#4 Team Development

In today’s episode, we look at strengthening and reviewing our team practice by using John Adair’s Action Centred Leadership model to break down teamwork.

I had a bit of trouble knowing quite what to order today. I wasn’t sure if I wanted team identity, which is so difficult to define and shape some times; or did I want team dynamics, but they’re really about the intrapersonal interactions in the team, so I felt I’d be too vague if I addressed them (teams are all so different, well, individuals are all so different that I wasn’t sure I could speak directly to you and your people) – and I would have loved to use the term “team building” but unfortunately this now often is associated with a one-off activity to help with team spirit instead of the long, process that building a team really is. So, I thought Team Development would be vague enough but could give us enough of a hook to start our coffee.

When I talk of team development, I’m referring to looking at the processes or activities that can help our team get better every day. And for that, I quite like looking at a classical model, which I rarely hear anything about nowadays. And that is John Adair’s Action Centred Leadership.

I’m not much of a model and theories person when it comes to looking at something as complex as working in a team, but it does help to frame our thinking and, when used with other people, it gives us a language. And of course, in looking through a model we start asking ourselves questions and we might even discover a solution that doesn’t involve using the model at all.

Having said that, this particular model helped me a lot when I was running a small theatre company many years ago. My main aim was to build an ensemble, a group of freelance professionals who worked regularly together – looking back, building this team was probably more of a driving force through my time at the company than creating theatre itself, but that’s a story for a different coffee.. – We didn’t have the resources to put on more than one show a year, a smaller experimental event also only once a year and we also had an ongoing education programme – but this rarely saw more than a few of us working together and this was usually for a few hours, two days max.

Around the time that I was looking at formalizing a bit more the Ensemble and building some sense of identity within it and around it, I took a Leadership course, a ten day course, which was a wonderful introduction into the world of theories and models I’d never come across. One model turned on my lightbulb, action centred leadership.

In essence, Adair suggests that leadership in a team happens at the intersection of looking after the task, the individual and the team. It makes complete sense, doesn’t it. And, looking at it, this simple devision of our work process can helps us as much to plan and look forwards as it does to review how we’re doing.

Think about reviewing how we’re doing in our team.

We usually focus on the task. Well, I’m generalizing, but from what I come across, that’s usually the case. Mainly we look at where we’re at with the work.

How about looking at how we’re doing as individuals? Not just in our work but in our sense of development, productivity, fulfillment and dare I say, happiness at work?

Then we can move on to the team – are we aligned? What’s communication like – amongst ourselves and other parts of the organisation? What’s getting in our way?

When you look at it, it’s not leadership that is at the intersection of task/individual/team, it’s teamwork that lies there. How we’re getting on with the task affects the individual, which affects their relationship with others in the team.

This model is useful at all levels, whether you’re managing a team, or building one, or if you’re part of one, as it can help to decide which area to focus on when you feel that maybe something is not quite right. For example, the feeling in the team might be quite cozy, people are talking to each other etc, the task is on track but individuals are not really developing, because the task has become easy or routine and they’re so comfortable in the team that they don’t need to find fulfillment in growing as professionals. Then you know that it’s probably time to look at opportunities for people to grow in some way.

Or when you’re putting a team together, especially if you’re the founder of a business, you might find yourself really being on top of the task and building strong relationships with individuals, but there might not be much team communication – something to look out for if you want to be a high performance team. (And do check out the very first episode of this podcast on that.)

Development in Virtual Teams

For virtual teams, when we need to be even more deliberate about team building than in those teams who are in the same physical space, this model can help us to set up simple processes or to help us decide what kind of meetings we want to have. The task is falling behind? Tracking the team progress, implementing OKRs or Working Out Loud might be the next best steps. Individuals not developing? Time to shuffle around tasks, or, if people are used to working on their own, it might be time form subteams so that people can have more interaction with others and hence have more opportunities to learn; or maybe it’s time to encourage one-ones of some kind, formalizing reflection time.

If individuals are progressing, and our tasks are in line, it might be time to turn to team dynamics. Remember that our relationship with peers are very important in how engaged we feel with our work. And people who are used to communicating regularly and feel a sense of connection with the rest of the team, will be more likely to solve problems together, know how to navigate through conflict and adapt to change.

Something I wanted to share with you. As I was reading back through some of Adair’s work, I realised how much of a traditional view it holds of relationships in the workplace. Well, this is my opinion, so it will be really interesting to hear whether you agree or not.

So, what do you think of this: “There should be some social distance between you and the team, but not too much.” And the reason John Adair gives for this is that you might need to make decisions at some point which will be unpopular and that if you are in too friendly terms, you will weaken your position.

I would like to think that we are moving a little bit beyond this. I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m definitely not saying that people have to have friendships with people they work with – sometimes we can develop a really good working relationship without taking it beyond the work – this will even depend on your definition of friendship. So although I’m not saying that we’re moving to an era where managers need to be friends with their team members, I think it’s valuable to think of a way in which we can flatten the relationships but still allow managers to make tough decisions should they need to. For one, transparency, I’d like to think that if people understand the reasons for decision making, they won’t pull the “how can you do this to us” card; or how about finding ways of making tough decisions together – what would need to happen to be able to do this?

Do we really have to manage so well our social relationships to be able to lead a team? I don’t know, maybe this is the only option in some cases – I’d still like to think that we can. Also, being friendly doesn’t mean that people get away with anything and that no-one calls out each other’s unsuitable behaviour. In fact, I’d like to think it’s the opposite, people who have high degrees of trust between them and who feel accountable to each other (which would be my definition of friendship) should be able to have these conversations more often.

In a way, I also feel like if we need to create that distance, we are reinforcing the hierarchy, and moving the manager away from the team. Surely we want teams where everyone feels accountable to everyone else?

Ok time to go – I’ll leave you to think about whether it is or not important to keep that distance between manager and team members. In any case, I hope that John Adair’s model of action centred leadership with his focus on the task, individual and team helps you if you are stuck on how to develop your team or even to help you diagnose where teamwork might be failing.

Adair’s book if you’d like to read it, is called Effective Leadership.

Recommended Reading

However, the book I’d like to leave you with today is another classic, this time by Warren Bennis, called On Becoming a Leader. You’ll probably find it a little bit less of a practical read than Adair’s book, but if you feel like reflecting on your practice, on who you are and who you’d like to be, then it’s definitely worth a read.

I read it a long time ago and marked several passages. In looking through it today, I found a quote I had marked as relevant to new managers, who might be the ones struggling most with this friend/manager dilemma. As a comparison to Adair’s work, here is what Warren Bennis had to say about these difficult moments when we have to disagree or go against those people we consider our friends. He quotes American President Truman as saying

“It takes one kind of courage to face a duelist, but it’s nothinglike the courage it takes to tell a friend, No.”


I’ll leave you with the book and I’ll look for you in the café again next week.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s