I’m doing a bunch of interviews in preparation for a team effectiveness program. Mid-way through the third interview, I covertly open my calendar to double make sure these people are part of the same team. The team being described by the third interviewee bears no resemblance to the one described by the previous two. After several more calls, I sense a theme. Those with modest expectations of the team are happy; those with high expectations of the team range from underwhelmed to disappointed to dejected. I find myself sympathizing with the angry folks. How can the happy people expect so little of their team?

If I answer my own question honestly, it’s easy to see how you could come to expect so little of your team. At some point, you’ve probably been a part of a nasty, loud, aggressive team and you’re relieved to be on a conflict averse team for a while. Maybe you spent years on an immature, underprepared team and you’re just glad that your current team actually knows how the business works. Worse, maybe you crawled out under the desks to escape a passive-aggressive team and you’re thrilled to have a sojourn on a boring, harmonious, low value add team. But wait! I know you’ve seen far worse, but just because your current team isn’t terrible, doesn’t mean you should be content!

It might feel like lowering your expectations will protect you from the bitter disappointment of another terrible team. But low expectations lead to low performance. Take the risk. Expect more from your team. Expect more from yourself. See what’s possible.

What You Should Expect

There are a few things that you should expect of your team that go beyond the basics of doing your job.

  1. Connect as Humans. Nope, it’s not required that members of a team like (or even really know) each other as humans. You can absolutely do your job without ever revealing anything personal. But who wants to be on a team where you don’t give a damn about the people around the table and they don’t give a damn about you? Human connection is the root of empathy and empathy is going to be pretty darn important when your team gets into the really tough stuff. If you’re putting up with being nothing more than a job description to your teammates, your expectations are too low!
  2. Do Meaningful Work. The vast majority of team members that I meet are remarkably tolerant of their teammates wasting their time. It’s seen as a given that your team will spend loads of time on trivial crap. Don’t put up with it! If your teammates (or your team leader) are wasting time on PowerPoint read-outs or data deep dives, suggest more valuable agenda items. Have the guts to question whether a conversation has gone on long enough. Reframe a question to focus on the stuff that really matters.
  3. Add Value for One Another. Does your team resemble the economics class in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…heads on desks leaking puddles of drool? Don’t put up with it. If you need the input of your teammates, don’t let them shrug and nod through your discussion. Ask big open-ended questions to engage them. If you don’t get anything, start calling them out by name. Don’t take it for granted that no one read the pre-read you sent out. Start behaving as if your work matters and your teammates will too.
  4. Behave Like Grown-ups. It is not okay for adults in the workplace to misbehave like petulant children. Name-calling, sulking, yelling, whispering, and potty humor have no place in your team. But you probably just roll your eyes and put up with it. WHY!?! You deserve to work on a team of grown-ups and if you don’t, you need to say something.
  5. Work Through the Hard Stuff. I once helped a team that had developed what they called the “too hard pile.” These were issues that they knew needed to be resolved for the good of the business, but everyone knew they would be contentious, uncomfortable, divisive conversations. So they just shelved them. The business was stuck because so many paths to progress were blocked by issues on the too hard pile. You should expect your team to name and then resolve the issues holding you back.

If I asked you to rate the quality of your team, what would you say? If your response would be “fine,” or “good,” ask yourself whether good is good enough. Even if good is a big improvement over what it was before, there’s still room for improvement. Try expecting more of your team and they might just surprise you.

Further Reading

How to work for a childish leader

You Get the Team You Deserve

Dealing With a Coworker Who Doesn’t Pull Their Weight