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Leaders, set your team up for success!

The Haydn Williams Fellowship Lecture by our guest Thomas O'Neill, held on our Curtin St Georges Campus, unpacked one of the most critical leadership challenges: how to form, maintain and enhance teams.

The Haydn Williams Fellowship is offered to an academic of outstanding international reputation and broad academic interest. One of the latest Fellows awarded this prestigious Fellowship is Associate Professor Thomas (Tom) O’Neill.

Tom is a renowned industrial and organisational psychologist and the Director of the Individual and Team Performance Lab and Associate Professor of Industrial-Organisational Psychology at the University of Calgary, Canada. He built and managed the state-of-the-art evidence-backed teamwork assessment platform,, which provides free evidence-based assessments and feedback for developing teamwork skills.

Here are four key takeaways from Tom's insightful lecture:

Building a team is hard work, but it pays off.

The potential of work teams is endless. It involves engagement, accountability, identity, felt meaningfulness of the work, collaboration, innovation, and error reduction. For these reasons, work teams are the building blocks of modern organisations.

The landscape of modern work (where modern organisations are situated) involves:

  • High complexity of problems ie. VUCA: Volatile, Uncertian, Complex, Ambiguous)

  • Volume of work

  • Speed of work

Exceptional teams drive value within their organisations.

Industry reports on trends suggest teamwork will continue to increase (Ernst & Young, Deloitte, KPMG). Google’s internal research on their own teams revealed that psychological safety (a form of trust) was the one distinguishing feature of exceptional teams.

Unfortunately, overall teams don’t perform that well. One study found that 20% were exceptional whereas nearly half were poor. The 2020 Gallup engagement results indicates that only 35% of employees are engaged within their teams.

Therefore, there is a lot of room for improving teamwork and engagement in organisations, which in turn will result in greater value creation.

Building high-performance teams involves job enrichment.

A roadmap to team performance involves creating a team identity, task identity, and execution activities:

  • Team identity The team members internalise the needs, values, and objectives of the team. They are energised by the mission of the team.

  • Task identity The team members achieve a common understanding of the team’s performance metrics, tasks, member roles, and critical task/role interdependencies.

  • Execution The team engages in the work, coordinates, communicates, and offers mutual support efficiently, and is able to engage in collaborative problem solving in within a healthy team climate.

Leaders are key to cultivating the team dynamic.

Big challenge areas for leaders are to set direction and purpose, create trust, and encourage healthy, fact-driven conflict.

  • Direction and purpose conveys what the team does in a way that is challenging, clear and focused, and empowering.

  • Cultivating a high trust environment allows team members to be vulnerable, speak up, ask questions, experiment, and admit mistakes. This is vital for learning and keeping pace in a dynamic world.

  • Healthy fact-driven debate is needed given the context of VUCA (Volatile, Uncertian, Complex, Ambiguous) . Unfortunately, teams tend to score lowest on this team dynamic. While one reason is because sufficient trust needs to be in place, another reason might involve the leader not creating the space or the opportunity for teams to engage in collaborative problem solving Postmortem discussion, devil’s advocacy, effective facilitation, and meeting management strategies are all good options for leaders to consider when decisions or problems are consequential and complex.

A recording of the session can be found on the Future of Work Institute YouTube channel.


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