We're fortunate to live in a time of deepening and expanding knowledge of what it takes to be an effective leader. Key behavioral discoveries in neuroscience and positive psychology are providing compelling research to inform our ability to manage our teams and ourselves more effectively.1-5 The bad news is that, even with increased knowledge, there are times when our communication falls short of what we intend and what others perceive.
As an executive leadership coach, I'm frequently asked by nurse executives and managers how to improve team communication, collaboration, and performance. The development of a team charter is a powerful, efficient, and effective strategy for engaging and aligning a team, whether the team is newly formed or has been together for a long time. A charter is a set of agreements created by the team and its leader to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the vision, values, and key behaviors needed for members to work well together.
Here, I provide an overview of the charter process, including major reasons for creating a charter, elements critical to a charter's success, and supportive research on the benefits of having a charter in place.
The importance of harmony
Think of how often you may have told yourself, “I made my expectations clear” or “They know what I mean,” only to later discover that you didn't and they don't. Behavioral scientists refer to this phenomenon of communication clarity overestimation as the illusion of transparency.6
These overestimations can be deleterious to team alignment and performance. Without clear instructions, team members begin working under multiple competing perceptions of the goal, like musicians in an orchestra individually tuning their instruments to their idea of concert C, rather than synchronizing their technique to match pitch and perform harmoniously. The rest of the organization witnesses the conflict and decides how much or how little to engage with the out-of-sync team. The mismanaged team's organizational value is diminished and the team is consequently excluded from vital decision-making opportunities.
Today's organizations want teams to work at the speed of opportunity to shape new systems and inspire employees. Aligned communication is key for a team to respond with the agility, precision, and artistry of a broad ensemble of diverse performers whose competencies collectively produce something truly transformational. Yet, current research indicates that 75% of today's teams aren't aligned, especially not around expected behaviors, leaving leaders surprised when significant challenges arise and teams fail to deliver.7 Multiple nursing impact studies have also described the consequences of dysfunctional teams: lost productivity, low morale, and declining job satisfaction.
To the rescue
Consider your team. How are they showing up? Do they shine in high-stakes, as well as everyday, situations? Do they excel in communicating high-priority goals and an inspiring vision? Do they model collaborative behaviors with an organizational responsiveness by successfully pivoting as circumstances warrant? Are they exemplary in seizing opportunities with consensus on effective strategic pathways? Or would you and others describe the team as loosely aligned, separated by silos, and inconsistent in follow-through and implementation? If the latter sounds more like your team, then you may draw inspiration for improvement from the example of a team I recently had the opportunity to coach.
The team of seven service line nursing directors and their associate chief nurse leader had been together for 3 years. At an initial consultation meeting with the CNO and senior vice president of patient care services, she described the team as “seemingly having the right people on the bus, but repeatedly in competition with one another, struggling to meet performance expectations and continuously dragging their feet on deliverables. A great group of people, just not a great team!” Then, she quickly added, “I wish we could start over, but that's not feasible.”
A comprehensive qualitative and quantitative diagnostic of the team identified its growing edges and the inherent communication missteps that had led them off course. Without a doubt, members were suffering, and the situation was particularly painful for their leader, who was stymied on how to improve the situation.
Drawing on many years of research and consulting on team dynamics, I knew a team-crafted charter would ensure the best course correction for this struggling team. A charter, literally and figuratively, would serve to relaunch and refocus the team's vision, reform behaviors, and reestablish priorities. It would do so by powerfully tapping the team's collective intelligence, building a common understanding and language to eliminate silo thinking and generate insights leading to new collaborative values and behaviors.
The four elements
Crafting a charter requires translating complex core team elements into meaningful, easily understood behaviors. Typically developed in a retreat venue, the core elements of a charter process include an inspiring vision; value-based behaviors; team commitments/norms, such as clear productivity goals; and collaborative accountability. (See Figure 1.) Recent research refers to these elements as the secret of great teamwork that moves a team beyond corrosive problems and pitfalls, enabling a united mindset. Researchers propose that without agreement on these fundamental elements, successful team cohesion and timely execution are doomed.8
Most hospitals have an institutional mission, vision, and value statements, but one researcher found a noticeable absence of these elements in nursing service departments, even though these are the elements around which service is built.9 The researcher suggests that it makes the best sense for various levels within nursing services to develop and publish the core elements as standard practice. It's further recommended that senior hospital management actively promote the development of these elements as central to the overall value proposition. Now, as resources are becoming increasingly constrained, it's more important than ever to find ways, such as chartering, to promote better coordination and greater efficiencies.9
A team charter is all about bringing people together to expand their communication capacity, beginning with discussion and development of a team vision. Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said, “When there is no vision, the people perish.” Although all four charter components are important, some underscore Roosevelt's sentiment, arguing that a team vision or an integrated view of a central, enduring common direction is a must to develop strategic actions. Teams without a vision flounder and easily get stuck in deteriorating dynamics.10,11
This was true of the nursing leadership team in our example. With their focus on the weeds, the team remained handicapped by power struggles, blaming, and workarounds. Their repeated response to failed execution was always why things couldn't get done.
A growing body of research finds that teams with charters manifest improved internal dynamics, outcomes, and alignment that contribute to superior performance.12-14 Google is an organization so convinced by the research that it evaluates its leaders on their respective team's understanding and execution of behaviors that the team agreed to follow in its work and interactions with each other: “We will respectfully provide performance feedback to each other regarding behaviors that are not serving the team and the department, and when our colleague is overburdened, we will collectively identify how best to assist him or her.”15 Some of these behaviors are similar to those of the nursing leadership team in underscoring the collaborative accountability of members for team and individual success.
The charter process uniquely engages team members and their leader in a facilitated dialogue process of distilling essential values, rethinking what's possible, and crafting productive interactions for top performance. This process culminates in a written document of the team's shared understanding, commitment, and responsibility for each other.
The length of time to create a charter varies depending on the size and particular needs of the team. Typically, a team with fewer than 10 members efficiently accomplishes its work within a 6-hour retreat. The time taken to create a charter will be repaid many times over when members stay focused and aligned during tough times.
The questions that frame the charter process generate deep discussion and appreciation for what's best in the team, and build a solid strength-based foundation from which members can design a future where the best becomes commonplace. The three-step process—discovering, envisioning, and designing —and sample questions are as follows:
- Discovering. What are our “must have” values on which we won't compromise?
- Values are the beliefs or principles that define what's important to team members and serve to drive actions and decisions. Through chartering, teams identify the meaning of their values by specific behaviors. For example, “being open, honest, and respectful in our interactions; being receptive to each other's different experiences, opinions, and feedback; and acknowledging positive actions and contributions, asking and freely lending help.”
- Envisioning. Reflect on what your ideal team would look like, what conditions or changes would make it a reality, and how you would be different as a member. The vision or aspiration goal is a results-oriented picture of the team that describes what members commit to achieve sometime in the future. For example, “We aspire as a management team to model collaborative excellence, resourceful innovation, and evidence-based leadership practice that inspires our colleagues and employees.”
- Designing. What are two specific behaviors we want and expect from each other? What would negatively impact these behaviors and our working relationship? Behaviors or norms are the interpersonal rules that clarify how team members will interact, collaborate, and support each other. For example, “We commit to bringing an issue directly to the individual involved, asking if the individual wishes to receive feedback, and respectfully communicating situational factors and outcomes without attributing motive.”
A charter must be reviewed periodically and modified, especially when a new member joins the team or conflict arises.
It's been a year since the nursing leadership team signed its charter document. At a recent follow-up with the CNO, the dysfunctional team was now being described as “showing up more resilient in turbulent times, better able to leverage the diversity of thinking, and more successful in influencing others in the organization and consistently achieving deliverables.” The team was successfully functioning from a healthy foundation—vision, values, norms, and accountability.
As demands and velocity of organizational change continue to escalate, a team charter enables teams to respond with the agility that only comes from alignment. Team dynamics are complex, layered, and can unravel at any time. The strong foundation established through a charter process will anchor any team in the worst and best of times.
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