On a recent flight to Phoenix to work with a group of leaders, I started looking for a new audio book. One of my improvement goals for 2016 is to read more, and while I struggle to make time to sit down and open a book, I have started keeping and listening to audio books on my phone. I decided on this flight that it was time for a new book and came across Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. I’ve read Duhigg’s, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, so I thought I would give this new book a shot.
In the beginning, Duhigg talks about the research that has been done on the effectiveness of teams. The research, primarily done by Google, was looking for the why. It’s smart for a company that is made up almost entirely of teams working on projects to understand the common denominators that make teams function at a higher level. The research was pretty extensive and many of the natural thoughts we might have about why teams work — such as they are made up of the “right” people — were not found to be the most distinguishing factors. They found a few, specific, undeniable things that made teams work best together. What it all boiled down to was that the teams listened to input from everyone and respected each other’s feelings. That didn’t mean that they always agreed, or even were always exceptionally polite, but everyone on the team had a say and people treated each other with respect.
This study aligns well with the work we do that helps to remove some of the “psychological baggage” that can interrupt good work of most teams. It’s difficult to spend any time thinking about the goal of the team when you don’t feel like your input is valued or you feel disrespected. Our need for self-preservation and our emotions around perceived injustice, even if they are misguided or inaccurate, far outweigh the team’s goals or agenda. The reason this happens is that as humans, we can’t be creative, innovative, or constructive when we feel angry or frustrated. “How could we solve this problem” simply can’t compete with “I can’t believe he just said that to me” or “why doesn’t anyone listen to my ideas?” Our emotional brain overrides our cognitive brain exceptionally fast.
It’s easy to think, as a leader, that the solution might be to hire “thicker-skinned” people who aren’t as sensitive or, at the other extreme, impose a set of policies and procedures that mandate never offending anyone. Unfortunately, neither course of action works. Bring any new person, no matter how emotionally hearty, into a room of abrasive, “thick skinned” tenured teammates and it’s tough to compete. Even in a room full of insensitive bullies, someone still has to be the most sensitive. And if you try to make everyone nicer by creating a new policy, well… good luck with that.
The answer to ensuring that teams work well together, is for leaders to consistently build a culture where that’s the natural outcome. If leaders simply go around the room and ask for everyone’s thoughts a few times during the meeting, everyone gets heard. If leaders notice an eye roll or disrespectful comment, and then pull the offender aside later to talk about the importance of creating an environment where everyone is respected, and then asks the person how they might be able to help, things begin to shift. The leader’s job is less about keeping the meeting true to the agenda and much more about building a culture where the team continually performs at a higher level.
Sometimes, and I’m sure most of us have been there, managers get trapped in the emotional prison of trying to be the smartest person in the room or needing to have all of the answers, or weigh in on every discussion. The moment that happens, they can no longer lead an effective team. Now the manager is competing emotionally with everyone else in the room instead of observing dynamics, asking for input, or supporting the discussion.
Great teams work together in an environment where some ideas grow, some die, and the future is a blank canvas that everyone gets a turn to throw some paint at. They debate, challenge, and test their thoughts in a safe environment where the possibilities most likely to succeed emerge, and everyone has had some hand in shaping the results. Great leaders learn how to create that environment and give their teams a chance to do remarkable things, free from all of the distractions that happen when people stop trying to help and start trying to win. Winning is a wonderful thing, but not when you are on the same team.
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