Q: I’m co-leader of a joint venture team formed for a special project with staff from two different companies. The expectation is that we will behave as employees of the new project, not our respective home firms. The problem is that whenever stress or challenges come up, people gravitate strongly toward their original co-workers. How can we get people to pull together more fully?
– Lou, 46, finance director
A: People naturally gravitate toward the known, so invest in building more familiarity within the new team.
And no, this doesn’t mean simply “team-building” events, although those have their place.
Instead, think about the way work bonds form.
One of the fastest ways is to work with someone on an assignment. This tactic would be very easy to replicate in your current situation.
The key is to have the tasks be real and valuable, but not crisis material.
For example, you could have a couple of people from each company work together to create a recommendation on how the new team will store documents. This is a vital activity, as hours of frustration arise from not being able to find the things you need. And the act of doing this work will form bonds.
Consider other core processes you could apply this to, keeping the assignments brief and having each person work with different individuals.
Assuming that you are not all in one place, use technology to create a virtual workplace. Then it’s easy to have the friendly “how’s your day going” chats that further build the web of relationship your combined team needs.
Find the right time to bring the team together in person. It may be once your mission is clarified enough to benefit from structured work time. Regardless of timing, there will be relationship benefits. If it’s at the very beginning of your joint venture, people will meet right away and get to know one another. If it’s later on, people will have the fun of a face-to-face meeting with someone they have been working with.
Transportation is one of the big costs in a meeting like this, so don’t scrimp on time. Be sure there’s a pleasant evening event, for example, and enough time for “getting to know you” agenda items during the day.
You could do meetings in a neutral setting, but also consider field trips to the two home companies, perhaps hosting sessions at each.
Fast forward to when your team hits a challenging point on your work. Even though people will be better connected, they still may default to an exclusionary approach.
That’s where you, as a leader, need to step in. Use a coaching approach, talking to the players to find out what’s going on, and getting them to identify better approaches that tap the team talent pool.
Also as leader, continually express your expectations for collaboration and zero tolerance on power struggles. Once you lay the groundwork, the human inclination to bond will step in and an integrated team will evolve.