Is COVID-19 An Opportunity To Study Effective Teamwork?

The answer, of course, is a resounding yes! Like other previous existential crises facing humanity’s very existence, such as world wars and previous pandemics, COVID-19, which has been labelled “the invisible war”, requires that the leaders of the world, be they political, scientific, medical, and in this instance….all of us, come together in a multi-faceted team effort to eradicate this plague and prevent its recurrence. The day of the charismatic leader taking charge, or taking the blame, is long gone. The world is way too complex and way too integrated. As has been said, if one country, large or small, sneezes, everyone else can catch a cold….quite an apt analogy these days. In this article, we will talk about characteristics of high performing teams as seen in an executive setting. 

What Do High Performing Teams Have In Common? 

What are the major ingredients of high performing teams, whether manifested across the planet or in the executive team? First and foremost, a high performing team needs a common vision and purpose which is compelling, motivating or inspiring. In fighting this disease, there is little doubt that with the exception of a couple of political outliers, leaders on the entire planet are determined to defend its citizens against this plague. Furthermore, whether or not we all adhere to the rules of personal distancing, frequent handwashing, and self-isolation if infected, there is a clear and united resolve to eradicate the disease and find a vaccine to prevent its recurrence. So far, so good.
 
Trust among the leadership is a very close second in defining what characterizes a peak performing team. When it comes to addressing this pandemic, this is an area we seem to be wanting…and deservedly so. On a macro level, there is serious suspicion of China’s motivation and reporting. Equally, there is suspicion that all countries are accurately reporting their morbidity and mortality rates. In many constituencies we do not trust our political leaders’ assessment of our readiness to return to a normal way of life. On a micro level, we don’t trust our citizens to adhere to the rules of engagement related to irrefutable scientific recommendations of the risks. And, when we are compelled to resort to fining people for breaking the rules and taking unnecessary risks, it is a pretty clear indication that along with personal protective gear, trust is in short supply. And it’s not simply a matter of blind trust based on charisma. Dr. Anthony Fauci is clearly charismatic, but if we did not know his track record, his grasp of the issues, his willingness to admit both what we know and what we don’t know, his appeals to the North American masses would have little impact.
 
Similarly, a high performing executive team needs to exhibit, via their behaviour, a deep and unwavering trust of one another. Members need to be counted on to “walk the talk”, exhibit candour, and have one another’s backs. Saying “I trust you” is insufficient; it’s what one does which counts.
 
Competent team members are an absolute requirement for an executive team to achieve its mission. When competence is a checkered commodity, it not only hampers team effectiveness, but it undermines trust. In the context of Covid-19, certainly at the scientific and medical levels, there appears to be an enormous level of competence, commitment and confidence.
 
Similarly, merit should be the most significant criterion for being included on an executive team. While the quality of relationships and “fit” are important, fit without skill will ultimately pull the performance of the entire team down and put the organization at significant risk.
 
Team leadership is essential for an executive team to perform at its utmost. Team leaders need to be seen as reliable, responsive, rational, focused, realistic, dedicated to achieving the mission, willing to listen to their team members, collaborative, mentally tough, and above all, honest. Too often, politicians do not leave politics and spin at the door before entering the room. Sooner or later “the emperor will have no clothes” and their credibility and effectiveness will be shot. Chaos and anarchy frequently ensue. On a global level, this situation can be disastrous. No less so in business. People start “talking with their feet” and before you know it the leader has few if any followers. The alternative is frequently a totalitarian regime or, at the executive table, a tyrant, dictator or one-man show. If the latter is the case, that leader best holds all the cards and be willing and able to trump any threats (pun intended).
 
Frequent communication is the grease that keeps the gears of the team rolling. And the communication needs to be two-way. Leaders need to speak and listen, not speak or listen. Whether communication is intended to impart information in a timely fashion or to resolve differences or to provide feedback or pat someone on the back, it is rarely the case that highly effective teams over-communicate. No one is complaining that government, medical and epidemiological leaders are holding too many press conferences or publishing too many updates….other than the media, and their motivation is highly transparent.
 
It has been said, particularly in a crisis, that leaders need to communicate a message 7 times and in 7 different ways. Occasionally a message needs to be repeated in order for it to sink in, or some people learn more effectively via different modalities. What every leader needs to be sensitive to is the avoidance of rumour-mongering or the publication of “fake news”. And, this is typically a responsibility which a team leader ought not to delegate away. Countries, planets, employees want the leader to be front and center on important issues and messaging. That does not mean that other members of the team are not to be heard; quite the opposite. They have a responsibility to echo what the team leader has communicated….to make it real for those who look to them for endorsement and support of the message.
 
In summary, I would give our leaders during the Covid-19 crisis an over-all score of B- in the realm of teamwork.  I will leave it to the reader to determine whether they agree and how they would rate the leadership team that is most relevant to them; and then, ask of themselves what could these people have done more of, less of or differently so as to demonstrate even more effective team leadership.
 
In the realm of business, executive teams ought to consistently ask themselves whether they are adhering to these principles of effective leadership. Furthermore, take the pulse of those you are leading to assess the congruence between the team’s intent and impact. If you are afraid to do so you likely know the answer.

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Article was written by Gerald Pulvermacher, Ph.D., C.Psych. (Industrial/Organization Psychologist)