We’ve Gotta Have Better Teamwork!

Have you ever been in a situation where operational or safety performance suffered and you had a feeling that it had to do with a breakdown in teamwork? Perhaps you couldn’t really put your finger on it, but in some way you just felt like there were issues that prevented the team from achieving optimal performance. Situations like this may be met with verbal mandates from managers stating things like, “We’ve gotta have better teamwork!” These calls for action may be commendable, particularly when organizations often seek compliance-oriented solutions to safety problems. Compliance will only get an organization so far, and there are many intangibles related to safety that may help organizations achieve better performance. Effective teamwork may be one of those areas, but simply stating that teamwork must be improved may not be all that helpful.

So, what is a leader, manager, or supervisor to do in order to improve teamwork? On pages 21-31 of my book Team Leadership in High-Hazard Environments I list several areas that I consider to be foundational elements of effective teams. These elements include:

  • Safety Focus: Teams that work in high-risk environments must keep safety at the forefront of their operational planning and execution processes.
  • Training and Qualification: Effective teams should be staffed with trained and qualified team members and operators, and while this seems like a given, it should not be taken for granted.
  • Competency at all levels of the team: Newly-hired team members through seasoned operators should be competent at their crew/team position for their level of experience.
  • Appropriate Range of Experience: Staffing teams with seasoned supervisors and operators can help bolster quality and reliability, while including newer employees may help organizations to develop future expertise and leadership.
  • Collaboration: Working together using a cooperative and collaborative process may facilitate more effective problem solving.
  • Shared mission objectives or organizational/team Goals: Team members should understand the specific objectives of the operation or process and understand how these objectives are linked to larger goals.
  • Leader’s Intent: By describing an overall vision of the desired end-state of the job or operation, leaders may be able to help team members understand what needs to be accomplished, which may help them make individual and team decisions as the operation or job unfolds, even in the absence of prescriptive orders.
  • Distributed leadership and decision-making: By decentralizing and distributing leadership organizations may find that they can streamline actions and decisions, and gain an advantage through local team action, rather than through centralized micromanagement, which can bog down actions down in many cases.
  • Shared mental model: Simply put, everyone needs to be “on the same page” so they understand the job or operation as well as each team member’s duties.
  • Empowerment: Removing obstacles to performance and allowing team members a degree of freedom to act within their technical/functional areas of expertise may go a long way in developing effective teamwork.
  • Standardization: Standardized procedures in many cases may help facilitate consistent and reliable performance and may help reduce confusion.
  • Initiative: Team members who can spot a problem and take action to fix it, or at least bring problems to those who can take action may help teams to reach higher levels of performance as opposed to teams whose members wait for others to take action on a problem.
  • Innovation: Using individual and team creativity can help teams solve problems in new ways, and may help improve safety and operations performance in the process.
  • Synchronous evolution: When one part of the team changes the rest of the team should be informed so that related changes may occur, as necessary, and so these changes happen together.
  • Adaptability: While this may seem like a counter-point to standardization, adaptability is required when procedures fail to work as designed, and this may be due to multiple factors, including changes in the job or operation, or changes in the operational environment itself.
  • Lessons-learned processes: Teams and organizations should seek to learn from both successes and failures in terms of operations and safety performance on a regular basis and should develop methods for sharing these lessons with other teams across the organization.
  • Work system design: Teams should be allowed to participate in the design of work systems, processes, and operational procedures to help close the gap between work-as-designed and work-as-performed, and work method design should take a system approach that considers all interdependent and interconnected parts of the work system.

Whether you or your teams work in high-risk operations where safety impacts can be detrimental to performance or in high-performance operations where operational deficiencies can have negative consequences to business survival, these principles of effective teamwork may still apply. Even if your teams work in more of a low-hazard environment (where safety to personnel is less of a concern) and focus is more on achieving high-reliability and excellent performance while avoiding mission failure, these principles may also apply.

Oftentimes when safety performance is degraded management looks to identify where compliance efforts failed and then tries to find ways to increase compliance. While this is a worthy endeavor, compliance may not be enough because in many cases, failures occur in ways not covered by typical regulatory compliance. That means that when trying to improve safety performance leaders and managers may need to look to new methods when the old ones aren’t working well enough. Examining leadership and teamwork may be one of those areas that should be examined because it relates directly to performance.

So, in the future when trying to consider methods for improving operations and safety performance you may think about teamwork, and how these principles apply to your teams. Thinking about safety and operations beyond a compliance focus may help you and your organization reach new levels of performance. When someone says, “we need more effective teamwork” consider the principles described in this post.

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