I was talking with an executive last week about her company’s strategy. She was discouraged that although she believed that they had done a great job communicating the strategy on multiple platforms and venues, her managers still didn’t seem to be making the needed changes to their priorities and acting on it. I think of strategy as a living, dynamic process and in my experience it takes ongoing “talk and walk”: language, action and lots of “how to”. My client paused, looked at me and said, “How do we do that? I don’t think I know how.”
How do I do that?
How often do you find yourself saying that? My guess is that you may feel it more than you say it. I think that is a shame. We have a funny contradiction in our current business climate. We worship experts and expertise, yet we have a world and technology that are changing so fast, what “we know” gets outdated or stale quicker than it used to. I often think of myself as a professional learner because new data and insights about the brain, motivation, work, teams, performance, etc., is constantly emerging. I also work with people from all different backgrounds and industries, at the same time. My executive clients are engineers, fighter pilots, scientists, doctors, marketing, sales and finance leaders. Between their varied disciplines and the organizations they work in, I feel like I don’t know a lot. Often.
This has helped me develop a new mindset about my knowledge and work. Thanks to the work of Heidi Grant Halvorson and Carol Dweck and others, I feel that many days I go to work to practice. More often than not I am running experiments. At this stage in my life, I have a substantial body of work and track record to leverage. That’s true. But there are always nuances, subtle or not so subtle differences in business situations or leaders or teams. There is always something new in front of me in the present moment to learn. I can always do better.
It’s true that this is uncomfortable at times. This makes sense. I am building a different set of “muscles”…the “I don’t know”, “I am not sure”, “Here are some ideas”, and “Let’s try this” muscles and I am getting more practiced at not knowing. Unencumbered by “knowing” what to do, I am adding to a body of work and making changes in real time that will be more effective for the client.
So you can see why when a client says to me, “I don’t know how to do that.” I feel excited for them. I understand. I also see opportunity. There is some soft clay there. There is some room to grow and change. The “hard, impermeable wall of knowing” is making room for a door. In this more adaptable place, I know there is room for practice and that is pretty thrilling.
On this team is it safe to be myself? Can I take the risk to offer my opinion without it being shot down or rejected? It has been shown that when team members can answer, “yes” to these and similar questions, it improves team effectiveness.
Though I rely on research all the time to make decisions on how to design or approach a project, the issue I have with academic research is that it is often conducted in conditions that don’t resemble real workplaces. When I work with a team, they have a challenging goal that is meant to address or solve a real issue. This is why I really loved the Google team research that Charles Duhigg writes about in his February 25, 2016, New York Times article, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. Google’s research studied the effectiveness of real teams doing real work.
One of the most compelling findings about team effectiveness was the importance of creating “psychological safety”. Amy Edmonson, a Harvard professor, describes this in her 1999 research as, “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking”, and “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”
The researchers at Google also found that effective teams demonstrated “equality in distribution of time-taking”. Essentially all members had a chance to contribute in fairly equal amounts. This signals that all members felt valued and safe enough to share their ideas.
Of the term “psychological safety”, Edmondson wrote in the 1999 study, “It describes a team climate characterized by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.” Wow. Isn’t that what we all want at work and life, whether on a team or not? To be seen, heard and accepted for who we are and what we bring? This makes so much sense to me. If I feel accepted, I am more likely to share my knowledge and ideas. If I don’t, I am more likely to hold back. When a team is working to create something really great or solve an important problem, it is rarely a good thing for people to refrain from sharing their best ideas. A lack of psychological safety on a team would also explain why people sometimes wait to share their best ideas until after a team meeting.
No doubt, creating psychological safely on a team takes time to build and requires being thoughtful about communication. You can see how another of the Google findings, the importance of creating group norms, can clearly contribute positively to safety on a team. Team leaders need to consider how their approach, communication and behaviors impact psychological safety. Though a complex construct, it seems worth learning how to do. I imagine that these findings apply to being an effective leader in general. Let’s not wait for more research to start applying it.
Taking the time to establish and update team norms, or ground rules as they are often called is essential to team success. Norms provide the rules or behaviors for how the team wants to work together.
Let’s assume you have a challenging, clear and approved charter, and everyone is on the same page with the goals. What do you need norms for? Doesn’t everyone know how to act? We are all adults, for goodness sake! Let’s just get to work! I have heard these questions and comments or sensed them in many a team launch. I have also hurried through the process, treated it like an “exercise”, and watched colleagues undermine the importance of rigorous norms, all to our collective peril.
In the February 25, 2016 New York Times article written by Charles Duhigg, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team, one of the findings was the importance that group norms have on team success. I was happy to read this. It is always fun when the research and data back up what I experience as a practitioner working with teams everyday. Norms are essential for team success.
When I set up a team launch I have the team members reflect in advance of the meeting. I ask them to list specific behaviors they need from colleagues to be productive and successful. Their list should include behaviors that will allow them to feel safe disagreeing with team members or the team leader, how to create maximum inclusion (so you can get the best from everyone in the room) and how to avoid the dreaded and inefficient “meeting after the meeting”. Once in the meeting, we take our time to discuss, construct and combine the collective norms for the team. I take more time with it than I used to, and clients tell me that when they use them consistently, norms save time in the long run.
We all come to work with our experience, competence, personalities and habits. I think it is rare that someone on a team wants to disrupt team cohesion or success. From what I have seen, at times they can’t help themselves. They do what they do. In our formative years we all learn and practice to perfection a set of “rules”. None of this is necessarily bad. When we join a team, we need something that transforms and re-forms some of our work and interaction habits. We need to set aside or even disrupt what is most comfortable and familiar for us to serve the mission of the team. For a time, we need to create a space where everyone can contribute his or her best and most creative ideas. That is why we have teams and teams (we now know for sure) perform better with norms.
This is going to be a series of posts about teams, some of my favorite work. With increased complexity and collaboration, team forming or “socialization” is more important than ever.
The last couple years I have worked on some really quick, rewarding team building projects. What has been so different and fun is that clients didn’t call me when things were going wrong, they called me when they were launching the team. This is exciting. It is also a lot less expensive for the client and most often creates better outcomes. “Fixing a team” is messy and time consuming. Facilitating a team launch is fast in comparison and it will set them up for success.
The more I work with teams, the more I appreciate the intricacy and magic of them. Intricacy is wired in most of the time now. If your team is set up right it has only the people in the room required to accomplish the mission. Depending upon the Charter, you will have varied experience, knowledge, and strengths to leverage. You will have diversity of personality types. Add to this a big goal and you have a challenging road ahead.
The magic comes from setting the team up in such a way that they access and celebrate all the talent and energy in the room. If you have been on a wildly successful team, you will understand the magic part.
Forming is so important because it sets the framework for a productive, effective and enjoyable team. Though each team launch is a little different they always have these pieces:
Clients sometimes think that their virtual, global and “fast” teams (the charter is targeted and the time frame short) don’t need launching. To the contrary, it is even more important in my experience. I believe all teams benefit from some “forming” activities.
It’s also common for executives to have many seemingly disparate groups reporting to them. The business units may all have different missions and work, but they all share some foundations: they all need to know the rules for the road to be successful with the leader, they most likely have some dependencies in their work and they for sure can benefit from better leveraging “peer power”. Even when the client doesn’t think they need team building, the team will tell me they do. Will team building slow the team start up a bit? Yes. Will it take some investment of your time? Yes. But the team will perform better and the return on investment will be worth it. In this instance, slowing down to go faster works.
In my first years as a manager I was running a large outpatient clinic. I was young, learning on the job and made lots of mistakes. Thankfully I did a few things exceptionally well. Still, I look back on those days and wish I had had someone above me or beside me to help me get better faster. I didn’t leave any dead bodies but I left some hurt behind. As it turns out I received some of the most valuable coaching from a surprising source and I have never forgotten it. In fact this sage advice is proving to be more valuable now than ever.
My boss had a vibrant, intelligent assistant named Beverly, who always knew what was going on. She would often offer me important information and occasionally set me straight. I respected and liked her. One time I was dealing with a difficult situation at work. It actually started getting to me and I was not my normal upbeat self. As I was walking by my boss’s office one day, Beverly called after me. I stopped and walked into her office and she said, “What is going on Moira? You have looked so down lately.”
I will admit I was a little taken aback and I said, “What do you mean Beverly? I am fine (fine!)” She replied, “Well, you don’t look fine. You have been walking around the last week like your dog died. You look so unhappy and people are starting to notice.” I’ll admit this made me a little angry. I said, “I am dealing with a difficult situation with ______. Can’t I have a bad day once in a while?”
Beverly looked at me with her kind eyes and said, “Well sure, you can have a bad day. But people look to you to gauge how things are going and when you walk around for a week looking so unhappy that I hear about it from multiple people, that becomes a problem for the team. They need you to be positive. You are like the weatherperson – you signal which way the wind is blowing. You are normally such a happy, positive person and when you are not, it is noticed. It doesn’t send a good signal. It is your job as a leader to be positive, Moira.”
Leaders have a lot of responsibilities these days. It’s has gotten more demanding. It used to be okay to be a curmudgeon as long as you delivered. Brilliant jerks aren’t doing as well in most workplaces these days. Sadly they still exist, but they are an endangered species. Most high performing workplaces expect their leaders at all levels to have at least some minimal skills in managing the social and emotional aspects of work.. The research is clear, Visionary and Affiliative leadership styles are highly positive for performance and required to tap into discretionary effort. So all these years later, I find myself channeling Beverly often, with an even more compelling body of research to back me up. Yes, as a leader it is your job to be positive. This also holds true for team members. But as a leader you have to model the behavior or you can’t really expect it of others. You still have to challenge people and deal with difficult situations. And you have to find a way to foster a positive, happy, upbeat presence. Your team needs it and most likely you do too.
Welcome to Moira's blog. I write a bi-monthly post about the work of building better people strategies, systems, teams and leaders.