3‌ ‌Things‌ ‌I‌ ‌Learned‌ ‌from‌ ‌High-Performing‌ ‌Teams‌ ‌in‌ ‌2021‌

In a year filled with so many significant news stories, work has been grabbing its share of the headlines. The Great Resignation and Reshuffling, virtual and hybrid work environments, and the exposure of persistent D&I deficiencies in the workplace – these issues have forced many organizations to rethink the way they support and develop their people. 

 At the center of this is organizational and team dynamics. After all, teams are the core operating units for most organizations. The collaborative work they do is the driving force behind innovation, growth and success. So, it makes sense to look at organizational performance and culture through the lens of teams, because one individual is never the whole story – people are doing work with other people. 

 Our work at RallyBright has given me the opportunity to see organizations at all stages of team development. During this past year, I’ve observed a number of values and priorities that distinguish high-performing teams from those that are struggling in the current environment. If you are looking to improve team performance in 2022, these areas may suggest a good place to start. 

Observation #1: Soft skills still really matter.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve seen a bit of strain on  the soft skills that are important for successful leadership. Among these are communication, interpersonal and conflict resolution skills, teamwork and motivational skills, and empathy and compassion. Effective leaders need to nurture and develop these skills in order to effectively interact with and inspire teams. If your teams are not performing at their optimum  levels, you may want to look at how your team leaders are doing in one or more of these soft-skill areas. 

Empathy, for example, is one area that experienced a boost at the beginning of the pandemic. We saw this very markedly in the organizations we work with. But interpersonal connection on teams and empathy has since shown signs of waning. We know that one way to help build better team leaders is by helping them to develop persona-based empathy. In times of great stress and hardship, leading with empathy is the best approach to keeping employees engaged. Research on empathy-based leadership has also shown that it boosts productivity, performance, happiness and collaboration; results that have led many management professionals to believe that empathy is the most important leadership skill

Observation #2: Connection on teams is more important than ever.

How connected are your teams? Certainly digital connections have skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic. But how has that impacted your team’s sense of connection and psychological safety? We saw some of these attributes rise earlier in COVID – as I mentioned, there was more empathy early on. This bolstered the level of connection some team members felt. But others no longer have psychological safety, such as those who are new to an organization and haven’t had the opportunity to go through shared, face-to-face team experiences yet. 

This points to the need for organizations to cultivate alternative shared experiences that create meaningful connection. For example, consider creating opportunities for teams to talk about how the team itself, as well as its individual members,  function. Make use of psychometric tools like DISC, MBTI, and conflict style assessments so that team members can gain a better understanding of one another’s behavioral tendencies and working styles. 

It’s also important to be mindful of fatigue, which can mushroom into burnout from too many Zoom meetings, not being able to get distance  from work , or a feeling of being in limbo as return-to-work plans continue to shift. The Atlantic shared recent Gallup polling that indicated remote workers are significantly more likely to say they’re burned out now compared with before the pandemic. 

Our own Inclusive Collaboration at Work Study shows that burnout was more than twice as prevalent among workers in environments where psychological safety was shown to be low. Increasing key attributes of inclusion and collaboration – psychological safety, belonging, alignment, cooperation, compassion and fairness – was shown to reduce burnout. 

To maintain the sense of connection, focus on psychological safety and take time to understand what’s happening with your teams.

Observation #3: Teams with shared values and purpose have been thriving through the pandemic.

Organizations whose teams have shared values and purpose have been hiring and raising their bottom lines during the pandemic – we’ve seen this with a number of the organizations RallyBright works with. Teams that are not doing as well may be lacking a sense of shared purpose. We’ve observed this at organizations where leadership has changed or teams have restructured. Their team performance has taken a hit, in part because their shared purpose has been lost during the transition.

Having shared purpose drives values. When this is disrupted, quite often, the connective tissue between departments needs to be rebuilt. So to heal these kinds of rifts, look for  interdepartmental or intercompany alignment opportunities.

Think about how you are measuring performance and how shared values and purpose come into play. If you are not clear on these you will struggle. You need to have teams that are responsible to one another. Do this by taking a pulse on what’s happening with your people. Make sure you are crystal-clear on your shared purpose. And, focus on your adaptability and flexibility, as this has become even more important to workers this year.

Set Your Teams Up for Success in 2022

As we look ahead to 2022, organizations that want to develop high-performing teams need to focus on team dynamics, particularly inclusion and collaboration. The foundational elements that drive inclusion offer clues to where you might focus first: 

  • Alignment (shared purpose, group commitment)
  • Cooperation (role clarity, communication, knowledge sharing)
  • Compassion (support, empathy)
  • Fairness (objectivity, embracing diversity)
  • Psychological Safety (authenticity, speaking up, embracing failure)
  • Belonging (contribution, connection)

If you have a team that is supportive but lacks empathy, you may not be fostering an inclusive environment. You may need to focus on developing compassion across your team. 

When it comes to cooperation, if you don’t know what others’ roles are it’s hard to see how you all fit into the bigger picture. Focus on role clarity to maximize cooperation. 

Ensuring a sense of belonging is also fundamental to inclusion and collaboration. In an inclusive environment, everyone feels a strong sense of belonging to the group, both in terms of the work they are doing and the relationships they are forming. Each individual is confident that the tasks they perform make good use of their skills and abilities, and that they can show up to perform these tasks as their true selves without hiding aspects of their identity or personality.

If you want to put your team on the path to high performance in 2022, consider the high-performing teams I’ve observed this year, and adopt a people-centered approach focused on developing soft skills, connection, and shared values and purpose. 

Make Inclusion the Priority on Your Team in 2022 

Beginning in January, I’ll be taking a close look at inclusion through a series of posts for leaders who want to make inclusion a priority. We’ll examine how to get started on inclusion, the most important steps, how to gauge progress, the importance of leadership in this effort, and how to scale inclusion for your entire organization.