Lessons From Early Team-Building
Bill Cottringer

“The ratio of We’s to I’s is the best indicator of the development of a team. ~Lewis B. Ergen.

Effective team-building has always been known as essential to any success, whether we are talking about work teams, sports teams, orchestras, domestic and marriage partners, plays, group therapy or families. And teams have always been known to have a collective ability above and beyond that of each individual member. This is because the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. A whole car with all the parts working together can easily move at 60mph, whereas the steering wheel, tires, ignition, gear shift and the rest of the parts alone can’t do much other than what they were designed to do—work together efficiently and effectively to get the intended results.

In the early eighties, four young prison administrators and a Psychologist were brought together in Nebraska to build an executive team for the purpose of running a new prison efficiently and effectively. The intended expectation of the Director of Prisons was for this new prison to surpass benchmark standards of safety, security, public protection, retribution, justice and rehabilitation opportunities. This was to be a model prison for the rest of the country to admire.

The team was made up of a male Psychologist/Consultant, female Warden/team leader, and three male Associate Wardens. Their collective IQ exceeded 600 and work experience nearly a century; their knowledge, skills and leadership styles covered all bases, as did their psychological profiles. They were committed to do what had not been done before with the new prison.

The team building began with developing a shared vision, goals and core values within the executive team. Once this was established through appreciative inquiry, then the communication of these things occurred repeatedly, in various formats to all other layers of the organization from supervisors to line staff to inmates to external stakeholders. The success of the prison was well-established after just one year of operation, as evidenced by the team getting one of the highest initial accreditation scores in going through the difficult accreditation process of the American Correctional Association on very rigorous standards, or critical success factors as objectively measured.

But the rest of the story came the following year when the “corporate culture” was measured to test the lasting congruence of the mission, goals and core values between the various organizational layers as communicated in words and everyday actions. The degree of incongruence was disheartening given the amount of time and effort that went into this innovative and well-meaning project.

Nearly 35 years later and after literal libraries of research on team-building success factors have been amassed, we have some valuable clues about the why of the apparent failure of the communication process, in spite of the overall success of the prison. We know this quality of communication is what is essential to guarantee the sustainability of long-term success.

The consensus of all the research into the critical factors that are essential to team building and its success, offers this list:

1. Shared vision, goals and core values. This is the basic starting point of agreement that all team members must be equally committed to, communicate clearly and demonstrate consistently in their actions. Personal differences here are the termites that dissolve the foundation of the group.

2. Role clarity. All team members have an assumed or assigned role to play. There must be a leader, gatekeeper, peacemaker, evaluator, recorder and coordinator.

3. Emotional Intelligence. A healthy store of all the main emotional intelligence components is what facilitates these other success factors. This includes self-awareness, management of emotions, positive motivation, empathy and good people skills.

4. Trust. Trust can only occur if these other factors are present and active. Trust can’t develop further if there isn't an underlying acceptance and honesty that is felt through open communication.

5. Communication. Communication has to be supportive and open, with shared speaking opportunities and active listening. Nothing much gets done without assertive communication to get through the inevitable conflicts that will surface in the team’s development.

6. Accountability. Team members have to hold themselves accountable for productivity in planning, gathering needed information, continuous learning and rapid problem-solving. But, there has to be generous empowerment and authority associated with any assumed or imposed accountability.

7. Mutual respect. Team members must view each other equally and respect each other’s knowledge, skills, characteristics, learning modes and contributions. This has to be present in the beginning to be perceived as reward at the end.

8. Collaboration. Working together with an abundance mentality and a win-win outcome orientation has to replace the more prevalent competitive, win-lose mode.

9. Clear and engaging direction. This basic organization has to come from a strong leader.

10. Technology and material support. The team development doesn't need any technology or material gaps to disrupt focus and productivity.

11. Performance goals. These should be stated at the beginning or at least evolve very early on in the team’s development and they have to be shared, understood and supported by consensus.

12. Group rewards. Again, these should be arranged up front and given intermittently to reinforce learning and moving in the right direction. Both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are necessary.

13. Continuous learning. The attitude of being a perpetual student in learning, growing and improving is a basic requirement for any individual or group success.

14. Building partnerships. A not-so-obvious success.
factor leading to increased team intelligence and success, is the reaching out and building partnerships with external stakeholders to widen the team’s sphere of influence.

15. Feedback. Team activities and progress needs to operate under a continuous feedback loop so as to not allow the team to go off in the wrong direction for too long.
16. Task interdependence. This factor represents the ideal target between member’s independence from one another and dependence upon others.

17. Skill diversity. All bases should be covered with the skills that team members bring to the table, which can be enhanced from the experience to widen the net with results.

Michelangelo once said, “What doesn't start out well, doesn't finish well.” And so if you are trying to build or rebuild a successful team, invest some time and effort into starting out well, by planting these success seeds to cultivate and harvest into abundance fruit for all.

“None of us is as smart as all of us. ~ Ken Blanchard.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, PhD. is Executive Vice-President for Employee Relations for Puget Sound Security, Inc. in Bellevue, WA, along with his hobbies in being a Sport Psychologist, Business Success Coach, Photographer and Writer living in the peaceful but invigorating mountains and rivers of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, “You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too” (Executive Excellence), “The Bow-Wow Secrets” (Wisdom Tree), “Do What Matters Most” and “P” Point Management” (Atlantic Book Publishers), “Reality Repair” (Global Vision Press), Reality Repair Rx (Authorsden), and “If Pictures Could Talk,” coming soon. Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (425) 454-5011 or ckuretdoc@comcast.net