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Ordinarily I focus on how hard it is to develop a good team. There are so many interpersonal dynamics and individual needs that can clog up the works of getting the right stuff done for the company. So much time and attention can be eaten up on distracting chatter.

But lately I have been thinking about better functioning teams and what they all have in common. When I think back over all the best teams I worked with there is a noticeable absence of bitching and complaining about the competence of the team members. In fact there is a high degree of professional respect for all (or nearly all) of the members.

So then I thought back to all the nutty teams to test my hypothesis. Did those teams have a critical mass of members who felt others on the team were incompetent idiots? Yes! There was a steady stream of:

  • She has no friggin’ clue what she is doing
  • He couldn’t manage his way out of a paper bag
  • I could do his job in my sleep
  • She’s in way over her head
  • The only reason he’s on the team is…fill in the blank. It’s not because he is qualified for the job
  • Nice person but not tough enough for the job
  • She is old school

If there isn’t enough confidence that a team member has the skills and expertise to do a good job the chorus of detractors can get very loud. This can get compounded by all sorts of nastiness piled on top. “Let’s stick it to her” or “I’m just going to ignore his requests” or “What a total loser”. It gets personal and public. Unfortunately most team members don’t realize that it is not just that individual who gets a bad reputation. It is the entire team and the flame thrower.

But walk into a team where there is uniform respect for each other and you know you aren’t in Kansas anymore. There is good cheer, genuine helpfulness and support and much more productive time spent getting stuff done. These teams don’t necessarily all go out for drinks after work (in fact most don’t) but there is a feeling of being in this together. When you are a member of one of those teams you never get too isolated or too swamped.

So is there a formula for creating a team where everyone is professionally respected?

The answer is what my favorite CEO client told me many years ago. “If you don’t have all A players on your team you will never achieve your goals.” Period. He was unwavering about that. To be clear, he did not mean that everyone had to be a great person who got along well with others. He meant, you have to be the most expert person in your discipline for our company with this collection of people. His teams were always super smart and very loyal to him. They knew they all passed his high standards. So the only debates they had were about the best business solutions…not bullshit about each other.

If you assess your team and see anyone who is not at the top of their game (or on the path) and you know that others have a dim opinion of that person think about your options. Is that person capable of becoming great soon enough to satisfy the team needs or do you need to make some changes? If you are leading an executive team there is no justification for having unqualified people. It brings the whole team down.

There are times, however, on leadership teams where there is a need for significant change and it is important to bring in an odd duck. Think about bringing a digital person into the midst of an analogue team because the future depends on it. This new person may not have all the necessary chops yet but she has special knowledge the team desperately needs. Or you bring in a more creative thinker to disrupt the more conservative point of view. If the leader is not 100% behind the successful integration of this new member then things can go terribly wrong. All the negative refrains listed above will be chanted and the leader will be chastised for this “experiment”.

But this just underscores my point that professional respect is at the root of a good and productive team. The absence of that confidence in others is what leads to loads of dysfunctional dynamics. This makes me think of Jim Collins’ work on Good to Great. It isn’t sexy. It’s just being very good at what you do and hanging out with a bunch of other people who can do the same.

Think about it. Review all the teams you’ve been on and tell me I’m right.

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