Five steps to make yours a winning team

It was all over the news last Friday, be it through national broadcasters such as The Washington Post or CNN, or through global media such as the Times of India or The Australian: President Obama, often criticized for his aloof demeanor and introverted tendencies, had a moment of sharing his emotions publicly as he thanked his campaign workers. And while you may think about him as a leader in a not so favorable light, this moment demonstrated true leadership. In sharing his vulnerability Obama offered his followers the opportunity to relate to him and to connect with him on an emotional level (a much more important factor in our decision making than many of us ‘rational’ human beings may believe, but that is a topic for another blog entry…),more importantly in the context of today’s message is that he acknowledged what ultimately makes any single leader successful: a winning team.

Michelle (we’ve changed her name for reasons of confidentiality), head of HR for a successful advertising agency, gave North of Neutral a call last week. A member of the executive committee of this rapidly growing organization, she explained that while the five people on the senior leadership team worked very well together, in the next level down (consisting of twelve members) it was an entirely different story: ”There is no common vision whatsoever,” she sighed, clearly frustrated, “they are all good at what they do, but when it comes to supporting each other, what we see is turf wars and tension. Just last week two of them had a shouting match in the hallway. If this continues, we are afraid that some of our talent will leave and that our numbers will suffer.”

Michelle added some more juicy details – but you probably already get the picture: if the bottom line wasn’t to suffer, the company’s senior leadership needed to step in and address this problem ASAP.

After hearing all this, we wanted to understand how committed Michelle and the executive committee was to invest in the process of creating a winning team. Based on our experience we felt that, while it is not terribly complicated to share and implement the principles of functional team building, there is no such thing as a quick fix: substantial time and resource investments are necessary to lead to the desirable behavior’s successfully and sustainably.

Exceptional team leaders generally have five characteristics that they embed in their teams: trust, open dialog, commitment, accountability and results. This model is essentially based on Patrick Lencioni’s bestseller “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. As part of our training in positive psychology, we have modified it somewhat to make the overarching focus on what works (rather than what gets in the way). The concept however, remains the same:


As the pyramid illustrates nicely, building a winning team hinges on establishing trust. Trust in a team ultimately creates an atmosphere of acceptance and respect. It embraces differences and the ‘a priori’ assumption is that each member’s intentions are good (even if their behavior may initially suggest otherwise…).

What does this mean for you as a leader?

As a leader of a team, it is critical to ‘open our kimono’ and share something that is personally important to us. Not always easy and frequently counterintuitive, especially as many of us have been trained over decades to build up our defenses and to show that we are ‘robust’ enough to be promoted and shoulder more responsibility. To nurture trust further, as coaches we ask leaders to selectively expose some weaknesses as they communicate to the team that we are indeed ‘human’ and, as a result, approachable.

What often follows naturally, but may require some further encouragement on the part of the leader, is that team members are more comfortable with sharing their own strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. As a result, without the perceived need to ‘protect’ against potential political agendas, team members can focus their energy on the job and what needs to get done. Not surprisingly, trusting teams have lower turnover rates and show closer and more effective collaboration. They are more innovative as they are more likely to embrace calculated risks.

What are some tools to build trust?

Building trust is a process and does take time.  Some approaches we have successfully used with our clients include:

  • Icebreaker exercises like ‘My personal history’ or ‘Who am I stories’ where some basic personal data and values questions are answered by each team member.
  • Strengths-based exercises on team member contributions (i.e. what are three strengths and one weakness that each member adds to the team and how can they increase this ratio?)
  • The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment to foster self awareness and understanding of others behavioral preferences and personality styles.
  • A 360-degree feedback group debriefing and coaching session with a developmental focus.

open dialog

Passionate debates are healthy, yet many executives shy away from them out of a fear that they will interfere with delivering results. In parts this fear is justified, as conflict that focuses on personal attacks and is founded in politics is counterproductive. However, clashes between parties that are the result of evaluating ideas and concepts are crucial to fostering innovation, and a hallmark of successful teams and their organizations.

What does this mean for you as a leader?

It can be as ‘simple’ as role modeling the appropriate conflict behavior and embracing conflict if it is necessary and productive. More importantly, leaders need to resist their natural inclination to interfere prematurely as team members have disagreements. Allowing resolution to unfold organically can be difficult but allows individuals on the team to build their own conflict management muscles.

What are some tools to build open dialog?

There are a number of ways that leaders can help their teams to constructively manage conflict:

  • Experimentation around light touch issues, rotating the role of ‘conflict miner’ around members who are then responsible for calling out areas of disagreement and leading the team through the debate.
  • Group coaching where team members hold each other accountable when it comes to embracing conflict and establishing how it adds value to the team and its offerings.
  • Extend on the MBTI results to explore conflict behavior of individual team members or use a specific assessment like the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument that allows individuals to make more deliberate choices around which approach to conflict is most productive in a particular context.


What often holds teams back from making important decisions is a perceived need for certainty. However, perfect information comes at a cost. As teams waver and look for more data, they face the ‘analysis paralysis’ trap. Another aspect that can hold teams back is the belief that there needs to be 100% consensus around a decision. While everyone on the team deserves to be heard, it is crucial that in the interest of time and an inherent inability to satisfy everyone, a group eventually needs to rally around one decision. For a decision to carry weight, there needs to be complete buy-in from all parties, even those who initially were against the decision.

What does this mean for you as a leader?

More than any other member of the team, a leader must be willing to challenge the group for closure and seek to stick to the schedule the team had originally agreed to. As the leader demonstrates a comfort level with making decisions that may turn out to be wrong, he encourages a culture in which creative solutions are developed, and wise trade-offs amongst competing objectives are made.

Which tools can build commitment?

  • Deadlines are key, be it around milestones or the final outcome, as they offer regular check-in opportunities to ensure that all is going according to plan.
  • Worst-case scenarios are always helpful when a team may get stuck in moving forward. They help manage anxiety through the realization that even their worst fears are survivable, and they often encourage teams to develop contingency solutions to overcome potential bumps in the road.
  • Low-risk experiments for teams who are shy to commit allow them to “dip their toe in the water” before they jump in. As teams experience the ‘feel’ of making decisions even if all the facts are not yet in, they can overcome the ‘analysis paralysis’ trap and develop the muscle of decisiveness and risk taking.
  • Quick messaging debriefs which involve a summary of what actions have been agreed upon allows teams to feel clearly aligned (or if misalignments exist, to address these in a timely fashion).


This one is huge, as trusting teams are characterized by the ability to call each other out if behaviors or performance deviate from what had been agreed upon. Highly functioning teams have the ability to have difficult conversations and to overcome any natural inclinations to avoid conflict at all costs.

Holding each other accountable reduces the need to have time consuming structures in place and corrective action is typically swift. Strong cohesive teams exert peer pressure in its most positive sense, as they motivate the individual to not let his or her colleague down, and to deliver as was agreed upon.

What does this mean for you as a leader?

This one is counter intuitive to many leaders, as their primary role is to hold back and let the dynamics of the team play out. As a leader, it is important to encourage team members to hold each other accountable, without any authoritative intervention on their part. Easier said than done. A leader can step in should the team dynamics fail to come through, to avoid any pitfalls such as a consensus approach that risks sacrificing performance or innovation.

What are some tools to build accountability?

  • Very much like the concept of weight watchers, accountability implies that goals and outcome expectations are made public from the very beginning. Some teams write out specific agreements and each team member signs that agreement, which may later be publicly displayed.
  • Team rewards change the focus from individual to team performance and make it less likely that individuals who do not pull their weight on assignments can get away with it, as their peers are likely to object.
  • Regular up-dates and communication around progress amongst team members ensure that everyone is in the loop and that individuals contribute to the overall goal.


Continuous attention to what ‘good looks like’ and what the particular metrics are around the team’s goal are crucial when it comes to success.  These metrics may be quantitative such as return on investment or quantity of products sold, but may very well also be qualitative such as engagement at work or feeling committed to the organization as a whole.

What is crucial is that results are meaningful to the team and that the team has the desire to ‘win’ and to do well in the interests of the group as a whole, as opposed to putting individual self interest first.

What does this mean for you as a leader?

From the very start of building a team, a leader needs to make clear that results come first. A leader serves as a role model as he or she puts self interest behind the interest of the collective, and needs to recognize and reward any contributions that go towards the good of the group and its objectives.

What are some tools to create results?

  • Making a public commitment to succeed as a team has a powerful effect on the psyche of the group, as it tends to have an empowering impact and positive energy is released that can be channeled into a common commitment to do well.
  • Ensuring that rewards are results driven, be it in the form of a financial bonus or other incentives, provide the focus on results and the necessary credibility.

Now while Michelle is still looking at our Letter of Proposal, I have already suggested that she pick up Patrick Lencioni’s book as, not only does it give great exercises and assessments on the theoretical concepts, but for the most part it has succeeded in packaging these key concepts in the form of a compelling fable that makes for an entertaining and powerful learning experience.