Jobs and the Future of Work

Why a new social contract for high-performing teams is needed in the new world of hybrid working

Six high-return practices can change teams when hybrid working.

Six high-return practices can change teams when hybrid working. Image: Unsplash/Parabol

Keith E. Ferrazzi
Founder and Chairman, Ferrazzi Greenlight
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  • In the new world of hybrid working, strong team working competencies are more critical than ever.
  • Understanding how your team works now is a first important step before you can change the way that they work and commit to a new social contract.
  • There are six high-return practices to strengthen your team dynamics involving collaborative problem solving, bulletproofing, candour breaks, red-flag replays, safe words and open 360s.

A new social contract for teams is needed to escape mediocre or merely good performance, accelerate innovation and unleash growth in today’s volatile and changing world. Companies have traditionally emphasized leadership competencies, not team competencies. We’ve all focused so heavily on what it means to be a great leader, we’ve lost sight of what it means to be a great team. But the transformation of an organization must begin with the transformation of its teams.

In a new feature for Harvard Business Review, I share data from more than 1,000 team diagnostics the Greenlight Research Institute has carried out over two decades. We have coached established companies including Unilever, Hitachi, Verizon, BASF and GM, along with fast-growing start-ups and unicorns on their journey to becoming world-class hybrid teams.

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Shifting to hybrid working

Behaviourally, our research shows:

  • 71% of team members aren’t committed to elevating one another by candidly offering each other feedback.
  • 71% don’t believe their team collaboratively engages in the most important business problems.
  • 74% of team members don’t believe their team is accountable for shared goals.
  • 81% say that their team is not operating at anywhere near its full potential.

In the wake of COVID-19, our data shows that too few teams have made fundamental behavioural shifts from remote work to hybrid collaboration. Our maturity model for world-class hybrid teams reveals the average team is only at a “2” on a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high). Now, as we move into a softening global economy, behaviours like candour, close collaboration and peer-to-peer accountability are critical to a team’s ability to make difficult trade-offs to make room for bold innovation.

Diagnosing the issues

Before you can change how your team members interact and operate, you need a clear view of how they are functioning right now. Too often members have an unspoken agreement to avoid conflict, stick to their individual areas of responsibility and refrain from criticism in front of the boss. All teams need to track their behavioural progress, just like we track individual employee engagement. For a digital assessment, including scoring and proposed actions, see

High-return practices for hybrid working

Once your team has committed to a new social contract, it’s time to put the agreed-upon behaviours into use. We have researched and measured the efficacy of a suite of high-return practices that will help your team make the transformation to being a high-impact team.

Practice 1: Collaborative problem-solving

Collaborative problem-solving is a systematic process of discussion in which a single business-critical question is the focus of a 60 to 90-minute meeting. For example:

“In a softening economy, what do we need to re-prioritize for the year ahead?”

“What bolder innovations can we consider for the company’s growth strategy?”

“What risks might derail the business in the coming six months?”

Be clear from the outset about who will make the final decision. For half the session the team breaks into three-person groups to brainstorm. People have more courage in small groups; they are less inhibited about critiquing ideas.

The team member with decision rights gives immediate feedback when the group reconvenes: a clear “Yes, we’ll do that,” a “No, and here’s why not,” or a “Let’s look at this again after additional research.” Feedback is critical: the collaboration must result in action.

Practice 2: Bulletproofing for better hybrid working

Frequently, we find senior executives who are turf-oriented rather than having the rare quality we see in the highest-performing teams: leaders who keep their perspective on the enterprise as a whole. Bulletproofing, if used regularly, can ensure collaboration across silos. Here’s how it works. A team member presents a high-priority project, ideally in a shared three-column document:

What’s been achieved?

Where the project is struggling?

What’s planned for the next sprint of work?

They then ask for no-holds-barred feedback. Working virtually, the team can be divided into groups of three and sent into breakout rooms for 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the issue’s complexity. The break-out groups challenge unacceptable levels of risk and brainstorm ways to mitigate it.

Feedback is recorded in a shared file divided into columns for challenges, innovations and offers of help. This feedback ensures the project leader benefits from the team’s full wisdom.

Practices 3, 4 and 5: Candour breaks, red-flag replays and safe words

The importance of candour cannot be overstated – conflict avoidance can be corrosive. No matter how sensitive the issue or how serious the criticism, members must feel free to voice their thoughts openly, though always constructively, recognizing that it is a crucial step toward a better solution. But in our experience, most companies struggle mightily with helping such employees acquire the necessary mindset. Candour breaks can help.

During a meeting, announce a candour break and ask the team, “What’s not being said?” Divide the team into groups of three to explore the question and document and share the results.

You can also use what we call red-flag replays to smoothen the hybrid working model. Much as American football coaches throw down a flag to request a review of a penalty call, any team member can ask the team to look back on a recent interaction by saying, “Let’s have a red-flag replay on that discussion.” A replay may also be requested if it appears that the agreed social contract has been broken —such as a back-channel conversation.

What could have been done differently in the moment? What’s needed to get the team back on track?

Practice 6: Peer-to-peer development – open 360s

Members of the highest-performing hybrid working teams give one another feedback on performance and competencies. But our data shows that 61% of team members don't believe their peers seek any development opportunities, presumably because people are overwhelmed by heavy workloads, which creates a catch-22. Without team-specific coaching and development, collaboration is less effective, so workloads feel heavier.

In parallel, many believe that once they reach the executive ranks, they need less development than earlier in their career. In today’s volatile business environment, individuals at every level must continually improve and grow, which is where the open 360 comes in.

We’re all familiar with traditional 360 reviews: performance evaluations that solicit feedback from all directions, typically anonymously and in writing. In an open 360, every member gets feedback from peers orally, in a transparent team forum. We recommend starting with the leader and asking teammates to take turns giving feedback in two rounds.

In the first round, members should celebrate some aspect of their teammate’s performance. For example, “What I most admire about you is…” In the second round, they should offer constructive, affirmative criticisms. For instance, a recommendation for improvement might begin: “Because your success is so important to our success, I’d suggest…”

Practices for all teams

The practices I outline in HBR can be used at any level, not just for leadership teams. They can be implemented in any work environment but we’ve found them to be especially effective in virtual environments, including of hybrid working (because virtual tools permit a broader range of collaborative practices than strictly in-person formats).

For an in-depth overview of these high-return practices, see A New Social Contract for Teams on HBR.

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