Teamwork 1/Building teams, building trust


“There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve by ourselves.” Lyndon Johnson

One is too small a number to secure much of significance. We all work in teams, contribute to teamwork and sometimes lead them. Now is the moment in the year when we look closely at the people we will be working with in September.

The success or failure of a team often appears to rest on circumstance, chance or personality. But listening to the England manager over the last two weeks, he talks less about the fleeting nature of luck in sport and more about building the team for the long term. Gareth Southgate seems to have released an energy and a belief in his team. English World Cup fever isn’t resting, as in previous years, on a few well-merchandised names. In interviews Southgate hasn’t obsessed over results and won’t be drawn over individuals, but he talks thoughtfully about the culture built up within the wider team in the training camp. He focuses on the training process not media hyperbole. He knows his team and trusts their skill level, and values their humanity. He is smiling, relaxed and approachable. And he looks good in a waistcoat. Something here to learn I think. For more about what GS’s leadership read andrewmorrish’s brilliant blog here.

pile on

Comparisons of work-teams to teams in sport don’t really work for me. Sports teams train together, exercise together, eat together, have daily briefings together and ultimately perform together. In schools any of that team ethic is diluted by about a thousand kids and a disparate range of subject interests. The daily grind of teaching, supervising and caring means time with our staff team is precious. Team meetings are secondary to the primary purpose of the day. World Cup footballers can drill a freekick or a deadball situation over and over so it is semi-automatic before it’s perfect for match play. During practice, players perform in front of peers while coaches scrutinise and teammates cajole. It raises everyone’s level helps control some of the external variables. These sessions create not just a shared understanding but practice the specific skill so that this is precisely what will happen when they perform. But for us mortals our meetings are not set up for us to practise the skill we deliver. In schools we don’t rehearse target-questions, watch each others’ starters or weigh-up feedback. What is called teaching practice stops after PGCE. In teaching we don’t have a practising culture.

Instead often our CPD implicitly assumes that we all get it. Then the day begins and we say the same things to children as they enter our classrooms, we repeat the same patterns of instruction. We fall prey to the inevitable cycle of habit. The same mistakes and the same strengths; we flounder or fly.

And it’s often lonely. We yearn for the banter and the heightened challenge of actually being part of a real team that connects, that learns together, plays together, maybe eats together, certainly sharpens each other. That is fun to be a part of! At its worst teaching is not a team game. Sometimes it feels like solitary confinement for adults. Does it need to be like that? What can we do to help us feel like we are more than the sum of our parts? How do we develop a strong team culture, so we become better practitioners within a great ethos and want to stay in a profession that we love?

Here’s some common questions about teams:
How do I build the right team and build trust?
How do I keep the team focused on the right things?
I’ve got good people in my team, working hard, how do
 I improve our performance?

Which I’ll attempt to cover over the following 3 blogs:
1/Building the team
2/Organising the team with purpose 
3/Learning from world class teams



Small teams work fastest:
Because we are looking for enthusiastic and capable people and because there are always new targets to hit and new responsibilities to fill, there is a temptation to over-grow the team. Research suggests that a team’s effectiveness is inversely proportional to size. A small team is stronger: the fewer people we appoint the more we attend to quality, the better focus we can devote to improving their day-to-day effectiveness, all of which leads to better, more rapid decision-making. If we aren’t careful, in larger teams sub-groups can develop and positioning can get in the way. Extended teams have become popular – these offer aspiring leaders an opportunity to show what they can do and a bigger team can enable succession planning. But too often this runs away with itself and with the budget.


The Bus – who before what: 
Building teams is a labour of love, but cliché or no cliché, getting the right people on the bus, and the wrong ones off the bus is the starting point. Looking at Jim Collin’s much quoted mantra two bits which are often missed are: “Get the right people in the right seats”, and “Put who before what”. Choosing the membership of our team is the most significant lever in how our team will perform. It is why Heads say that hiring good people is the most important thing they do, and growing great team culture is fundamental to long term reputation. We neglect this truth and sometimes cloud it with details: job descriptions, team structures, pay grades. Ultimately it is about the people. According to a recent McKinsey survey more than a third of US worker said top teams did not have the right people.

Keep your enemies close:
 In the early days of forming your team, the chances are that each member of the team you inherit will not have been your first choice. Yet getting people on board with your ideas, working constructively alongside them and getting the best out of them for the time they are with you is fundamental. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s brilliant “Team of Rivals – The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”  is the story of his three rivals for the presidential nomination, William H Seward, Salmon P. Chase and Edward Bates. Lincoln built his team from his fiercest rivals. Often a newly appointed leader has to work with a colleague they were pitted against in an interview and this can either be full of friction or the beginning of a respectful working relationship. Lincoln’s skill in team-building was the ability to keep these ‘factions’ together. “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” Because he understood the difficulties facing America at the time, he refused to compromise on appointing the finest people simply because of negative comments in the past. Lincoln was a brilliant leader principly because he was a great team builder. As Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part 2 advises. “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”.85906610

Working with difficult people: Work is not perfect and we all have to work with difficult people, if not quite Boris Johnson. At our worst they get our backs up and we react to them with our default behaviours that just seem to compound their awfulness and their negative impact on the team. It helps to plan how to manage these people. 
In ‘Originals’, Adam Grant explains that we tend to view our relationships as on a continuum from positive to negative. Our closest friends support us, our enemies actively work against us. He describes the concept of ‘frenemies’ – people who sometimes support you and sometimes undermine you. These ambivalent relationships are actually unhealthier than negative relationships because we are constantly on guard, wondering if that person can be trusted. All of which takes emotional energy. Although we tend to focus on building ties with the people who support us, evidence suggests we should instead spend more time developing those who started out against us. They have to work against their original feelings, to overcome their instinct about us, saying ‘I must have been wrong about that person’. These former enemies will be our best advocates when it comes to persuading others. Grant writes about how the suffragetter Lucy Stone won over some of her greatest rivals in this way:

“When Stone walked around hanging up posters announcing abolition speeches, young men followed her and ripped them down. Stone asked them if they loved their mothers. Absolutely. She explained that in the South, men of their own age were sold as slaves, and they would never see their families again. She invited them to attend the evening’s lecture as her ‘special agents’. Such street recruits proved useful allies, able to defuse other troublemakers.”

Drains and radiators:
 Understanding the energy levels of the people within our team is crucial in predicting how they will work with others and how productive they will be. Some will be energy-sappers and some energy-givers and this will make a huge difference to the team’s happiness and effectiveness. Former Team Sky’s coach Sir Dave Brailsford describes those who he wants and doesn’t want on his team. “I want a culture that is hungry and ambitious, doesn’t see barriers, constantly creating, but organised and disciplined, otherwise change can spiral out of control.” He uses Donald Tosti’s ‘Energy Investment Model’: With energy along the x axis and attitude along the y axis:


Apart from the bottom left quadrant who need to move on, the two middle quadrants can be coached to become team players. Clive Woodward had some concerns about the character and quality of some of his team building up to the World Cup Finals. So he took them to SAS HQ in Hereford. The brigadier supervising the process, gave Woodward a list of players who would never make the marines, not because of skill but because of general attitude. It matched Woodward’s list and they were moved out.

Borrowing outsider wisdom: 
We all use external eyes to help inform and challenge our thinking, but its not always easy to challenge our assumptions. We have blind spots and we don’t even know what they are. Teams have to make difficult decisions and over time the best teams get more of these right than wrong. Caroline Webb says we should think of someone we respect but who does things differently to us, and ask this devil’s advocate “What do you see differently? What are we missing? What assumptions in our thinking would you challenge and what advice would you give?” There is a good chance this will highlight our ‘institutional blindspots’, and help us to think about the information we need to seek out to make a better decision? Outsiders could be best placed to point these out.

Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive’ describes one idea to gather ‘insider wisdom’. This is the ‘FedEx Day’, from Australian company Atlassian. These are one-day bursts of autonomy which gives people the chance to work on anything they want which will improve the organisation, provided they show what they’ve created to their colleagues 24 hours later. Hence FedEx Days because participants have to deliver something overnight.


Bring diversity and search out introverts: We hope that with greater diversity and a deeper understanding of what makes successful leaders, the era of the macho, extrovert, charismatic leader is over. Susan Cain challenges us; Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness – is now a second-class personality trait…introverts in an extrovert culture are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” Because we are all in the business of understanding the learning process deeply, then it stands to reason that our strongest teams (at all levels) will be those who have the deepest conversations about teaching and curriculum. In my experience, thoughtful introverts trump extroverts here.

Choose those who make the team look good: A good friend of mine is a youth minister and inspirational team builder, leading teams who support huge numbers of young people. He works with parents who are volunteering, so motivation and time are at a premium. There is a infectious positivity and energy about him, but most noticeably an implicit humility about what he has achieved. When things go right he points to others in the different teams he has built up and their myriad achievements, when there are problems he shoulders them himself. Roy Hodgson, (manager of 16 football teams in 8 countries) describes two types of player: “The players who bring what they have to the team and make the team good, and players who use the team to make themselves look good.  We try to be everything, instead of stepping back and allowing less experienced people lead. Not everyone has to be in the stage-lights. How do we celebrate the invisible dynamos as well as those on the front line?


Building trust:
Bruce Tuckman’s ‘Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing’ classic team-development model visualises how teams move through the gears beyond the norms stage to real performance. Expectations are clear at the outset and before long there is a blending of the formal structures (eg. appraisal meetings) and the informal structures (one-to-ones) which creates a fluency where the organisation makes rapid progress towards its shared goal. However, in this model trust comes only at the end of the process. Leadership expert Andy Buck compares this with Patrick Lencioni’s model where trust comes much earlier on in the stages and he believes that this is crucial to team members properly being able to engage in honest debate and fulfilling decision-making. He suggests a compromise, so the sequence looks more like this:

  3. TRUST
  5. BUY-IN

Why micromanagement doesn’t work:  When we are treated simply as cogs in a production machine and are not trusted to make decisions as a team we rebel. We’ve all seen these teams: Top-down, tick-lists of actions, tightly controlled agendas and little distribution of real responsibility or opportunities for leadership. McGregor’s ‘Human Side of Enterprise’ is a classic description of human motivation at work. He describes X-type and Y-type managers. X-types are essentially cynical and don’t trust employees. Bosses boss and the workers work. They coerce through formal authority, compliance, hierarchy and close monitoring. Y-types operate through trust, empowerment and respect. Thankfully the world has moved from Victorian-mill X-type to twenty-first century Y-type but we need to watch for managers who still operate in X-mode.

The temptation to micromanage downwards is usually because we are the next head on the chopping block and so we pass on urgency – the unachievable deadline or the unintelligible goal – to our team, which piles short term pressure to deliver, stifling the long term development of the team and curbing autonomy. Don’t obsess: allow.

Conversely, we know when the team is functioning, all the cogs working and where trust is central. This sense of identity and culture is as tangible for staff as it is with students. Changing the culture around our teams is paramount and it is led from the top:

“Headteachers in challenging schools have to create goodwill with our staff because we ask so much of our teachers. You gauge the staff morale like a doctor checking for the pulse of a patient.” Dame Sally Coates.

So creating a culture of trust is central to the next stage because this is all about the process of getting the job done in the right way. Building the team is the starting point. Once we have a team we know will function well, it is time to get moving.


How to Lead – Jo Owen | Black Box Thinking – Matthew Syed | Leadership Matters – Andy Buck |The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ – Susan Cain | Originals – Adam Grant | How to have a good day – Caroline Webb | Winners – Alistair Campbell | The Best Place to Work – Ron Friedman | High Performers – Alistair Smith | Legacy – James Kerr | Kill Bad Meetings – Kevan Hall & Alan Hall

One thought on “Teamwork 1/Building teams, building trust

  1. Pingback: Teamwork 3/Learning from world class teams | ianfrostblog

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