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Creating the conditions for teams to flourish

09 Jun 2020 | Shirley Wardell Ahead of the next iteration of Advance HE’s Research Team Leadership programme, programme leader Shirley Wardell explains how leaders can foster exceptional team-working in an online world

If you ask people what it takes to be a good member of a team, they say things like; listen well, state your view, compromise, know team members roles and play to your strengths. If you ask them how well they do these things, they laugh. They tell me that good team behaviour is rare; yet wonderful. We know what a good team is and often; when it is good, we think that we are lucky. Of course luck plays a part, but we can’t leave the success of our projects to luck. We need to create the conditions for excellent teamwork and now we need to do it online.

Although it is important that leaders have good working relationships with individual members; that isn’t enough to build and maintain a good team.  I remember the pain of working in a team that under-produced in a way we found difficult to understand. There were talented people in the team; we valued and trusted the leader. We realised, after some reflection; that we had not developed good working relationships with each other.

When we started the next project together, we knew we had to become a team, but we weren’t quite sure how.

Our team leader consulted with the writings of John Adair, Nancy Kline and David Rock. He started by bringing us together he taught us how to listen and appreciate one another. He set up tasks, milestones, sub-groups and regular meaningful meetings. Most importantly he asked us; ‘What kind of team do you want to work in?’ He made sure we treated one another with respect when we discussed that; he didn’t just leave things to chance. He asked us to agree how our team would behave and work.

Our conversation about the team took around an hour and a half and it could have been trivial; but conversation turned out to be profoundly valuable. We agreed that we would do the following things:

  • be very clear on our purpose and our priorities
  • know which question we are answering
  • think deeply together
  • really listen to each other
  • stick to boundaries and agreements
  • bring challenges and slips to the table sooner
  • make positive assumptions when the facts were uncertain
  • appreciate and value each other
  • be fair
  • bring cake and have a laugh

Our team leader took responsibility for making sure we did the things we promised. This happened about 16 years ago and the same team comes together for an annual project. We have created a team experience to cherish and we have won the contract for another five years. We are however having an unwanted gap-year owing to the coronavirus. We will have to stay in touch via Zoom, Teams and Skype to maintain our commitment to each other. Apart from bringing cake, everything else we typically do can be done virtually.

This will be more important whilst people are working in isolation. Have you got a plan?


In light of the current global COVID-19 (Coronavirus) outbreak our Research Team Leadership programme has been redesigned as an online programme, specifically exploring the challenges of leading a research team in changing times. Find out more and book your place here.

Find out more about out work in Developing Leadership.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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