Cohesive / Functional Teams – “Straight Talk on Strengthening Your Team’s “Rim”

A recent Delfi Blog used the analogy of the Wagon Wheel to help us see teams another way.  We ended with a discussion of the importance of the rim to the wagon wheel – how it protects the spokes – keeps the wheel functioning to enable the fulfillment of the wheel’s purpose – resulting in a smooth ride.   The rim is the only part of the wagon wheel that touches the ground – which means it is the most important part of the wheel to ensure the smoothness of the ride.  The rim is only connected to the spokes (the team members) and is only remotely linked to the hub (the leader) through the spokes.  In reality, the rim represents the relationships that exist between and amongst team members – how they communicate and function with each other.  Thus the rim is in a very precarious position on the wheel – critical for the smooth operation – yet totally reliant on the behaviors of each of the spokes.  The rim is the visible representation of how strong the team member relationships are.

Pat Lencioni, bestselling author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, identifies 5 component behaviors that are necessary for a team’s rim to have durability and strength  – to be functional and cohesive.   Team members must trust each other and operate at a sufficient trust level to be open, honest and vulnerable, without fearing that other team members will take advantage of them.  It means exercising  the courage to admit mistakes, to ask for help, to apologize for missing a deadline, to speak openly and honestly about what is happening in their work and non-work lives – to be human and genuine – even at work.  This courage and trust does not come easily – and takes a while to build – but it is seen as foundational for any progress on the next 4 critical behaviors.

If a team has high levels of trust, then members will be more willing to have honest and frank debates about critical issues.  There is a comfort level with expressing differing views around contentious decision items  – a belief that disrupting a common sense of ‘artificial harmony’ (that comes from people holding back for fear of conflict) can lead to much better solutions for the team.  As one of our Delfi Associates often states – “you need to break a few eggs to realize the potential of an omelet”.  Teams that trust and understand the importance of honest debate are not afraid of disrupting artificial harmony and engaging in healthy debate and conflict – in order to get to a better decision.

Once a team has mastered the ability to push themselves and each other to the best possible decision, they have to be able to commit.  After all, even if their favored position did not win the day, they all were engaged and were heard – and a team decision was taken.  Once reached, the common decision must now be supported and committed to – not held up as the option that any one team member argued against and lost.  The rim holds the spokes together – and once a direction is decided upon –any spoke that tries to move in the opposite direction is a major disruption to the smoothness of the ride.

Following commitment comes accountability… personal accountability for actions and commitments as part of the implementation of any decision.  It also means being accountable for giving feedback to any other team member for any behaviors engaged in, that may disrupt the smooth functioning of the team.  This is the hardest behavior for a team member to engage in.  It requires the highest level of trust and comfort with potential conflict.  It is an absolutely essential that each team member have the courage to give and receive peer feedback in when the need arises, for the health of the team and for the rim to flourish.  There is a simple reason – peer pressure and the distaste for letting down a colleague will motivate a team player more than any fear of punishment or criticism from the leader.   Honest !

And finally, the fifth behavior that contributes to a strong rim is a passion for team results rather than individual results.  Team members often are representatives of other functions, departments or employees at the meeting.  They have to be very conscious and accepting that the shared team goal always takes precedence over personal or constituent goals.  The views and deeds of the represented groups may well surface during the frank healthy debate – but in the end, the admission price to the team is the acceptance of the team goals as being higher order goals that must be addressed.

These are the five critical team behaviors required for a strong Rim and for a cohesive and functional team.

Here is an interesting observation as we end this Blog series on teams and wagon wheels.  My manufacturing executive client points out – the newest and strongest industrial wheels today are cast as one piece from the same alloy – no longer a sum of separate functioning parts – all together as one piece of metal – with no separation of function or identity.  Not sure that teams of people will ever be this cohesive  and unified – but it is a stretch target to aim for.