Changing a company’s DNA to inspire teamwork — Virginia Healy-Tangney

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Virginia Healy-Tangney

While “teamwork” may sound like the newest business buzz word, it’s actually been around for quite a while. What started as a way to increase productivity in a company has evolved to an actual science today with measurable results.

There are many reasons for this, but the clearest involves the need for collaboration. As was noted in a recent Fortune article, even geniuses like Thomas Edison were never “lone inventors.”

Business operates in ever evolving collaborative environments due to integrated factors, such as technology, globalization of markets and flatter organizational structures. Companies that effectively implement teams have found tremendous rewards in the form of innovative ideas, higher productivity, increased efficiency, and communicative cultures. As MIT Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland  says in his recent HBR article, The New Science of Building Great Teams, this enables “energy, creativity, and shared commitment.”

How do you inspire teamwork and collaboration to get those kinds of results? During my tenure at State Street, we went through the process of breaking down silos as we went global to instill teams and collaboration across businesses and geographies. We learned several powerful lessons from that experience.

Developing a team–oriented culture takes time

The first lesson was that implementing a teamwork model takes time. You are changing the DNA in your company and this has to come from the top, bottom and across the organization. Also time consuming is the process of getting the model right. This is an iterative dynamic process whether you are 200-year-old business such as State Street or a new business. It takes several years to make this model part of the culture so set expectations accordingly.

Valuing and rewarding team talent is essential

A big issue when inspiring teams is that individuals still need to be recognized for their own contributions. They need to feel valued for what they are bringing to the table.

At State Street, we realized that we needed to build team contributions into individual performance reviews. So every employee – whether entry-level or the CEO – was reviewed based on their contributions to their teams and their teams’ achievements. This was tied to compensation.

Tying it to compensation was important; otherwise, many would only pay lip service to the team model. It also challenged everyone in the company to “put some skin in the game.”

 Understanding team roles improves performance

When a team is performing at its best, you’ll usually find that each team member has clear responsibilities. You’ll also see that every role needed to achieve the team’s goal is being performed fully and well. Yet this was one of the very real challenges: How do you marshal the capabilities, range of skills, individual talents, passion and determination of team members to successfully achieve a goal?

To address this issue of roles we utilized Dr. R.M. Belbin’s Team Inventory Survey to identify individuals’ strengths. The survey showed how each member would best contribute to a team whether in action-oriented roles, people-oriented roles, or thinking and problem-solving roles. The survey also showed people’s liabilities. For example, someone who is action oriented might offend others by disagreeing in such a way that it puts them on the defensive. Or a people-oriented colleague might be unable to make decisions in crunch situations.

The upside of increased self-awareness and personal effectiveness is that it helps to get that discussion going and fosters tolerance if things get tricky. Team members might even have some fun with it, laughing at how they potentially come across to others.

Hard-wiring communication to increase esprit de corps

Given that the majority of teams at State Street had at least one if not all members working in different geographies, communication skills became vitally important to foster a spirit of trust. As team colleagues celebrated their victories and shared personal stories, it’s not surprising that they became increasingly committed to supporting each other at a human level.

What’s more, as team members developed a sense of each other personally as well as professionally, they started sharing insights and resources. For example, a colleague located in Japan may be involved in a community initiative that another team member previously worked on in Canada. By getting to know each other and their projects outside of the team, they were more likely to share expertise.

Not only are employees more productive as a result, but it really brought to life the values of inclusivity and collaboration that are at the core of State Street’s culture.

Taking action

The concept of building and inspiring teams is here to stay so if a company hasn’t yet taken steps to begin, now is a good time to start the process. Because of other companies’ earlier trial and error experiences coupled with the evolving new science, there are now known concrete steps that work.

Virginia Healy-Tangney is a senior lecturer in managerial communication. Prior to joining MIT Sloan, she was vice president and director of executive communications at State Street Corp. from 1991- 2007.

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