Seven Skills for High-Performing Project Teams

Successful project managers know that effective teams get the work done and then some.  The trick is to build and maintain an effective project team within your organization.  The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a team as “a number of persons associated together in work or activity.”  Sounds good to me.

When I looked up this definition, I had to smile at one of the other definitions of team also provided by the website, which stated that a team was defined as “two or more draft animals harnessed to the same vehicle or implement.”  Now, I have worked on project teams where I felt like one of those draft animals, but I would prefer that my team be high-performing entities that function pretty much independently from my management and within the enabling framework of some leadership both from me and from the project sponsor.

In her article “Teamwork is a Contact Sport: Seven Skills of High-Performance Teams”, Mary Werner steps through seven interconnected skills that can help you improve your team performance.  The seven skills that effective project managers and leaders (along with their team members) need to keep in sight are:

  1. Team identity
  2. Motivation
  3. Communication
  4. Conflict resolution
  5. Awareness of individual and team emotions
  6. Ability to handle stress
  7. Ability to have fun and maintain a positive mood

Werner states that teams that work together to build on these seven elements can become more effective teams in terms of their performance.  Let’s step through and have a look at each of these seven skills in a bit more detail.

Team identity.  A sense of team identity keeps the members of the team connected to one another and on the same page, working towards the same team goals. Everyone knows the team is, what the team is about and why we exist on this project at this particular point in time. A sense of team identity is what makes us a team versus just a group of people who happen to be working on the same stuff. When the team succeeds, we all succeed.  Not only that, we succeed together as a team versus separate individuals.

Motivation. If your team isn’t motivated, your work efforts aren’t going to go anywhere good. A high-performing team needs everyone’s technical, people and process skills firing at maximum power.  When I hear the term “synergy”, I think of team motivation working in an infinite loop.  Each individual member of the team applies his or her enthusiasm and skills to motivate everyone else on the team.  In return, the “well-oiled machine that we call our team” motivates each of its individual team members.  This positive motivation cycle should continue across the project life cycle.

Communication. Everyone on a performing team needs to use their communication skills.  Effective communications within and outside of the project team can make or break a project.  Communication skills are like making a cake – you have to do something with all those disparate ingredients and communication styles (including adjusting for the altitude around here) before your team’s collective communication style becomes a cake that is worth eating.

Conflict resolution. While conflict is inevitable on our projects and in our daily lives, that conflict does not have to derail the team and its efforts. Working in teams requires you to manage and address conflicts. It is essential that project team members recognize conflicts and learn to address them in a positive way. Sometimes the team has focus on examining the premises, assumptions, observations and expectations of its team members in order to resolve a conflict and get on with things.

Awareness of individual and team emotions. If you work with people then you need to be able to handle their emotions.  I think of emotions as simply part of being human. Everyone on the team needs to be aware of their emotions and how those emotions impact others. Team members also need to be able to regulate their emotions so they don’t get in the way of what needs to be done. This type of awareness can strengthen the team identity and provide for even more synergy when working together.

Handling stress. Working on most projects mean the team members are working under many types of stress: schedule stress, quality stress, budget stress, and even simply “dealing with other people” stress. The life, lemons and lemonade saying fits very well into being a member of a performing team on a project.  When we are faced with adversity, we work together to get through that adversity and keep moving forward.

Having fun and maintaining a positive mood.  According to Werner, this is an essential element of high performing teams. I agree absolutely.  Teams who are happy and optimistic have a much better chance of weathering the ups and downs of the project and achieving a successful outcome.

Werner indicates that being a team is a contact sport and that social connectivity with one another and with your work environment are important factors in achieving your team’s desired end result. Remember, a project team is a working group of people who learn from one another and share ideas.  These people are dependent upon ne one another as they all work together towards a shared goal or objective. In today’s dynamic, and fast-paced business world, there are many business challenges that are better met by teams of folks working together effectively.

If you are looking to refine or validate your team-building skills on your projects, take a look at Learning Tree’s 4-day course on project team leadership or their 3-day course on success through teamwork. These courses are certainly a great place to begin or revisit how well you are building and leading your teams and to learn some new skills and techniques for dealing with your teams even better still.

More power to the team!

Susan Weese

Reference: Werner, M. (2010, August). Teamwork is a contact sport: Seven skills of high-performance teams. CPA Practice Management Forum, 6(8), 5-9

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