As a manager you’ll be under a lot of pressure to ensure your team is meeting its targets, delivering projects on time and creating a great customer experience. If you have several teams that report in to you then this can be an even tougher ask and, as one of my clients said, can feel like “herding cats”. You know that feeling? Where you focus your attention on one team, get it to a good place, then move your attention to a different team that might be struggling and when you look back the team you’ve just left has taken a backward step.
There’s a lot that psychological research can tell us which can help you manage your team so they are consistently performing well.
If you’re looking for quick fixes and silver bullets then this post is not for you. However, if you’re wanting to learn more about what helps teams perform and are prepared to put in the effort then read on…
1. What your team members think of you really does matter
Ryan Gottfriedson and Herman Aguinis reviewed more than 3000 studies and nearly 1million individual behaviours. They found that employee performance was more influenced by the perception they had of a leader than anything else. One positive standard deviation in the relationship between employee and leader resulted in significantly more sales and better performance.
And as a study by Susan J Ashford found, asking for feedback can help performance. Ashford and her colleagues studied 465 top leadership teams across 65 small and medium Belgian and American companies and found that when CEOs proactively asked their team for feedback (humble leadership) it had a direct and positive impact on company performance. This was dependent on how confident the overall leadership team was. Visionary (heroic) leadership was also found to have a positive impact on performance but this seemed to be when overall team confidence was lower.
TOP TIP: Get regular feedback on what it’s like to work with you and for you.
2. Understanding your impact and style as a manager is key for unlocking performance
Researchers from Beiging Jiaotong University, in China, surveyed 295 employees and 75 team leaders across 75 teams in a large Chinese management consultancy. They found that those people who were more action oriented tended to take on a directive leadership style. Those who were more analytical, who liked to consider options, tended to take on a participative style. Directive leaders tended to get better team efficiency but didn’t do so well on team creativity. Participative leaders achieved better team creativity, although the findings were less clear in relation to team efficiency.
TOP TIP: Learn more about your leadership style so you can understand your preferences.
3. Putting careful thought, time and effort into setting and wording objectives pays off
In a review of more than 200 studies, Heidi Grant Halvorson found that setting implementation intentions (“when X happens, then I will do Y”) makes people three times more likely to achieve their goals.
Asking your team members to tell you why objectives they’ve been set are important can help increase certainty that they will achieve them. As Caroline Webb says in How to have a good day, “we’re more likely to achieve a challenging goal if we’ve decided for ourselves why it’s worth succeeding”.
TOP TIP: Ensure objective-setting meetings with your staff are two-way by asking questions.
4. Having a mix of temporary and permanent staff can impact performance
Researchers from the Netherlands carried out two studies where they surveyed people across three different countries to examine factors including contract types, social networks, commitment and competition. In the first study, over 300 people participated. Those who were temps reported having sparser social networks than their permanent colleagues. And permanent workers reported they were less likely to go to a temp colleague for information or advice. In the second study, over 200 people participated. Team effectiveness was higher in mixed worker groups only where there was already knowledge-sharing, in part driven by a strong commitment to the team leader.
TOP TIP: Ensure temp staff are not just included in team meetings but also team-building and training activities.
5. If you have projects to deliver then think carefully about how the project teams are established
In an experiment with 685 students at a university in Singapore, Roy Chen and Jie Gong found that how groups were formed had a significant impact on performance. Those who self-selected in to project teams performed much better than those who were assigned into teams. And the people in the self-selected teams also put in significantly more effort, investing on average 12.4% more hours than those assigned.
TOP TIP: Where possible, give people a choice about the project teams they can join
6. Quality of communication has more impact on performance than quantity
After analysing 150 studies of nearly 10,000 teams, Shannon L Marlow and colleagues, found that communication had a significant impact on team performance. In particular, they found that quality had a bigger positive impact than quantity and that teams where people really knew each other had better communication and hence, better performance.
TOP TIP: Test the quality of your communication by checking for understanding and testing level of message recall.
7. The more your team members trust each other (and you) the better the performance
In a review of 125 studies, a team of researchers found trust is fed at three levels. At an individual level, trust comes from people having trusting natures and taking the time to build relationships. At a team level, they found good relationships with each other and the team leader, tasks where people needed to work together helped build trust and a climate where people could give open and honest feedback safely all helped. At an organisational level, they found that fair HR policies, along with an ethical culture and strong sense of corporate social responsibility all helped build trust. Higher levels of trust tended to lead to better levels of performance, and higher job satisfaction.
TOP TIP: Co-create team ground rules and values with your team that act as a compass and framework to help everyone work well together.
8. Your team members need quality space and time to do their best work
Gloria Mark, of the University of California (Irvine), found interruptions and the required recovery time consumed 28 per cent of a person’s day. The study found that each employee spent around 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted. It took the average employee 25 minutes to return to their original task.
And Harvard Professor, Leslie Perlow, worked with a company of underperforming, burnt out engineers who were constantly helping colleagues solve problems. She subsequently helped the engineers create ‘dedicated windows for quiet time and interaction time’.
TOP TIP: Encourage your team to create windows of quiet, uninterrupted time in their diaries, so they can focus on important work. You can role model this too!
9. Reward and recognise the right performance
In a study of over 250 employees and nearly 80 team leaders across two companies in China, researchers found that when leaders accurately identify performance cues and provide team rewards that align equitably with the team’s needs and goals, they are more likely to create a climate of fair reward distribution which translates in to increased effectiveness. Bridging the gap between intended reward (by the leader) and experienced reward (by the team) is crucial for ensuring a positive team climate and subsequently, good performance. This taps in to the work of John Stacey Adams on Equity Theory where people balance the effort they put in to work with what they think they will get in return.
TOP TIP: Find out what reward and recognition matters to each individual in your team and then use these as a way of motivating performance for specific objectives.
10. Think Goldilocks – be assertive enough, not too much and not too little
A study by Daniel Ames and Frank Flynn looked at assertiveness and leadership and the impact on performance. Bob Sutton references the study in his book Good boss, bad boss and says, “Managers who are too assertive will damage relationships with superiors, peers and followers; but managers who are not assertive enough won’t press followers to achieve sufficiently tough goals. The researchers surveyed 213 MBA students to rate their boss’s assertiveness. Moderately asservive bosses were rated as most effective overall, most likely to succeed in the future and as someone the participants would work with again.”
TOP TIP: Get feedback on your level of assertiveness and where needed, work with a coach to develop your style.
11. Beware the temptation to exaggerate your team’s performance
In a study by Penn State University, researchers found that middle managers used a range of tactics to inflate their subordinates’ performance and deceive top management. The study suggests managers may have been motivated to engage in this unethical behaviour because leadership set teams performance targets that were unrealistic.
TOP TIP: It’s better, in the long run, to have the difficult conversation with the leadership team and push back against unrealistic performance targets.
12. Remember, the people in your team are humans, not machines
An article in the CIPD People Management magazine summed this up neatly, “Line managers might possess all the technical skills and qualifications under the sun – but without the emotional intelligence to care for the wellbeing of their employees, they will be helpless in the face of the UK’s presenteeism epidemic.”
And in a study by Binghamton University, nearly 1,000 members of the Taiwanese military and almost 200 adults working full-time in the United States were surveyed. The researchers looked at the employee performance that resulted from three different leadership styles. The main takeaway for managers was to put just as much or even more of an emphasis on the well-being of their team members as they do on hitting targets and goals.
TOP TIP: Ensure your team members are taking regular breaks during the day as well as using their full holiday allowance. Again, your role modelling is important here.
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