3 things high performing teams get right

Let’s face it. For some of the teams I work with and my coaching clients, behaviour change can be really hard. They come to a workshop or coaching session. They identify key changes they’d like to make that will make a positive difference to their lives. They’re feeling motivated, excited, optimistic, focused, more confident. They have clarity and they really want to make those changes. They’ve told me that there are real benefits in them doing so and that the consequences of not changing will have a negative impact on them, their work mates and the people they love in their lives.

And then.... they get back to the office, and life seems to get in the way. There never seems to be a good time to start. They lose track of the goals they identified. And then before they know it, it’s time for our next workshop or coaching session or they just move on and their intentions fall by the wayside!

I understand. I’ve been there! Accountability, implementation and consistency with my habits are practices that I struggle with. This year I’ve been a participant in a Business School that is forcing me to confront my challenges around accountability. I’ve discovered that it helps to have a system to support you to make changes and build positive habits daily. I’ve been learning that the little things, done consistently, do make a big difference – like compound interest or training for a marathon.

As I’ve dug deeper into my work with high performing teams and ones that, despite good intentions, still struggle to make change, I’ve identified three key ingredients that are essential to making change stick and why some teams bomb out and get stuck in good intentions with no action. Read on to find out more.

So you want to embed behavioural standards in your team?

Do you have these three ingredients covered?

1. A system

2. Commitment

3. Consequences

I find in my work that its quite easy for teams to identify the behaviours they’d like the team to implement – which positive behaviours do they want to see more of? What negative behaviours do they want to see less of? If they acted like this ideal individually and as a team, the team would fly and individuals would be happier and higher-performing.

1. A System

Once the team has identified the behaviours they’d like to embed, the next step is identifying the HOW. What’s going to work for the team? What your plan to implement your intended change or habit – when and where will you act?

We need to make it easy for people to take action. Therefore in our discussions about team behaviours, we also need to develop a system that individuals can follow.

This system needs to be created by the team, owned by everyone in the team and implemented by everyone in the team.

If there’s no system then it’s like a football game where everyone is playing by different rules. In the same game you might have someone paying AFL, someone playing soccer and someone playing rugby.

If we’re all playing the same game then it’s a lot easier to make progress around change.

One example of a system that has been shown by research to work in changing habits is to write down your intention along with where and when you will do it. For example:

  • I will meditate in bed for at least two minutes before I go to sleep.

  • Our team will do a check in/review on how we are going with our identified team behaviours for 10 minutes at the start of every team meeting.

  • I will only say things about fellow employees that I would say to their faces in all conversations I have

James Clear, author of the fabulous book on behaviour change, Atomic Habits, reported on a study in the British Journal of Health Psychology which found that 91% of people who planned their intention to exercise by writing down when and where they would exercise each week ended up following through. Meanwhile, people who read motivational material about exercise, but did not plan when and where they would exercise, showed no increase compared to the control group (35-38% followed through).

James writes, “The punch line is clear: people who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through. Too many people try to change their habits without these basic details figured out. We tell ourselves, “I’m going to eat healthier” or “I’m going to write more,” but we never say when and where these habits are going to happen. We leave it up to chance and hope that we will “just remember to do it” or feel motivated at the right time. An implementation intention sweeps away foggy notions like “I want to work out more” or “I want to be more productive” or “I should vote” and transforms them into a concrete plan of action.

Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action. Some people spend their entire lives waiting for the time to be right to make an improvement.”

James recommends that your implementation plan around any change should be structured like this:

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].

So how can your team structure some implementation plans around the behaviour changes you want to see?

2. Commitment

The second essential ingredient for embedding behaviour change in teams is commitment. Commitment is needed at three levels – the individual, the team and the leadership group.

I find it’s easy for people at a workshop or in a coaching session to SAY they commit to embedding new team behavioural standards and that they have the intention to implement them. I think they really believe it at the time. But professed commitment is different to taking action and this is where the best laid plans go astray.

Any change starts with you. It’s not up to anyone else to do this stuff and make the change, it’s up to you! If all the individuals in the team truly commit to making change then this has flow on effects to the whole team and organisation.

It’s also crucial that the leadership group commits to change. Everyone will be watching you and will takes their cues from you. If you aren’t serious then the team won’t be either – no-one likes people who operate in a, “do as I say, not as I do” mode. You can’t ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself.

McKinsey research has shown that organisational change is inseparable from individual change. Change efforts often falter because individuals overlook the need to make fundamental changes in themselves. They found that, “half of all efforts to transform organisational performance fail either because senior managers don’t act as role models for change or because people in the organization defend the status quo. In other words, despite the stated change goals, people on the ground tend to behave as they did before.”

So as a leader, how committed are you to doing the reflective and hard work of looking at yourself and changing yourself first?

I would urge leaders to not take their teams through “team building” or “behaviour change” programs unless you are truly committed to doing the work yourself. Otherwise all you will do is build cynicism and destroy trust between the team and yourselves.

3. Consequences

The third essential element for embedding team behaviour change in your team is consequences.

Team members have identified and agreed on the productive behaviours they’d like to see more of and the unproductive behaviours they’d like to see less of. They’ve developed a system together that supports the implementation of the behaviours they want to make. Everyone has committed to making the change.

And then someone doesn’t do what you all agreed to.

If you want to undermine all the good work the team has done up to this point then you will tolerate this poor behaviour and there won’t be any consequences for anyone not doing what you all agreed to do.

Many of us don’t like conflict and we often go into denial mode or try to rationalise bad behavior, rather than deal with it. If you as a team mate or leader convince yourself that it's not important, or believe that it will sort itself out, then you’re part of the problem.

In a sporting team if someone goes against the rules of the team during a game they’ll be dragged from the ground for a time or there may be a sanction after the game. Or there might be a reward for doing the right thing. There are clear positive and negative consequences for players that help reinforce behavioural standards.

What might work for your team? I think as part of the process it’s important for the team to have the discussion, agree on key consequences that are clearly defined and understood, that are agreed to by all and that are implemented and followed through. Following through could be as a team mate or as a leader.

We’re all only human so of course there’s going to be times we stuff up, don’t do our best or make a choice to do something different. Team performance is more of an art than a science – there needs to be give and take and some flexibility in any system.

Getting these three ingredients for success right in your team will help you at an individual, team and leadership level with:

  • Being consistent,

  • Developing transparency around behaviours with no surprises,

  • Establishing clear expectations,

  • Having everyone playing by the same rules with no double standards,

  • Building trust between team members and between the team and leaders,

  • Sticking to your commitments,

  • Learning from your mistakes,

  • Asking questions to dig deeper and understand why people may have not stuck with what they agreed to,

  • Developing the practice of personal reflection and your own ability to achieve change,

  • Practising accountability and giving and receiving feedback,

  • Supporting individuals and the team to reach higher levels of performance in a productive and happier work environment.

So next time you go into a team development or behaviour change workshop I encourage you to ensure you have these three key ingredients on your agenda to help you achieve the changes your team wants to make.

Good luck.