Creating and Maintaining a Performing Team – by Laura Grant and Ben Gardner
Have you ever worked for a consultancy where you haven’t felt trusted, respected or valued? Has the team been ineffective, with high anxiety and competition, and little team spirit? Poor mental health in poorly performing teams isn’t a coincidence; it can be a consequence of the working environment. With the right foundation it is possible to have a happy and performing team in any workplace. Understanding the stages of team development and what managers and team members can do to create a positive work environment could help you create and maintain a performing team.
Patrick Lencioni said it is “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”
A high-performing team is comprised of highly talented individuals who are motivated with common goals. Together, they help their company achieve excellence and growth. Being talented isn’t enough to guarantee performance. The work environment must be one where there is a sense of purpose, communication is open, there is trust and mutual respect, leadership is shared, procedures are effective, and personnel are flexible and adaptable and have a strong desire to learn.
At Ecology by Design our company culture and values are very important to us. Our staff performance (as defined above) and retention rates are very high because we build a team based on trust and respect. SWOT (Strength-Weakness-Opportunity-Threat) analysis at our recent internal consultancy skills training day revealed these values to be regarded as our strengths by all members of the team. A foundation of trust is essential in all relationships, including working relationships. But how do you build trust and avoid a dog-eat-dog workplace?
Types of Behaviour
If there are rounds of redundancies or at the end of the year your performance is judged on the number of mistakes you’ve made, or projects you’ve completed or money you’ve brought in, how willing are you going to be to admit your faults or work on someone else’s project where there is no direct benefit to you for your input?
A study by the University of California found that being selfish doesn’t get you ahead and ‘nice guys’ don’t always finish last. They found that disagreeable people, who are selfish, combative and manipulative cause themselves more harm at work than good. The study found they tend to “cause abuse, promote self-interest at the expense of the company’s success and end up creating a corrupt corporate culture and serving as a toxic role model for others”. They identified four main ways people attain power:
- Dominant-aggressive behaviour: using fear and intimidation
- Political behaviour: being influential and building alliances with other people
- Communal behaviour: helping others achieve their own goals and building personal relationships
- Competent behaviour: being very good at their job
Here we will focus on the communal behaviours one can adopt to achieving thriving teams and achieve personal success as a result. To do so we must consider the stages of team development.
Stages of Team Development
There are four recognised stages of team development ranging from ‘forming’ to ‘performing’ teams. At the forming stage there is negligible trust as team members sound each other out, and performing teams have high trust, with the drive to meet their common goals. Sounds a bit wishy-washy but this is not a new concept; it was defined by Bruce Tuckman in 1965 and it is still of relevance to teams today, especially now as we need to adapt to new ways of working in the COVID-19 pandemic. The stages are as follows:
Stage 1: Forming – A forming team doesn’t have any trust yet. Individuals are not clear on what they’re supposed to do or why they’re supposed to do it. It’s a period of high learning where people are checking each other out but are not committed to the team yet.
Stage 2: Storming – After working together for a while, the team enters the storming stage. Ideas abound but perhaps aren’t well progressed, competition is high and splinter groups may form as individuals form relationships. During this period of turbulence there’s little team spirit, an imbalance in team commitment and there can be high levels of anxiety.
Stage 3: Norming – Norming doesn’t sound particularly exciting but it’s a welcome relief for any team which has been through a period of storming. The team is more successful as they understand their purpose and are more receptive to feedback. Appreciation and trust build, and confidence in the team is high with lots of positive reinforcement from team members. Individuals are motivated and all members of the team are equally committed to the company direction and goals.
Stage 4: Performing – A performing team has high trust, empathy, openness and pride. People are objective, motivated and efficiently delivering high-quality work. There are no surprises, and everyone celebrates the success of the team.
Each stage builds on the previous one, with teams having to work through each stage to become truly performing. Teams are dynamic though; a performing team might be thrown back into the storming stage if a new team member joins, there’s a new organisational strategy, a team member leaves, or a team member is promoted.
A token team bonding day isn’t going to cut the mustard in building meaningful team trust.
Imagine a team operating with no timesheets. Flexible working hours. Control over their own programming. Unlimited annual leave. Does it sound like they’d never get anything done? Well, we do it, and have found that people demonstrate an exceptional work ethic in response. Even at the forming stage our team were trusted with all of the above, and typically, they don’t abuse that trust. There are action steps which can be taken to progress through each stage of development.
Action steps from forming to storming
For a forming team to progress to storming, they need a directive leader and structure: goals have to be set, roles established, and people have to commit to the team. A reward structure should be defined. We implement a peer-nominated monthly bonus scheme, where people nominate a colleague to receive a £100 gift bonus in recognition of going above and beyond. People have received this in recent months for innovative mapping, undertaking challenging reptile surveys, detailed report reviews and top networking skills. The nominator also has to define what the gift will be so it’s personal to the nominee such as tickets for a gig, garden centre vouchers, flight airmiles or vouchers for a favourite shop.
At this time, it is worth bringing the group together periodically to work on common tasks. We do this at office meetings where we troubleshoot solutions to a problem as a group. Where the opportunity arises, the whole team does a survey together such as deploy reptile refugia or a bat survey. Whilst we have established roles, for us it is important to be clear that when it comes to delivery of projects, we are all equal.
Action steps from storming to norming
The less time which can be spent in the storming phase the better. The team leader should actively support and reinforce team behaviour and create a positive environment built on trust where team wins are recognised and celebrated. Each individual must agree and commit to their roles and responsibilities. People must listen to each other and actively request and accept feedback.
The team must set and take team time together. In the busy survey season, it can always seem like there’s something more important to do, but this time taken together can pay dividends as a result of increased protectivity in the norming stage, as people buy into the objectives and activities. By working actively to create a supportive environment everyone is motivated to work to their best ability.
Action steps from norming to performing
Our office is entirely open plan, no screens or closed doors. We don’t work in silence. There’s a hustle and bustle in the office. We’re communicating all the time, mostly about work-related things but also about social things: programmes we’ve watched, gardening tips or even political views. For many, their public arena is very large, as such there are few unknowns and people quickly establish trusting relationships. We have an annual activity day in the spring where we take on a fun challenge as a team. Prior to COVID-19 we had a monthly cake bake off where a team member bakes something to bring in and share. These traditions however seemingly small or insignificant bring comradery to the team. During lockdown we had a weekly quiz to maintain close bonds between the team.
We have a wall of achievement in the office where we celebrate an individual’s successes, be that receiving a Pat on the Back, securing a personal licence or delivering a complex project. Praising and flattering each other reinforces positivity and wellbeing.
For many teams the biggest challenge can be creating an environment where there is healthy conflict and where people self-evaluate without a fuss. In our experience, giving timely feedback is the most effective way to achieve this. If we notice someone’s performance has slipped or they have a poor attitude we recognise and reflect on this quickly. An informal check in to find out the causes and identify if there’s anything which needs to be resolved can prevent the situation escalating or dissent arising within the team. We also have an annual 360 review whereby there’s structured feedback provided to an individual by their peers. We encourage the team to approach the task positively and be objective in their interpretation of the reviews.
Finally, be selective when you appoint a new team member, ensure they understand and align with the company values, give them a proper induction and any training they might need so the team doesn’t dip into storming, or if they do, that they don’t stay there for too long.
Technical Application in Ecological Sector
Maintaining a performing team in the ecology sector can be particularly tricky as the seasonality of our work means we are under pressure in different ways throughout the year. In spring and summer, the pressures are largely due to the high volume of survey work. Here, the team need to trust each other, communicate effectively and be highly motivated to navigate what can be a highly stressful and logistically challenging time. In the autumn and winter the team must be flexible and adaptable to deliver to deadlines, review processes and procedures, and set targets and bring in more work for the year ahead. It’s all too easy for teams to enter surviving rather than thriving mode, and it’s important to recognise the causes and learn from previous mistakes. Below are a few examples of how we’ve overcome difficult situations either here or at our previous roles.
- Situation: An ecology chapter for an EIA needed to be delivered for a complex site involving all species groups and the deadline was mid-summer.
Solution: We ensured each member of the team conducted surveys of the site so that the team could work together to deliver the various annexes, with reporting, mapping and biodiversity impact assessments being divvied up between the relevant specialists. Working together on a common goal both improved team dynamics and improved efficiency in delivering the work at a logistically challenging time of year.
- Situation: Having team growth year on year meant that some processes and procedures weren’t working effectively anymore, causing mistakes to be made.
Solution: We introduced weekly programming meetings, quarterly reviews and end of season de-briefs to provide an open forum to troubleshoot problems, review individual and team performance and identify solutions in a timely manner to streamline our delivery. Every team member is included in the process and together we come to a consensus about the way forward, giving everyone a sense of ownership, responsibility and shared goals.
- Situation: The team were feeling despondent as a result of COVID-19 causing training to be cancelled and preventing us from interacting socially as a team.
Solution: We cleared everyone’s diaries for a day in August and ran our own botany training day, having the opportunity to bond as a (socially distanced) team and hone our skills. The team were noticeably more positive and motivated afterwards.
- Situation: Issue of reports was being delayed because there was a bottleneck caused by senior staff having insufficient time to review reports alongside their other duties.
Solution: An operations manager was appointed to provide dedicated support to the team in this regard with the aim of improving the speed and quality of reporting output. By sharing the leadership and improving feedback the performance of the team was optimised.
- Situation: A strong member of senior management was negatively impacting team dynamics.
Solution: Timely feedback was provided to the team member, setting out how they were impacting the team, suggesting an approach which was more conducive to the desired working environment. By communicating openly, the issue was resolved and within weeks team dynamics had noticeably improved.
A challenge for you
We challenge you to think of your team and consider these five questions:
- Are your team members reluctant to be vulnerable with each other, admit their mistakes or when they need help?
- Are your team members reluctant to openly air their opinions or is there a lot of time wasted due to posturing or poor decisions being made?
- Do your team members lack direction or commitment?
- Do you have any mediocre or poor performers in your team who let the team down by not committing to a clear plan of action?
- Is there a member of your team who tends to put their own needs (career development, recognition, etc.) ahead the team’s collective goals?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you likely have some work to do to optimise the performance of your team.
 Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Jossey-Bass.
 Anderson, C., Sharps, D.L., Soto, C.J. and John, O.P. (2020). People with disagreeable personalities (selfish, combative, and manipulative) do not have an advantage in pursuing power at work. PNAS 117 (37) 22780-22786.
 Tuckman, B.W. (1965). “Developmental sequence in small groups”. Psychological Bulletin. 63 (6): 384–399.
About the Authors
Laura Grant BSc MCIEEM is a Principal Ecologist at Ecology by Design. She’s worked in consultancy for 12 years, conducting and co-ordinating ecological surveys of habitats and protected species for minerals, residential and renewable schemes. She’s spent seven months on an intensive leadership management course to improve her consultancy skillset.
Contact Laura at: Laura@ecologybydesign.co.uk
Ben Gardner BSC CEnv MCIEEM is Director at Ecology by Design. He’s passionate about creating a work environment where team members are challenged to grow and develop their talents/expertise. His ultimate goal is to achieve the best outcomes for the team, clients and biodiversity.
Contact Ben at: Ben@ecologybydesign.co.uk
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