Building Teamwork under COVID Pressure

Handshake at an office meetingThe pandemic only highlights problems that existed before the office buildings were bolted shut.

By Steven E. Sacks
The NEW Fundamentals

With the COVID outbreak, businesses of all types have had their teams work remotely while trying to ensure that the team structure was secure.

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How to communicate with and ensure trust with each team member has presented challenges – some having to do with issues that normally occur even in an in-person setting, in pre-pandemic times.

Consider team members who believe they are taking on too much of a project versus other teams, or that the allocation of resources is not adequate. Consider also the mixed messages from a company or a firm leader as to how the responsibilities of each team may or may not be in alignment with the overall goals.

To cultivate and retain trust between management and staff there has to be clear messaging so that no one person feels that what he or she is doing is purposeless.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have highlighted problems that existed before the office buildings were bolted shut.

Leadership’s focus should be on how to restore confidence and trust so when the pandemic eventually disappears or at least becomes manageable, employees can return with a renewed feeling of motivation and team spirit. But this is for then; what about the here and now?

Moving in the Same Direction

What happens if a plan is hatched that team members think is wasteful and unproductive – and they share their true feelings through texts? What were excitement and hope now is pessimism and uncertainty that the necessary resources will be available. Because of these mixed emotions, based on prior team experiences, both good and bad, combined with anecdotal information from other people, the trust factor can be shaky among members of the teams and between the teams and senior leadership.

In the best of circumstances, team members treated one another with respect, shared information with each other, and explained what each one brought to the table in terms of skills and experiences. On the flip side, in the worst circumstances, there was a lack of respect and openness, a failure to follow through on commitments, or throwing someone under the bus to position themselves in a positive light.

The formation of teams is based on relationships, and relationships are built upon the foundation of trust. In contrast to individualism, a team’s ability to function effectively can only work where there is trust, reliance on one another, and confidence that all members are moving in the same direction. Whether it is a board, a partner team, C-suite occupants, or a sales force, the important factors are a sense of belonging, and members’ willingness to speak openly and honestly and to commit to the team’s, organization’s or firm’s goals in order to take risks and support each other in both good and bad times.

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” – Henry Ford

In our professional and personal lives, we try to say what we do and do what we say. It is sort of like an invisible contract or pact; there is an expectation that two parties to the agreement have a meeting of the minds regarding the necessary actions to take to meet the requirements of the pact.

Consider the team that expresses its expectations only after criticizing one of the members for what was done incorrectly or inefficiently. How will the criticized team member feel?

Trusting?

I doubt it.

Considerations of a Team and Its Members

  • What is expected of each team member?
  • Does each team member feel he or she can accomplish what is expected?
  • Will I be accepted as one of the “guys”?
  • Who is expected to do what portion of the project?
  • How are the tasks allocated and the roles established?
  • How are decisions made and who makes them?
  • Are the agendas and action plans developed by those outside the team accessible to all members?
  • How often will meetings be arranged and who will facilitate them?
  • Are project deadlines “written in stone” or is there some built-in flexibility?
  • What if I am uncertain about how to go about my tasks? Is it okay to admit this?

In the unwritten pact, trust is the beginning point for the team. Without it, the team will run in place. For example, if the team members don’t articulate and agree on the roles and responsibilities, this can cause one or more members to think they are doing a job expected, while others may see it as an inconsistent or useless function. There needs honesty about what each team member needs, whether it is resources, technical support, or even an esteem booster. Absent this, there will be hidden agendas and shortcuts in work steps. If what was an agreed-upon understanding at the beginning transforms into complete chaos and recriminations and excuses, then the foundation of trust is cracked, perhaps irrevocably so.

Plan for the Unexpected

A critical component is a definition of why the team even exists: its objectives, the role it plays in the overall organizational goals and what is expected from each team member. Therefore, the boundaries, expectations, and clarity of purpose need to be expressed.

To perform at the optimal level, each team member must have a sense of “inclusion” – that there is a two-way understanding of expectations and goals. Otherwise, without expectations, and in particular, alignment toward the same goals, the team will surely work diametrically opposite within its framework, and therefore, will eliminate any chance of building trust.

And in a pandemic, trust is more valuable then ever before.

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