While the Chinese zodiac named 2018 as the Year of the Dog, we’ve named it the Year of the Team. We all know how important teamwork is to the success of any business. Business leaders and managers talk about it and want to do a good job of it, but the truth is, despite all the conversation around the importance of teamwork, most companies are using outdated methodologies that just don’t work. 

I recently interviewed Karen Gordon, CEO of 5 Dynamics, a leading company in the collaboration space, and she discussed the results of their most recent survey around teamwork and collaboration. 

Your survey found that the majority of people work in teams, and a third of them have been frustrated enough by the experience to consider leaving their jobs. Were you surprised by this statistic? What can leaders do to overcome the frustration experienced by working in teams? 

No, we weren’t surprised at all. Companies have perfected the art of optimizing processes. They have taken the noise out of systems and streamlined production, but optimizing people is a much more daunting task. The intrinsic value of companies is locked up not only in its patents, but also in the intellectual capital of its employees. We all know this to be true, but historically, companies have not invested enough in optimizing relationships.  

Relationships can be difficult to navigate, for some more so than others, and until now, there was no easy way for people to decode those relationships. So, frustration ensues. Company leaders can address the teamwork challenge by making collaboration efforts an ongoing priority. Instead of once-a-year retreats or annual assessments, companies should be implementing collaboration tools and processes that employees apply on a daily basis. 

Why do you think companies have historically shied away from investing in the optimization of their employees and valuable relationships? How can they start to build those smart investments? 

Companies like metrics. Measuring the cost of poor relationships is a difficult thing to do, but one indicator is employee turnover. By the time this metric is visible, though, it’s too late – you have already lost a good employee. Another metric companies are beginning to look at is engagement, but again, it is somewhat challenging to effectively measure something that is subjective. However, a good executive knows that the best strategies require high performing teams whose members are aligned around a single goal, able to trust one another, have healthy debate, and move forward in a unified way.   

We know that teams with diverse members outperform homogenous teams. Executives benefit from being intentional in selecting team members with diverse perspectives and skill sets, then creating conditions for that team to build trust.  

Trust comes from the knowledge that the team succeeds or fails together – psychological safety is the number one predictor of productive teams. When failure is seen as too risky, individuals will take steps to protect themselves, even when it comes at the expense of the team’s effort. Executives need to invest in promoting a company culture that supports trust among teams whose members are highly diverse. Team collaboration tools that employees can apply on an ongoing basis are a great foundation for that culture. 

I see that the survey also pointed out that new leadership, company expansion, and motivating others all cause stress in employees. That seems natural, but what can managers and executives do to address and move past that stress?  

I think the best thing executives can do is spend time thinking purposefully about how their team operates, including what makes them tick personally and professionally. How can you motivate others if you do not know what inspires them? What work do they truly enjoy doing? How do they like to contribute? What is the best way to orient them to a new project or team? These are all questions any leader should be able to answer about her team, and the team should be able to answer about their leader.  

If a team member is able to contribute from her strengths, she will be more successful, engaged, and satisfied, even in the face of challenges or change. If she feels valued by an organization for the unique gifts that she brings to the table, and supported in any situation she faces, change is much easier to accept. Change causes stress, absolutely. Leaders can mitigate that stress by leveraging best practices in change management, communicating clearly and openly about what’s happening and why, and ensuring that employees have productive avenues for voicing their concerns and being heard.  

Uncertainty drives a lot of the anxiety and stress that employees experience. When leaders provide sufficient insight into company plans and priorities, employees can let go of the stress that comes with uncertainty and move forward with their work in a more productive mindset. 

According to the survey, companies are implementing collaboration tools, but employees aren’t applying them. Why do you think this is, and how can managers and leaders support adoption that unlocks those associated benefits? 

I believe that most systems are too difficult to master. They require an intermediary to interpret the data—an internal HR, Leadership & Organization Development (L&OD) professional, or an outside coach for the lucky few who can afford one. Our philosophy is that everyone should have a simple system for decoding human relationships, so that’s what we have developed. It’s about removing the vagaries of personal relationships by giving stakeholders a very clear and explicit roadmap to bring out the best in others and themselves.  

Keeping things simple, strengths-based, and easy to follow is imperative for adoption and understanding. If people get it, they’re more inclined to like it; therefore, they apply it. That is what sets effective collaboration and teamwork resources apart in this space.  

Optimizing relationships is the new frontier in workforce management. Soft skills are increasingly outpacing technical skill and business acumen as must-haves for employees. Companies expect to be constantly teaching and training their workforce to improve technical and business skills, but it is far less common for people skills. Executives who invest in the necessary resources to improve team collaboration will see the increased productivity and lower turnover reflected in the bottom line.

Thunderbird School of Global Management Alumna Dana Manciagli '84 is the author of "Cut the crap, Get a job". With her 'Career Mojo' column, Dana is the sole syndicated career columnist for the Business Journal nationwide. Her remarkable profile includes a career in global sales and marketing for Fortune 500 corporations like Microsoft, IBM, and Kodak. She has coached, interviewed and hired thousands of job seekers. This article was originally published on her website.

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