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Oct 1, 2013

“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.” Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Many productivity experts focus on individual productivity, even though few of us actually work completely alone.

With rare exceptions, each of us fills a slot in a team focused on specific tasks and projects. Team productivity is as crucial as personal productivity, if not more so; but it can be difficult to maintain, since a workplace team can only be as strong as its weakest link.

Accordingly, it’s your responsibility as team leader to shore up any weaknesses you see, so you can forge a work group you can be proud of.

A problem with reliability

One of the biggest weaknesses I see in teams today is a lack of reliability. Being a firm that purports to help people become more productive, we have to be reliable and do what we say we’re going to, when we say we’re going to do it.

I get so aggravated when someone doesn’t do what they promise. You can’t depend on people like this. You can often hear me bemoaning, “If everyone would just do what they promise, we’d all be so much better off!

When you have someone like this on your team, everyone suffers. As filmmaker Woody Allen reminds us, 90 percent of life is just showing up. Do your team members show up when you need them to?

Every leader has encountered unreliable people, sometimes in the chain of command, sometimes within a team environment. How you deal with them defines your leadership ability.

Sadly, many leaders follow what I call “Theroux’s axiom,” instead of directly addressing unreliability. Paul Theroux, the American travel writer and novelist, once noted, “Gain a modest reputation for being unreliable, and you will never be asked to do a thing.

Dictator, no, facilitator, yes

Theroux — brother and father of writers — sets his own standard for reliability, having produced a fine string of popular novels and travel books since the late 1960s. His first travel volume, The Great Railway Bazaar — an account of a trip by train from the UK to Japan and back —  a classic of the genre. Theroux’s writing comes across as ironic and often cynical, and the line quoted above definitely contains a full ration of both.

As a leader, the responsibility for anything that happens in your team ultimately devolves to you. So despite Theroux’s axiom, you can’t just gloss over unreliability.

You may not always have the luxury or authority of firing someone. In any case, it’s generally more effective these days to rule not with an iron fist, but through careful handling of team loyalty.

Leaders act less like dictators and more like facilitators, who clear the way and urge people to do what they know they must in order to complete the job. So you’re better off encouraging reliability through indirect efforts.

The three points of reliability

How do you measure your teamwork to make sure everyone’s achieving and maintaining their peak performance? I use “The Teamwork Triangle,” a measurement scheme based on three equilateral factors. All three must be present for reliability to exist:

  1. Mutual trust and respect — Everyone on the team has to trust everyone else to do their jobs on time, freely share information, and make collaborative decisions. Respect for others’ ideas, opinions, and skills are an absolute must. If even one person fails the Trust and Respect Test, the team functions at a drastically reduced level and may fail. Growing trust and respect strengthens overall reliability.
  2. Results — Nothing else matters if your team can’t generate the results you assembled them to produce. Set hard-and-fast objectives, and hold tight to all milestones and deadlines. Push the team to exceed the minimal allowable standards to produce something truly special. Keep a close eye on the team’s progress, and find ways to tweak it toward maximal productivity when they fail to perform up to par.
  3. Communication — Your team must be able to rely on you to communicate the big picture and keep moving forward. Your role as leader is to make sure everyone knows what you expect of them, what the group objectives are, and how their work gets the group there. Clear all information backlogs, bottlenecks, and silos, making sure everyone on your team knows everything they need to in order to maximize team productivity. Effective communication depends on clarity, honesty, and trust — and, yes, reliability.

All together now

All three of the above factors will determine how effectively and reliably your team produces. If any side of the Teamwork Triangle loses strength, the whole structure sags, leaving you off-center and imperfect. If you can make them all work, you’re golden; but realize that this will take a lot of work.

In many ways you’re like a plate spinner on the old Ed Sullivan show, constantly walking back and forth, tapping a plate here and there as they start to wobble, transferring enough of your enthusiasm and energy to make sure everything keeps moving at a brisk pace.

To some extent, the three sides of the Teamwork Triangle reinforce each other, but a specific side can only take so much pressure or weakness before it collapses. So you’ve got to stay sharp, nudging here, pushing there, upping the spin elsewhere as long as the team lasts — so you can stand as a shining example of how to do things right.

What’s your take on team reliability and the Teamwork Triangle?

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.

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