How high-performing teams can still fail

So, your team knows what it takes to succeed. But does it know what it takes to fail?

 Lions rugby team standing in a line together

Thousands of books have been written on how the best teams succeed. But why is it that otherwise high-performing teams fail? In the world of sport, addressing failure is a central part of strategy. If a rugby team loses a match, it’s the subject of intense self-reflection, and often immediate restructuring. Was player A not working with player B? Is player C better suited to a different formation or game strategy? 
 
Businesses don’t necessarily have the luxury of reshuffling teams like they can in rugby. But what they can do is learn to understand not only how they succeed, but how they fail. Only by understanding failure can teams work to build the foundations for success.
 
According to Peter Kennedy, a psychologist and Senior Manager at Ernst & Young ABC Pty Limited, it’s all a matter of keeping up the PACE – perception, assumption, communication and empathy.
 
Differences in perception
 
“Every individual in a team sees the world differently,” says Kennedy. “This can make it extremely difficult for team members to have the same situational awareness within any given situation. This doesn't help when it comes to creating a shared mental model of the task that is being performed.”
 
Making sure every member of a team has this shared mental model is the first step in properly carrying out a task. For a sports team, this might mean a huddle around a game plan. Within a business, it might mean a preliminary presentation laying out key goals and methods in a given project. Get that wrong, and you’re setting yourself up to fail. As Kennedy says: “These differences in perception are often at the start of the team failure process, and create a ripple in the pond that influences the next three factors.”
 
Inaccurate assumptions
 
“When you wake up in the morning, you assume not much has changed overnight and there are no sharp objects or deadly creatures lurking on the carpet below,” says Kennedy. “The brain's ability to make these assumptions is necessary and natural, helping us to make sense of the world quickly while, at the same time, conserving valuable frontal lobe energy that is required for more deliberate and complex decision making.”
 
But, as the old saying goes: never assume, because when you assume, you make an ass of you and me.
 
Two team members might assume they’re on the same page when executing a project, but may in fact be heading in two completely different directions. And when people aren’t following the same map, they invariably get lost. Again, it’s why, in sports teams, every member has a specific role to play, and a way in which to play it. While flexibility is good, a crystal clear understanding of individual responsibilities is essential.
 
“The issue here is that we rarely challenge our assumptions as individuals and teams, as we blindly come to the conclusion that others must have assumed in the same way.” says Kennedy. “Common sense is definitely not common, and neither are the assumptions we make.”
 
Poor communication
 
“Teams who practice effective communication skills (e.g., active listening and questioning) are much more likely to demonstrate higher levels of trust, cohesiveness and agility, often leading to enhanced business continuity that provides both short- and long-term benefits to the organization,” says Kennedy.
 
It seems an obvious point, but there’s a huge difference in performance between teams who take the time to talk to each other and the teams who don’t. Good, face-to-face conversation leads to a more engaged team. Poor communication can quickly erode results across process excellence, quality, safety and customer experience – 35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members.
 
Lack of empathy
 
“Empathy is the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, be aware of their feelings and understand their needs, and although it’s regarded as a basic human trait, it's often still missing within teams, leaders and organizations,” says Kennedy. “Empathy is important because, as we increase our ability to relate to the inner lives of others, we develop closer relationships that are grounded in principles of respect, care and compassion. When team members struggle to empathize with each other, they limit their understanding of each other’s mutual challenges.”
 
This thinking is borne out by the data. One study involving researchers from MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Union College found that team performance correlated more strongly with average social sensitivity (for instance, the ability to infer emotion from nonverbal cues) than it did with average intelligence. Conversely, “a lack of empathy can lead to stalled meetings, blockages in collaboration and productivity, and, in the worst-case scenarios, an unnecessary increase in workplace conflict, bullying and harassment,” says Kennedy.
 
So, the key is to ask yourself: is your team keeping up the PACE? If you’re not getting these core emotional and social attributes right, you’re already on the path to failure. But get the foundations right, and the sky’s the limit.

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