The one skill high performing teams share

August 10, 2020


In organizations large and small, project teams are increasingly virtual, consisting of people based in dispersed geographical locations, from different cultural and professional backgrounds and value systems. To be effective, these kinds of pluralistic teams need to cultivate a shared mindset that goes far beyond tolerating diversity to actively engaging with each other to articulate shared goals and commit to working together to achieve them. My experience working with hundreds of teams over the years is that teams that achieve this kind of mindset and level of effectiveness share one common attribute: a collective ability to recognize and navigate the moods present in their teams.

Why Moods Are Important

People are moody. We are always in a mood, sometimes in multiple moods at once. Even if we try to ignore them, they are there, shaping our sense of our situation. Moods are not only shifting emotional dispositions that we first sense in our body, they are also automatic interpretations, based on lessons and experiences from our past, that come over us and guide us. Without us doing anything, our moods run ahead of us, coloring how we perceive things and how we are drawn to act. They inform our future possibilities and orient us as to what is important or essential for us to do (or not to do).

But, our moods can also disorient us, as lessons from our past may not be relevant to our current situation or to our future aspirations. Nevertheless, moods can help us to focus us on what is important to us and to take steps to take care of that. If we allow ourselves to pause to reflect, moods can serve to orient us well even when they initially limit our possibilities. They can help illuminate the past that influences us and the future that we care about. They can reveal possibilities that may not be visible at first glance. But first, we have to allow ourselves to notice our moods and to listen to what they are telling us.

When working in teams, all of us experience ups and downs, successes and failures. Simultaneously, we experience a wide array of moods; some of them inspire us to collaborate and achieve our objectives, others inspire us to walk away, or at least to wish that we could do so. If we are to take care of what is important to us and achieve what we would like to achieve together, paying attention to how our moods may be guiding us is crucial.

Moods and Teams

It might not be easy to pay attention to our moods, or the moods of the people around us, but they are always there in the background, influencing us. We can try to ignore or suppress them as not appropriate for the workplace. But they are still there, quietly orienting us, guiding how we act or react to our circumstances. If we don’t pay attention, we can find ourselves trapped in moods that restrict us, oblivious to possibilities that may be within our reach, but that our moods obscure.

The complexities inherent in coordination, different backgrounds, assumptions and priorities guarantee that we will at times experience moods such as frustration, resignation, or distrust when working with others. Too often, instead of having necessary conversations with one another, including making requests and offers to support each other, or sharing our assessments about what may not be working, we find ourselves growing distant and more pessimistic about our team’s ability to succeed. If we allow ourselves to dwell in these moods, our ability to collaborate and invent the future together will suffer. If we fall consistently into a mood of frustration, or distrust, or resentment, we may begin to feel resigned to failure. We know that many of mankind’s most remarkable achievements required many people to work together, yet we might start to feel that collaboration is overrated. Despite understanding the advantages of working in a team, we might find ourselves trying to do everything alone, or at least wishing that we could. We might fantasize about retiring and leaving everyone else behind. Collaboration sounds good on paper, but in real life, coordinating with others can feel painful. No matter what a team’s potential, when we are trapped in restrictive moods, we are less likely to succeed.

We can’t control our moods. We can’t change our moods simply because we decide to do so or think we should. The same goes for other people’s moods. Imagine telling your colleague: “You are in a bad mood, fix it. You need to be in a positive mood.” The only new mood your colleague is likely to find themselves in is a mood of annoyance with you, which you might detect in the rolling of their eyes.

But, if we take our moods seriously, we can learn to:

  • become aware of how we automatically orient ourselves in a situation;
  • reflect on whether our orientation helps or hinders what we want to do in the future; and
  • reshape our moods for the sake of the future that we aspire to make happen.

Moods are always connected to the future that we see possible. If we find ourselves in negative moods it is likely that we don’t see many possibilities for taking care of something that is important to us. If we are in more positive moods, the opposite is likely the case. Instead of ignoring our moods, we can learn to listen to them, discover how lessons from our past are influencing us, and determine whether these are conducive to accomplishing our future aspirations. If those lessons are not helpful, we open for ourselves the possibility to learn new lessons that will enable us to accomplish these instead.

Of course, this is easier said than done, but it is a skill that people can develop. Like other skills, it requires practice and time to do so. Learning to navigate our moods, however, is an investment that is well worth it.

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