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How to get the best out of your project team

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Is everyone performing as well as you think they can be? If the answer’s no, it’s time to ask yourself some questions about how you engage them.

In her book The Power of Project Leadership, Susanne Madsen explores the factors that result in consistently high engagement from project teams. She cites a study by Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Human Dynamics Laboratory in 2012, of 2,500 individual team members taken from a broad variety of projects and industries. Pentland found that the most important predictor of a team’s success was its communication patterns. These patterns were as significant as all other factors – intelligence, personality and talent – combined.

The study found that successful teams shared some defining characteristics:

  • Everyone on the team talked and listened in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short and sweet.
  • Members faced one another and their conversations were energetic.
  • Members connected directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
  • Members carried on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
  • Members periodically went exploring outside the team and brought information back.

Madsen suggests four ways in which project managers can improve communication among their teams (and increase performance as a result):

1. Energy, engagement and exploration

Energy, engagement and exploration were identified by Pentland as being key influential communication dynamics when it comes to performance. The first, energy, is measured by the number and nature (e.g. on the phone, face-to-face) of exchanges between team members. Face-to-face is, unsurprisingly, the most valuable form of communication. One-on-one works better than group discussions when it comes to phone and video conferencing.

Engagement is the distribution of energy among team members – i.e. how often all people in the team communicate with one another. If everyone is equally communicative, performance will be stronger than if some team members are more engaged than others.

Exploration is about external communication – who the team interacts with outside of their team circles, and how they interact. “Higher-performing teams seek more outside connections,” says Madsen. “Exploration is most important for creative teams responsible for innovation, as they need fresh perspectives.”

Successful teams will switch between exploratory conversations to gather new ideas, then communicate them within their own team. “The most effective work is done by teams that are high in energy and engagement, but as soon as either energy or engagement drops, so does performance. For the best performance, team leaders need to keep energy and engagement in balance as they work to strengthen them.”

2. Let everyone talk

“Equal communication and contribution happens when team members feel safe enough to contribute,” says Madsen. “In teams where a few members are allowed to dominate discussions or where the team leader – or other team members – are too controlling or judging, many members withhold their views and ideas out of fear of being dismissed.”

While it can be tempting to rush conversations when the chips are down, it’s important to slow down and listen to all team members before taking action. Invite more reserved team members to share their views. “You will have to use your emotional intelligence and be sensitive to each team member. Ask questions, listen, empathise and make people feel that they belong in the group.”

3. Make your team feel psychologically safe

“When psychological safety is present, people feel free to share what’s on their mind, whether it’s a bright new idea or a tough personal challenge. They are able to talk about what is messy and have difficult conversations with colleagues who have different opinions.”

An open, safe culture will encourage better performance from team members, with all ideas and factors considered. The only way to do this is to build trust and lead by example. As project manager, you must be willing to be vulnerable in front of your team – publicly owning your mistakes and weaknesses. “Openly acknowledging a time in the past when you made a wrong decision or failed at implementing a project will signal to the team that it is OK to fail. You can also show vulnerability by recognising the strengths of others, even when those strengths exceed your own.”

4. Coach your team

Take on a coaching style of leadership to get more out of your project teams. Due to their backgrounds, many project managerss have advisory styles of leadership, Madsen explains. As a result, they tend to try to solve problems when an issue arises.

A coaching style is about guiding and giving space to team members so that they can figure it out for themselves. The first step towards this is through asking more questions and listening to the answers. When a team member comes to you with a problem, ask them open questions. For example: What do you feel is wrong? What have you already tried? What steps can we take to change this? Which option would be fastest/easiest? What will you do right now?

“The best way to become a project leader who coaches is to practise as often as you can,” explains Madsen. “Coaching isn’t an approach that should be used just for the big conversations. It is a leadership style that can be used even in short interactions with team members. Try it for a week and see what happens: give people your full attention, listen, ask open questions and resist the temptation to simply tell them what to do.”

Read APM’s emerging trends ebook on Coaching in the Project Environment – co-authored by Susanne Madsen – for more on types of coaching, mentoring vs coaching and how to select the right coach.

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