I have yet to find anyone who will argue with the value of relationships or teamwork. But as the traditional, often hierarchal command and control management models give way to more decentralized approaches, a new focus on socially networked and emotionally intelligent leadership is quickly emerging. Many leaders are finding themselves as members of a number of teams including those that are virtual, autonomous, cross-functional and sometimes even focused on pre-mortem; hence the need for a much more relationship-centric approach.

As the need to build highly liquid, dynamic, effective teams increases, the available bandwidth to build and nurture these teams diminishes. Rapidly changing market dynamics coupled with limited resources, demand re-engineering, streamlining, and an increased demand for service, all makes most leaders feel certain that they must continue to do more with less.

Over a decade ago, the Peter F. Drucker Foundation surveyed thousands of participants, illustrating how focused feedback and follow-up can increase leadership and customer service effectiveness. A parallel approach can help leaders build effective teams without wasting critical resources.

However, it is interesting that some of the simplest ideas are the most difficult to implement. The relationship-centric approach to team building requires the courage to ask for continuous feedback, the discipline to develop a behavioral change strategy, and the courage to stay on track.

Here is a best practice for leaders: Fight the urge to be the boss. Instead, aim to be a peer. Aim to inspire and motivate versus command and control. Coach, mentor and facilitate to allow team members to develop their own behavioral change strategies versus imposing yours on the team. By the way, the relationship-centric approach is not effective if you intend to fire or remove a current team member.

The Relationship-Centric Team Building Process:

Step 1: Begin with candor. Ask each team member to discreetly and confidentially rate two questions on a scale of 1-10 (10 being highest or ideal):

* How well do we (currently) build and nurture internal relationships and work together as a team?
* How well do we need to build internal relationships and work together as a team?

It is critical to get a sense of if the team feels a legitimate need or reason to build closer relationships and work together as a team. Some groups may feel that it is important, but they are already have decent relationships and functioning as a team and view team-building activities as a complete waste of time.

Step 2: Calculate the results. Discuss the gap between the current effectiveness and the needed effectiveness. In most cases, the team believes that improved teamwork is both important and needed. Recent research indicates that, “The average team member believes that his or her team is currently at a 5.8 level and needs to be at 8.7.”

Step 3: Ask for a prioritized change in behaviors. Which two key behaviors can each team member identify as the ones most likely to help close the gap between where they are and where they want to be?

Step 4: Prioritize the entire list. Consolidate all behaviors in the flipchart and prioritize the top two for the entire team.

Step 5: Encourage one-on-one dialogue. Ask each team member to request that a colleague suggest two areas for personal behavior changes (other than the two already agreed upon for the entire team).

Step 6: Proclaim personal “Top 2.” Let each team member review his or her collective list of suggested behavior changes and announce their two most important behaviors for personal change to the entire team.

Step 7: Encourage monthly progress reports. Each team member should ask for a brief (5-10 minute) monthly report from other team members on their effectiveness in demonstrating both the two key behavior changes common to the entire team, as well as the personal two. Solicit specific suggestions for improvement where demonstrated behaviors do not match desired expectations.

Step 8: Introduce 90-day milestones. Conduct a mini survey follow-up after a 90-day timeframe in which each team member receives confidential feedback from others on perceived changes in effectiveness.

Step 9: Independently calculate the results. For each individual, as well as for the entire team, independently calculate the results and provide a confidential summary report indicating the degree to which colleagues see increased effectiveness in demonstrating desired behaviors. The mini survey/summary report often provides much needed positive reinforcement, as well as highlights what has not been improved after a reasonably short period of time. It also further reinforces the courage necessary to stay the track.

Step 10: Openly discuss. In a team meeting, have each member discuss key learnings from their many survey results and solicit further suggestions in brief, one-on-one dialogues.

Step11: Facilitate a review. Discuss the summary of results on how the team as a whole is doing in terms of increasing its effectiveness in the two key behaviors selected by all. Provide positive recognition and encouragement to keep focused on demonstrating the behaviors that they are trying to improve.

Step 12: Continue monthly progress report sessions/monthly one-on-one dialogues. Re-administer the mini surveys in 90-day intervals.

Step 13: One year later, review the results of the final mini survey. Ask team members to rate the team’s overall effectiveness on “where we are” versus “where we need to be” in our efforts to work closer together. Compare these ratings with the original ratings calculated one year earlier. Having followed a reasonably disciplined process, many teams often see a dramatic improvement in their collaboration efforts. This is an opportune moment for positive recognition of both individual as well as team-based improvement.

Step 14: Engage and future-proof. Ask the team if they believe that more work on collaboration and team nurturing will be needed in the upcoming year. If the team believes that a greater investment is necessary, continue the process. Otherwise, declare victory and move on to the next challenge.

Step 15: Leverage best practices. Solicit candid input from each team member. Capture and distribute a highly interactive collection of best practices and facilitate a similar process for colleagues who may be struggling in their team development efforts.

Final Thoughts on Relationship-Centric Team Building and Collaboration

This process, which often takes a year to implement, works because it is very focused and includes candid, consistent and disciplined feedback and not just follow up, but follow-through. It wastes very little time and is focused on self-improvement.

Unlike many other surveys, which ask respondents to complete entirely too many questions/items and rarely result in any kind of lasting behavior change, very few participants object to completing a four-item survey. This process also provides ongoing feedback and reinforcement in a much tighter 90-day timeframe versus the traditional 12-24 month cycles.

Unlike many other team building processes focused on solving someone else’s problems, the relationship-centric process begins with a healthy self. It requires very little risk and provides a fairly accurate interim check of the pulse of your organization. If successful, there is a very high return on integration.

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