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Shared Language: An Essential Skill For Building High Performing Teams

by Richard S. Hawkes | April 14, 2022 
HR Magazine 

Creative tension is essential to high performing teams

The amount of ink that has been spilled in an effort to improve the performance of teams is daunting. And yet, we forge ahead. Why? Because any little advantage in the quality and performance of teams is like discovering a vein of gold in the walls of a business. It yields extraordinary dividends. Here are a few important lessons I’ve learned from observing and creating High Performing Teams (HPTs) over several decades.

HPTs are:

  • Built by design. They are intentional. They are built consciously.
  • Not too big, not too small. Teams should ideally be about 6-10 people but not more than 12. Too many people on a team will inhibit performance and reduce its effectiveness
  • Authentically a team. This may seem obvious, but it’s crucial. Members authentically feel like they’re “in it together.” Team members are accountable to each other, develop camaraderie and trust, and feel a sense that each person has the other’s back.
  • On a mission. Perhaps most important, high-performing teams don’t just exist in a vacuum. They are on a mission—a continuous improvement journey, fulfilling their own purpose and the purpose of the organization.

In addition to these basics, there is another key element of High Performing Teams that is easy to take for granted. It involves the shared information ecosystem that will inevitably develop among team members. This needs to be explicit and transparent. How are we going to work together? What role is each person representing? What skill sets do we need to achieve our team goals? Don’t assume the answers to these questions are naturally understood. Make sure that everyone is singing from the same hymnbook, and understands the words to the songs! Such clarity begins with the most simple but underappreciated cultural achievement that all high-performing teams exhibit—a shared language.

Shared Language

George Bernard Shaw once described England and the United States as “two nations divided by a common tongue.” The same could be said of many individuals working together in teams and organizations today. They might use the same words and utter the same sentences, but their meaning is continents apart. You might be sitting in a meeting discussing a business problem when someone exclaims, “We need marketing!” Everyone agrees. And then you leave the meeting and the sales guy walks out thinking he’s going to create a brochure, while the product guy thinks he’s going to do a study to design a new value proposition. Both of those are meanings assigned to the word “marketing.” This happens all the time in business. Trains crash and lots of damage are done only because people use the same words to mean different things. It’s little wonder they often find it hard to align and coordinate, let alone to grow and thrive.

High Performing Teams are conscious and deliberate about the language they are using. It’s important to know that everyone is on the same page. It will help bind the group together. In a very real sense, the shared language of a team creates a kind of cell membrane around the team that defines what is inside and what is outside. Don’t ever take for granted the importance of developing and cultivating a shared language that everyone understands. And this is not something that is done once and put aside; it’s a process, a shared experience that must be continually cultivated.

Creating a shared language, clear roles, explicit ways of working, and a clear structure for team interactions doesn’t have to result in a team dynamic of conformity. We’re trying to inspire autonomous team members, not create drones! Diversity of opinion is fine. Disagreement is fine. Creative tension is essential to high-performing teams. But tension is much more likely to be creative if that diversity of opinion and disagreement is happening in the context of a shared language, and the basic structure of team interactions is understood. If the roles that team members play are clear, and if the overall direction and goals of the team are transparent, it’s much easier to have productive discussions and even disagreements. In that context, the energy of creative tension has the power to move the team forward, not waste energy in unproductive conflict, often driven by miscommunication.

Shared language needs to be developed intra-team, but that also highlights the importance of inter-team communication. Do different teams in different parts of the organization communicate effectively? Does the organization as a whole have a shared language for common business activities and protocols? When language gets codified across the organization, we begin to develop more effective cross-functional business processes. All the little confusions and disharmonies that come from singing in different keys begin to work themselves out. Suddenly, and often surprisingly, disparate teams and functional silos start to sync up.

Developing a more conscious, explicit method of communication, and knowing—not hoping or assuming—that team members understand exactly what you are saying, is an indispensable step in the process of forming and sustaining a high-performing team. It is a journey worth taking.

This article is adapted from Navigate the Swirl by Richard Hawkes, CEO of Growth River

Author Bio

Richard S. Hawkes is the author of NAVIGATE THE SWIRL and Founder of Growth River, an international consultancy that guides leaders and teams to create higher performance in businesses and organizations. Hawkes helps companies identify and resolve constraints to success. Clients include Edward Jones, GENEWIZ, Hitachi, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Mars. Hawkes received a B.A. in Computer Science and German Literature from Hamilton College and an M.B.A. in Marketing and Organizational Development from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.