Have you ever found yourself figuratively (or perhaps literally!) banging your head against your office wall, trying to rack your brain to come up with a solution to a new problem or opportunity that your company faced? Those solitary head-banging sessions often end in frustration because, frankly, even the smartest business leaders need the collective strength of teams to come up with workable solutions. In fact, a 2012 survey of employees and executives found that a whopping 86 percent of respondents cited a lack of collaboration as the source of failures in the workplace.[1. Nick Stein, “Is Poor Collaboration Killing Your Company?” Salesforce, September 12, 2012, https://www.salesforce.com/blog/2012/09/nick-stein-work-post-2.html] Yes, your company’s biggest problems will often be solved by a team—but a team that doesn’t work well together might never come up with a solution either.
You’d think that getting the smartest guys in your company in a room together would create impressive results—but that’s not always the case. While traditional business smarts are important for high achievers in general, people who work best in a team must possess high emotional intelligence as well. Emotional intelligence (EI) in a group setting refers to a group’s recognition of each other’s emotions and their ability to manage emotions—both the good and the bad—in a healthy, efficient, and effective way.
In fact, according to a major study conducted among teams at Johnson & Johnson, high emotional intelligence was the number one predictor of team success.[2. Judith A. Ross, “Make Your Good Team Great,” Harvard Business Review, February 28, 2008, https://hbr.org/2008/02/make-your-good-team-great-1/] Emotionally intelligent teams deal with both positive and negative emotions by establishing norms that work to strengthen team trust, efficacy, and respect between members. So how can leaders work to increase a team’s EI?
Before a team project gets off the ground, have each team member speak to his or her particular expertise, skills, and experience. Doing so will foster interpersonal understanding and respect between team members, which in turn encourages positive communication patterns. Addressing each team member’s skills and expertise at the beginning of a project works to instill the idea that since everyone brings something different of value to the table, the group is “all in this together.” Starting with this kind of project kick-off meeting will also save time down the line when the team is trying to determine how to divvy up responsibilities based on team members’ strengths.
When a team working at Xerox Canada implemented this strategy, they saw big results. Members of the team underestimated one team member in particular because she didn’t share their similar backgrounds in finance. By holding a team kick-off meeting where every member got to speak about her expertise, this member was able to share her skills in persuading internal stakeholders to move forward with projects. Her unique skills proved crucial down the line, and her fellow team members gained more respect for her after the meeting. Nipping in the bud the team’s propensity to undervalue and disrespect a member whose skills weren’t readily apparent led to more effective team communication.
Another way to foster team EI is to celebrate a team’s successes—even the smaller successes on the way to the finish line. Celebrating success contributes to a group’s EI because it allows for the expression of positive emotions, which works to strengthen the group’s identity, rally momentum, and build confidence within the team. In fact, celebrating small successes can have an outsized impact on morale. A study by HBR found that a sizeable portion (28 percent) of incidents that had only a minor effect on a project’s outcome had a major effect on employees’ feelings about it.[3. Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review, May 2011, https://hbr.org/2011/05/the-power-of-small-wins] In other words, taking the time to celebrate even the little successes—whether through a boisterous happy hour or by simply acknowledging an accomplishment before the start of the next team meeting—will get you a lot of bang for your buck.
When you work as a team you’ll inevitably run into conflicts—both the kind that affects the project directly, and the kind that affects how the team is able to work together. High performing teams don’t necessarily avoid interpersonal conflict, but they do know how to work through it. To encourage teams to resolve conflicts effectively, make sure the team clearly articulates individual roles and outlines acceptable behavior at the start of a project. Writing in Forbes, business educator Mike Myatt suggests that clearly defining the chain of command within a team at the start of the project will head off potential conflicts down the road since so many conflicts arise from confusion (or disagreement) over who does what.[4. Mike Myatt, “5 Keys of Dealing with Workplace Conflict,” Forbes, February 22, 2012, http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikemyatt/2012/02/22/5-keys-to-dealing-with-workplace-conflict/] By defining roles at the beginning of a team project, you avoid confusion and conflict later when the team is knee-deep in the project itself.
Even if the team does a tremendous job of establishing ground rules and talking through roles at the beginning of the project, conflict might still pop up later. In this case, humor and a touch of lightheartedness can go a long way in defusing potentially explosive situations and lessening team tensions.
Take this example of a team working at a firm in Palo Alto: whenever tensions on the team ran high, team members would toss plush toys over their cubicle walls. Tossing the toys became the default way to express frustration, which helped the members gauge the emotional well-being of the team and kept things from getting too serious and having tempers boil over (it’s hard to get too mad when you’re tossing plush toys). Be careful, though, to ensure that using humor to try to defuse a conflict doesn’t come off as condescending or dismissive. Trying to make a joke out of someone’s anger (whether it’s justifiable or not) will only lead to bruised feelings and a team setback. Work as a team to decide at the beginning of a project what signals members will employ to express frustration and work through conflict, like the team in Palo Alto did.
Great teams are the backbone of any great company, and teams are only successful when all team members work together to find solutions to a company’s toughest problems. If you feel that you’re having trouble putting together an effective, high-functioning team — or you want to know how to take your “good” team to greatness — check out Applied Vision Works’ “teamship” resources and coaching packages.