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How to Build a Healthy Project Team?

Author: Lane Compton

As a project manager, some of our greatest joys come in coaxing more than the sum of the whole out of the individuals that make up our teams. Likewise, some of our greatest frustrations come from the recognition that our teams should have delivered more: more value in less time with fewer headaches.

Most people would freely accept that healthy teams will outproduce dysfunctional teams, but it can be tempting to feel helpless in the face of a negative organizational culture. Should we surrender to victim hood, or are we able to rise above and offer hope for a brighter future?

Our teams often function as a microcosm of the organizations they reside within, especially those that are truly cross-functional and cut across multiple departments, verticals or business units. It’s helpful to have a framework to assess the health of our teams, but as project managers we can and should be looking to improve the health of our teams after we assess them. Our results (and reputation!) often depend on it.

In Patrick Lencioni’s seminal book The Advantage, he summarizes the results of his research and observation and defines healthy organizations as those that "include minimal politics and confusion, high degrees of morale and productivity, and very low turnover among good employees.”

Let’s consider how we can assess and improve our teams in each of those areas.

Statement 1: Healthy organizations (and project teams) include minimal politics and confusion. Assess: Do the members of our team clearly understand their individual roles and how decisions will be made? If they don’t, it will be virtually impossible to get them pulling in the same direction—and decisions will often be delayed and weakly embraced by the members of the team.

Are team members comfortable directly expressing their opinions, frustrations and insights with each other? If there’s an excessive amount of back channeling, gossip or passive-aggressive comments, consider bringing everyone together to level set on rules of engagement for communication.

Improve: It’s vital not only to document decisions as they’re made, but make sure the team members understand the ground rules for decision making at the outset. Our project teams often won’t (and shouldn’t) be democracies, but inconsistency or perceived arbitrariness will alienate your team members. Do what you can to bring your team along and make them feel heard, even if there are good reasons not to act on their advice.

Offer as much transparency as you can into how and why decision points are being made—and include the reasoning in your decision logs so it’s readily accessible for team members and stakeholders alike. In addition to promoting transparency during the project, this will aid your ability to glean meaningful lessons learned when you close the project since you’ll be able to truly dissect not only what you did, but also why you did it.

Statement 2: Healthy organizations (and project teams) include high degrees of morale and productivity. Assess: Are the members of your team producing on their deliverable s? As you get to know your team, you will be able to dig past the surface of staying on schedule and producing work of satisfactory quality. In some cases, your team members may be able to deliver on their baseline commitments without breaking too much of a sweat. If you encounter someone who is conscientiously delivering exactly what is expected without pushing for any more, it’s worth checking in to see if there’s any factor within your sphere of influence holding him or her back.

Do your team members enjoy working together? It’s not vital for everyone to be best friends, but if your team members can’t stand spending an extra second in a room together, it doesn’t bode well for your success.

Improve: Without promoting gossip or appearing to take sides, try to feel out where any disagreements lie and try to focus on what each member brings to the team on a professional level—and why his or her role is vital to your success. People often bring history and relational baggage to the table, and while you can’t undo the past, you can offer a chance to reset and learn how to work together for a common goal.

Don’t pass on opportunities to celebrate the small victories and milestones together, even if your budget doesn’t allow for over-the-top outings. Taking a moment to savor success in a team meeting will often inspire people to press on for more. Saying “thank you” goes a long way.

Statement 3: Healthy organizations (and project teams) include very low turnover among good employees. Assess: Do your team members persevere? Depending on the structure of your organization, your team members may have many other responsibilities and interactions that influence their overall job satisfaction, but we have to focus on what we can control. Do what you can to offer your team members a reason to stay. When people believe in what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with, they’re less likely to jump ship.

Do you encourage your team members? Are they treated more as resources with specific deliverables and expectations, or more as human beings worthy of your time and attention? Look for opportunities to recognize and encourage good work and to connect with anyone who is struggling and needs some support.

Improve: At the end of the day, most people are more likely to look for reasons to stay with an organization than for reasons to leave. Offering meaningful work on a team working toward a shared vision where contributions are recognized may be enough to persuade a team member on the fence about leaving to stay.

Admittedly, if the culture and morale of your organization is suffering, you have a lot to overcome. However, if your team rallies together and produces great results, you can offer a path forward for others. Look for opportunities to share not only what your team accomplished, but how you came together to get the job done. You could write a wiki or intranet post, host a lunch and learn, or partner with your HR or organizational development teams for ideas.

Ultimately, organizations have to be healthy at the top if they’re going to be healthy at the front-line level. Even when that’s the case, the message from the top can all too often get lost or distorted as it works its way down through the org chart. As project managers, we’re often given influence across a wide swath of our colleagues—which means that healthy teams spread change agents across the organization. This provides a framework for positively influencing the health of the company from the bottom up.


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