Workplaces around the world are incorporating teams into more and more job site activities, including safety protocols. But unlike pro-football teams that lose star players every season and simply plug in new ones without missing a beat, most of us in the workplace find it difficult to create and maintain high-performing, durable teams.

No NFL training budget?
Teams are only as good as the weakest link in the chain. Lifting teams may help reduce the physical strain on any one worker, but only if the lift is coordinated. After all, even a Hall of Fame quarterback needs a receiver to catch the ball and an offensive line to protect him from the defense. What seems like a well-conducted operation on a Sunday afternoon is the result of hours of drills, weight training, watching films, and practicing, practicing, practicing.

In order to develop high-performing teams without an NFL training budget, it is important to understand the many facets of team training and then create a strategy to maximize team performance. Teamwork is not just about each person being a superstar at his or her own assignment. Effective teams need members who have been trained to work together to maximize performance.

Understand your team requirements
Before a team can be trained, some preliminary preparations are necessary if you expect to get off to a good start. The manager putting the team together needs to first answer the following basic questions:
  • What tasks need to be done and how many hours does each one require?
  • What roles (such as team leader) need to be filled?
  • Do team members need to coordinate their activities or can each person work independently?
  • How much turnover will there be in the team membership over time?
Answering these questions will determine the nature and degree of team training that is necessary.

Create a team training program
With this completed, you can determine the specific requirements for training the team. Team training can be divided into three categories:
  1. — Outcome training
  2. — Process training
  3. — Field training
Outcome training
Outcome training involves training team members in the content and skills necessary to complete the activities assigned to each team member. Commercially available trainers or training programs can be brought in to give team members the knowledge and skills they need to do their assigned tasks. If this is not possible, an internal expert can be recruited.

Team members need to be trained to understand not only their individual responsibilities, but the outcomes expected of the team as a whole. This ensures that when tradeoffs need to be made due to limited time or resources, one team member doesn’t work at cross purposes with the rest of the team. As obvious as this may sound, one of the leading causes of team dysfunction are individuals who don’t understand how their assignment contributes to the overall outcome and are thus oblivious to the damage they are doing to the team’s performance.

Another key aspect of outcome training is determining how much cross training is needed. Books have been written on this subject, but there are a few key points that should be emphasized. For example, safety teams that are not part of the worker’s main job assignment may experience frequent absences when workers are busy with their real jobs. Cross training — or redundancy — ensures that a team will have a full slate of members to get the job done.

Critical tasks also warrant more cross training. I’d hate for key members of my first responder team to be absent on the day of the big fire unless someone else could pick up the slack. Cross training may also be needed when teams have high turnover so the team isn’t paralyzed while a new member is being recruited to fill a key role.

Process training
The goal of process training is to teach team members to work together to enhance their abilities to achieve the required outcomes. This training is often skipped, especially when budgets are tight. But it can be very effective in providing team members with a meta-awareness of the team and in significantly enhancing performance. It can also lead to permanent changes in each team member — making each a better team player in any future teams he or she may one day be part of.

Process training can be tricky because everyone thinks they are good at teamwork. For this reason, it is best to focus training on specific areas where coordination is likely to break down. This is easier to accomplish with existing teams where past lapses and failures can be used as opportunities for training. When shown where communication lapses occurred, team members are more likely to be receptive to new procedures that will prevent the lapse from happening again. Ideally, task analysis by team experts can be done ahead of time to identify these processes before failures occur, but in my experience, not enough companies have the proactive sense to get this done.

Another key component of process training is to prepare teams to adapt to changing circumstances. Not all situations can be anticipated, especially when it comes to emergencies. Teams can be trained in adaptive delegation, showing them how to adjust the distribution of tasks and workload as the situation changes. Team members need to be trained to ask for help when they are overloaded and to recognize when their teammates need help. Superman syndrome can lead to critical failures at key times.

Leadership training may also be needed for some team members. Team leaders need to be trained not only in basic team management outcome skills (budgeting, scheduling, etc.), but also in how to motivate team members during difficult times, how to handle adverse conditions, and how to keep the entire team aligned. Other team members may need assertiveness training, helping them build up the confidence and willingness to rock the boat when they see something that is not right or when they have a better alternative to the consensus solution.

Field training
The goal of field training is to give team members realistic practice in using the skills necessary to their objectives. The more challenging or dangerous the team’s activities, the more important it is to have regular field training.

The first decision is to decide whether the field training should focus on depth or breadth. When situations will be similar every time, depth training helps teams attain a consistency in approach. Repetition helps the team develop a rhythm. But when there will be variability and uncertainty, breadth is more important. The more variability teams see in their training, the more they will be able to handle a new situation when it occurs, even if they did not see anything like it during training. Team members develop flexibility in their approach as well as confidence that they can handle new situations.

Another goal of field training is to create simulated stressful situations to test the effectiveness of the process training. If a team is going to fail when faced with a tough problem, it is better to find this out during training. It is important for stress training to include situations where achieving the necessary outcome is not possible. This forces the team to figure out the best possible lower level of performance to shoot for. Stress training can also test a team’s ability to handle unexpected tradeoffs when time or resources run out.

Set your eyes on the prize
While pro football teams set their eyes on a league playoff crowned by a Super Bowl victory, safety teams work for a more important prize — preventing injury and saving lives. With this goal in mind, set your eyes on the prize and train your teams to get out there and win.