Leadership Blog Series: Team Essentials

Written by Sharri Margraves, Director for HR Organization and Professional Development

Before you had your first formal leadership role, did you believe you would “finally” have the power and authority to get things done the way you want them, when you want them? Or did you think, “What have I done?”

One of the most significant adjustments in leaning into leadership is that there are multiple ways to handle situations, and there are many variables with respect to authority, responsibility and empowerment. Cohesive teams communicate and build trust and one of the most critical teams is the relationship you have with other leaders in your unit.

Your Role in the Team

The truth of the matter is that we all play different team roles across our careers and in every position. Consider this: what have you done to make a new leader (especially new to MSU) welcome and valued, especially when that leader is also a peer? How we participate and engage with others can change depending on the circumstances and our own beliefs about our roles and the influence we carry, but trust me, everyone is watching what you do and say to make your team and colleagues successful.

Leadership expert, John Maxwell, shares that leaders lead up, across, and down in a complex system of teams. Can you picture a leader who leads only through power? A leader who made it very difficult for a new colleague, or minimally, less than helpful? Likewise, you can likely picture an effective leader that does not have positional authority yet is very effective.

Regardless of position, title, or role, everyone has leadership capabilities that can be developed, practiced and honed when they consider leveraging the skills and talents of the team. Helping others see the importance of their roles and contributions will help maximize effectiveness, results and enjoyment for the whole team.

Define Your Strengths and Areas for Growth

Remember, it takes patience and practice to develop. How would you rate yourself on the following questions adapted from HIGH5 leadership?

  1. I take responsibility for the teams I’m on and don’t play the blame game.
  2. I listen more than I talk in team meetings.
  3. I don’t interrupt others or talk over them. I add to the conversation, acknowledging and building on   others’ contributions.
  4. I am reliable and consistent, and my work is on time and of good quality.
  5. I help others if they are struggling.
  6. I can focus on positive solutions rather than making others feel wrong.
  7. I have a connection with the people on the team, knowing about their lives and what is important to them.
  8. I bring enthusiasm and energy to the team rather than bringing people down.
  9. I have worked hard to build trust between me, all my teams, and my organization in general.
  10. I can apologize to my team.

Another helpful resource is the free Team Roles test from Psychology Today. Take this 20-minute assessment to help you summarize your strengths in being a team player. As it’s not geared specifically to leaders, the quiz covers a wide range of team-based situations to share with your staff.

Organization and Professional Development Resources

A number of options—everything from short videos to live, online courses—are available through OPD to assist you in developing as a leader. Looking for further assistance? Contact OPD at prodev@hr.msu.edu for additional course information and customized solutions for you and your team.

Sources

Maxwell, John. The 360° Leader. Summary and excerpt available at https://edadm821.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/360_leader.pdf

https://www.high5leadership.com/are-you-a-good-team-player/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/tests/career/team-roles-test

Becoming a More Effective and Influential Team Member

We often use the word “team” to describe just about any combination of people, but a true team is not simply a set of individuals. A group of individuals still has personal ego concerns — there’s a primary focus on self, while true teams remove that element. A team’s work is focused on a larger goal or purpose, with everyone understanding the greater good to the work being performed.

Real teams can be difficult to create and don’t last forever, often being designed for a specific project or objective. If you recently watched the Tokyo Olympics, you likely saw this in action. Teams that won gold medals in basketball, soccer, and relay races will almost certainly not be composed of the exact same individuals for the Paris Olympics in 2024.

The good news? A group of individuals can become a team, no matter whether the individuals are all working in the same physical space, remotely, or in a hybrid set-up. Your attitude about, and approach to, being part of a team can have an impact on the entire team’s success. Read on for key strategies you can utilize to become a more effective team member.

You Can Make the Difference

Regardless of your role on a team, there are ways to develop into a better team member. Not only does this lead to a more successful team, but it can ultimately make the team experience more productive and even enjoyable for you as an individual.

  • Set the tone — What’s the current mood of the team? What’s your current mood toward the team? What kind of mood do you want to set? Notice any differences and set the tone for the team in ways that can help shift the team to be closer to the desired state.
  • Develop and maintain a positive mindset — Although sometimes easier said than done, focus on the benefits of working on a team. Concentrate on team members’ positive aspects. Accept mistakes, learn from them, and then move on.
  • Be proactive — Identify opportunities for action. Be sure to gain approval or acceptance from the rest of the team.
  • Demonstrate respect — Acknowledge others’ rights to hold differing opinions. Use nonjudgmental, objective language.
  • Work collaboratively — Share pertinent knowledge with the team. Consider the team’s needs, not just your own.

Being a Good Virtual and Hybrid Team Member

Virtual and hybrid teams have become more and more common and can present unique challenges to working together as a unified team. Working from various locations requires each member of a team to possess a specific set of skills and characteristics that allows the team to function effectively. It’s important to develop and consciously improve these skills and traits so that you can contribute more effectively as a team member regardless of where everyone on your team is located.

  • Be independent and disciplined — It’s up to each team member to be accountable and professional. Plan and confirm daily goals and stick to deadlines. Think ahead, anticipate needs and make sure you have what’s needed to complete tasks with minimal support.
  • Learn to manage complexity and uncertainty — You may also face greater uncertainty regarding roles and responsibilities. Strive to be tolerant, flexible, and ready to take the initiative to get what you need to complete your work. Stick to designated workflows and established processes, and be able to discern when to make independent judgments and when to wait until a next move is approved or specific information becomes available.
  • Be proactive, cooperative, and able to network — Take the first step, communicating with others as soon as problems arise and seek advice, insight, information, and consensus on solutions. Working in a different space than your teammates makes it easier to ignore issues or put off responses, so it’s especially important to be proactive and follow up. Form good team relationships and participate in regular virtual or in-person meetings, even when work is going smoothly.
  • Be comfortable with technology — You’ll generally rely more on a wide range of tools to communicate, share documents, and collaborate — for example, Microsoft Teams or Zoom, cloud storage, and internal file-sharing and project management platforms. All team members must be able to use suitable tools to present and share information.

Although we often have no choice of who’s on our teams, there are always strategies we can use to be an effective and influential team member. Learn more using the self-paced elevateU resources below and contact Organization and Professional Development at prodev@hr.msu.edu regarding individual and department offerings that can lead to greater team success.

Recommended elevateU Resources

Advancing Team Problem Solving

Written by Jennie Yelvington, MSW, ACSW, Program Manager, MSU HR Organization & Professional Development

It is common for leaders to lament the lack of problem-solving ability on their team, which then leads them to spend time and effort to step in and do it themselves. There can be a number of reasons team members are hesitant to dive in, but making an effort to figure out why can save leaders tremendous time, empower and better engage their staff, and help the team function more effectively and expediently. This is new territory for many teams, so how do you get the ball rolling in the right direction?

Greg Schinkel of Front-Line Leadership points out, “there are two dynamics happening at the same time when it comes to team problem solving: The rational, logical part of solving the problem and the interpersonal dynamic at play within the team” (Schinkel, 2017). The logical portion must include clarifying the goal, otherwise it is common to only address symptoms of the bigger problem. If the interpersonal side of the problem solving is lacking, the acceptance of the solution won’t occur, and the team won’t buy-in. Be sure to draw out ideas from all team members, otherwise those who are more assertive and confident will push their ideas through, even when they may not be best. The following information provides some other foundational pieces to consider.

Eliminating Common Barriers

People are creatures of habit, and many are not accustomed to being actively engaged in problem solving for their unit. The article Strengthen the Problem-Solving Skills of Your Team by Art Petty identifies three different leadership practices that can unintentionally contribute to the habit of waiting to be told what to do (Petty, 2019):

  • Micromanagement: Leaders often have difficulty staying out of the weeds and too readily jump in to tell employees what to do. Set parameters and timelines but trust them to do the work of figuring out solutions.
  • No Mistakes Allowed: Encouraging risk taking and innovation, but then jumping all over people when they make a mistake will do nothing but shut them down. Focus on how to help people quickly learn from mistakes without demeaning them.
  • No Team Development: Some teams are just individuals grouped together in an organizational chart. If there has been no effort to develop team collaboration and working together to address issues it will be an uphill battle. Put some effort into helping your team gel. For example, have them work together through case studies of common issues that face the unit.

Setting the Stage

In addition to eliminating barriers, it is also important to assess the make-up, climate, and how work gets done on your team. The article 3 Surprising Ways to Develop Problem-Solving Teams by Jeff Pruitt outlines the following areas to consider (Pruitt, 2018):

  • Cognitive Diversity: There is a tendency to hire people who think like you do, but having a team full of people who are always in agreement leads to a stagnant, repetitive approach to the challenges you face. According to Pruitt, “It’s been shown time and again that putting people with different personality types, strengths, knowledge banks, and leadership styles together to work through an issue results in better collaboration, problem identification, discipline, out-of-the-box thinking, and innovation” (Pruitt, 2018).
  • Psychological Safety: Even if you have diversity in thinking on your team, it won’t get you far if people fear repercussions (career or social) for speaking out. As the leader you must set the example of being inclusive and respectful, while also setting that expectation of ongoing support for new ideas among team members.
  • Cut Out Complexity: This can be challenging in a large, complex organization but not impossible. Are people held to tight hierarchical arrangements or are they allowed to reach out to whoever is needed to gain information for the problem at hand? Are your processes outdated and keeping people stuck? Step back and look at these issues to see where people might have anchors that keep them from forwarding their effort. Encourage them to talk about any barriers they are experiencing and help to remove them when you can.

Discussing the Process

It’s best not to assume that people are familiar with a solid process for problem solving. Reviewing a process can help them all be on the same page as they address issues. The article Seven Steps for Effective Problem Solving in the Workplace by Tim Hicks offers one model to consider (Hicks, 2019):

  1. Identify the Issues: As noted above, you want to be clear about what the problem is, not just the symptoms.
  2. Understand Everyone’s Interests: It is critical to consider the interests of individual team members and stakeholders. Active listening is critical.
  3. List the Possible Solutions: This is the time for creative brainstorming without shooting any ideas down.
  4. Evaluate the Options: Honestly discuss pros and cons of each approach. Make sure that all are heard.
  5. Select an Option or Options: The best option may not be ideal for every stakeholder but is able to meet priority needs. Consider whether it is feasible to bundle more than one option for a more satisfactory solution.
  6. Document the Agreement(s): Writing it down will make it clear to all and help you think through all the details.
  7. Agree on Contingencies, Monitoring and Evaluation: Conditions may change. Make contingency agreements about foreseeable future circumstances (this is particularly relevant right now). Determine how you’ll monitor follow-through and evaluate outcomes (such as, “Let’s try this for three months and re-evaluate.”)

Prompting the Team with Questions

It is tempting for leaders to take over when team members don’t move ahead. For long term gains, it is much better to ask some key questions that further their own critical thinking as they approach problems. The article 9 Questions to Help Your Team Solve Problems on Their Own by David Dye shares a list to keep in mind (Dye, 2019):

  • What is your goal?
  • What have you tried?
  • What happened?
  • What did you learn from this?
  • What else do you need?
  • What else can you do?
  • What do you think will happen if you try option A? What about option B?
  • What will you do?

If someone responds to questions with “I don’t know,” your response should then be, “what would you do if you did know?” It may sound strange but making it more hypothetical frees people up to share ideas they were keeping dormant, and it is often very productive.

Problem solving is a learnable skill and something all can benefit from throughout their career. You probably wouldn’t be in a leadership position if you didn’t have the skill yourself, but if individual team members don’t learn to think strategically and problem solve on their own and collectively, you’ll spend a lot of wasted time and they won’t grow. With the rapidly changing world before us, you can’t afford to ignore that need.

ElevateU Resources for Further Learning

Use the following resources in the elevateU learning platform to continue learning about this topic:

Dye, D. (2019, May 1) 9 Questions to Help Your Team Solve Problems on Their Own. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://letsgrowleaders.com/2018/05/01/9-questions-to-help-your-team-solve-problems-on-their-own/

Hicks, T. (2019, July 1) Seven Steps for Effective Problem Solving in the Workplace. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://www.mediate.com/articles/thicks.cfm

Petty, A. (2019, October 7). Strengthen the Problem-Solving Skills of Your Team. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/how-to-strengthen-team-problem-solving-skills-4123663

Pruitt, J., (2018, April 26). 3 Surprising Ways to Develop Problem Solving Teams. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from  https://www.inc.com/jeff-pruitt/3-surprising-ways-to-develop-problem-solving-teams.html

Schinkel, G. (2017). How to Solve Problems as a Team. Retrieved October 26, 2020 from https://uniquedevelopment.com/blog/how-to-solve-problems-as-a-team/

Individual and Team Resources in elevateU

Looking for ways to grow and develop your team while helping everyone stay connected during this time? elevateU has online options available for both individual and team development, including Team Talks, Monthly Featured Topics and Desktop/Productivity Tools. Learn more about how these resources can help you and your team:

Team Talks

Team Talks offer a series of guides and highlighted short videos designed to help drive self-reflection and discussion. Each Team Talk guide has three sections to encourage self-reflection, discussion points for a team, and some suggestions for how to implement ideas to action individually and as a team.

Access Team Talks directly here.

How to Use:

  • Once at the Team Talks section, choose a topic from the categories on the left. Go to the Custom tab to find the related guide. Review the the guide and the highlighted video linked to on the left side of the guide.
  • Individual Activity: view the brief video and consider the Self-Reflection questions included in the Team Talk guide.
  • Team Activity: watch the video before a meeting and/or as a team during a virtual meeting and use the Team Talk questions as a guide for discussion. The Ideas for Action section provides some considerations for putting ideas into actionable behaviors, for both individuals and entire teams. Assign topics to team members to lead the discussion to further enhance collaboration. Revisit the topic in the next team meeting by asking how employees were able to apply what they learned.

Monthly Featured Topics

Monthly Featured Topics are a curated list of resources – such as short videos, courses, book summaries, and more – around a specific skill or topic. New topics are rolled out the first week of each month and the previous month’s topics are also available. April’s topic is Time Management – be sure to check out these timely resources.

Access Monthly Featured Topics directly here.

How to Use:

  • We recommend a 30-minute online course “The Art of Staying Focused,” which covers relevant segments such as “Blocking Out Distractions” and “Adjusting Your Focus When Circumstances Change.” 
  • Also consider one of the highlighted book summaries, The Inefficiency Assassin: Time Management Tactics for Working Smarter, Not Longer,” which provides a brief overview. The whole book is available in elevateU for free as well.
  • Team Activity: have team members view the resources and prepare to engage in a discussion as a team around the subject—interesting thoughts and ideas, ways to apply the concepts, etc. Further enhance collaboration by assigning a monthly topic to one or more team members to research, discuss and share with the rest of the team during a regularly scheduled team meeting.

Desktop and Productivity Tools

The Desktop and Productivity Tools section highlights a few options from the vast library of other desktop, IT, and productivity-related assets and are geared to a variety of skill levels. Content is organized by a specific tool (e.g., Teams Office 365, Excel, Word, OneNote).

Access Desktop and Productivity Tools directly here.

How to Use:

  • Individual Activity: Have you always wanted to learn how to utilize OneNote better or how to create masterful charts in Excel? Now is the time to tackle those topics individually, especially for any items included in your annual performance goals. 
  • Team Activity: Consider assigning one or more team members to learn more about a specific tool and do a “teach-back” for the rest of the team. Are there particular tools that could benefit your team now or help prepare the team for an upcoming project? This strategy creates an excellent framework for collaboration and connection outside the regular virtual team setting, boosts communication and presentation skills, and also creates a network of “experts” on your team for specific tools.

Have questions or want to discuss additional options?  Contact Organization and Professional Development at prodev@hr.msu.edu.