its goal? On this question, Greer says, most people get it wrong most of the time.
The default is to organize teams in a hierarchy: A manager guides and delegates, others report on progress. This organizational structure has roots traceable to nomadic days, when it served us well in coordinating the hunt. Its value is more questionable in today’s office environment. In a recent review of all the research on hierarchy to date, Greer and her colleagues note that “our findings largely support dysfunctional views on hierarchy.” That is, hierarchy rarely supports the improved coordination and efficiency among teams that it is designed to achieve.
The problem, Greer notes, is the existence of a hierarchy; somebody inevitably must lead. The problem is in the inflexibility with which most people impose a hierarchy. Greer advocates instead for “hierarchical agility — the ability of a team to flex its hierarchy throughout the day so that sometimes the group is flat and sometimes it follows the line.” The rationale is simple: Bringing power dynamics into team meetings, Greer has shown, often corrupts team interactions, stifles creativity and honesty, and ultimately diminishes outcomes.
The Navy SEALs exemplify hierarchical agility, following strict chain-of-command in the field and flipping to an egalitarian structure during debriefing, when their stripes are literally left at the door. To impose this kind of flatness, Greer suggests a few things. First, teams can use a ritual, like passing an object around, to give everyone a chance to talk. Second, leaders should adopt body language that indicates they are no longer supervising — leaning back from the table, for instance. Finally, and perhaps most important, conversation should be rooted in data. “This helps enormously because data is a currency that everyone has access to,” Greer says. “It’s not who’s been there the longest or who is loudest. If the currency is data, then anyone who has it will feel able to speak up.”
This shifting between flat and hierarchical structures should be practiced regularly, as practice will make the transition more natural. “It’s hard to go back and forth, to have a voice one moment and then none the next; this can feel disempowering, disrespectful,” Greer says. “One of the worst things you can be as a leader is unpredictable, but if flipping back and forth like this is normalized, then it won’t be seen that way.”
Learn to Spot Problems
Left alone, troubles fester. It’s important to spot and diagnose problems as they arise within a team. Years of observation have taught Greer a few key early indicators of discord.
Trivial struggles between people, like where to order lunch from, “are a big signal to me that there are problems on the team,” says Greer. This niggling is often indicative of bigger power struggles at play: One person resents being passed over for promotion, or not having certain responsibilities, and so lashes out in other realms. To defuse this, “stop the meeting short and go offline” with the person, Greer says. Find what’s driving the conflict and resolve that issue. Another bright red flag is if you ask where the team is going and receive a variety of answers. For Greer, this “screams halt.” Take time to reestablish the glue of a single, coherent vision.
Finally, if people aren’t speaking up in meetings, then you need to find out why. “The first answer people give may not be right,” Greer says. “So ask why upon why upon really why, and you should get an answer to this question.” To proactively address this problem, managers should pay attention to small details, like where they (and others) sit in meetings and how this effects conversation, or how their responses to ideas influence whether people speak up. In short, Greer says, practice empathy.
Despite how straightforward these recommendations seem — composing teams thoughtfully, maintaining hierarchical agility, and managing problems while they’re still small — Greer rarely sees teams practice such fundamentals. “There simply isn’t enough time given over to how to work together as a team,” she says. “Structure, planning clarity — these things really matter.”
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