What Makes a Team Click?

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In some group work I am currently involved with, I am facilitating a session of business leaders who are from all around the world, therefore multi-cultural and quite high achievers.  One of the things we do at the beginning is called The Leadership Journey, which involves sharing the experiences and the people who have essentially shaped the person and type of leader they have become.  This has proven to be an extremely effective means of team bonding, for the following reasons.

  • Past experiences can shape future decisions.  So perhaps the more you know about somebody’s past, the better you might understand the position they take or decision made, and how you might possibly influence it.
  • Sharing is caring and vice versa – when demonstrating interest in people’s backgrounds and what matters to them, connections become stronger that can create a sense of genuine collegiality.
  • Vulnerability builds trust – when everybody shares their past in an honest, open way, you see each other for who they truly are; this creates a unique and trusting bond.
  • Happiness leads to effectiveness – when people enjoy their work and the people they work with in an authentic way, there is a genuine sense of collaboration and happiness, that are enablers of success.

Interestingly, in most work situations, we never really take the time to understand who the person is; it’s perhaps regarded as none of our business, or might be seen as prying into their personal lives.  In reality, personal and professional are not mutually exclusive.  Whether you like it or not, you bring your work stuff home with you, and your home baggage goes to work with you.  So why not simply embrace and understand it, and be open to the possibility that it might in fact create a very supportive work environment, that facilitates much higher levels of engagement and productivity?  If that is the case, you might also be a lot happier going home and so the cycle becomes much more positive.

“Paid for” Volunteer Motivation

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Are you involved with volunteer work along with your regular “paid for” career?  If so, you will know that there are similarities, but also differences, when operating in these two environments.  The general consensus is that because volunteer work is done without financial reward, there is a greater sense of purpose associated with it.  However, there is a significant factor that plays a key and sometimes varying role, and that is motivation.  How this actually plays out might surprise some.

Within career work, one could very quickly point to the obvious motivators such as payment, career progression, status, etc.  Closer consideration might offer a positive work environment, the challenge and job satisfaction.  However you look at these extrinsic and intrinsic drivers, there is also a consequence to not delivering.  Leadership also creates accountability leading to high-levels of contributions.

With volunteer work, people do this for varying reasons and, whatever the motivation, it leads to different levels of commitment.  Additionally, in conflict with this is the constant that everybody is doing it for free, which then becomes a source of frustration because of the disparity of contributions.  Because leadership has minimal leverage in this instance there can be a lot of complaints and this can give rise to low levels of contribution.

The solution lies in avoiding comparisons.  Simply accept that volunteers align their commitment / contribution to their own motivation and then make the necessary choices.  For some this will be a lot of work and for others not so much.  However, rather than viewing this as an anomaly or unfair, simply view it from the perspective that people are making conscious decisions to contribute at their own level, and that’s ok.

Leading in a Changing Workplace

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Much has been written with regards to the changing face of the workplace.  With the replacement of Boomers (born before 1964) by Millennials (1977 – 1995), new challenges are being presented as to how best manage and lead this seemingly more complex collective.  Part of the challenge is the fact that many of the leaders and managers are in fact Boomers and those reporting to them are Millennials, so there is an obvious disconnect between “old and new”.  To better understand this, it might be helpful to trace back a little into the past and assess these characteristics chronologically, under these changing circumstances.

1940 – 1970

This was an era characterized by motivation through money and/or fear (carrot and stick), and because it was primarily during the industrial age, when any advancement in productivity was king, it worked pretty well.  It also fed off the basis that you left your brain at the door, as it was more about a physical contribution.

1970 – 2000

As the landscape of business began to shift from industrial to informational so too did the need to move from physical to intellectual labor.  People were now expected to use their brain as the need for more educated workers emerged.  With that the old carrot and stick became much less effective, and leadership had to adapt to a system of involvement, support and truly understanding what motivated people.

2000 – Today

Most recently, a newer workforce has emerged, that not alone is intellectually based (better educated overall), but is also influenced by technology and a very different world view.  These employees want engagement and challenge within a creative process and consequently leadership has had to redefine itself once again.  Leaders have had to become coaches and have the ability to skillfully guide people and help facilitate an outcome.

So, if you are a leader, you are most likely dealing with different workforce generations.  Rather than feel exasperated and helpless that “these people” just don’t get it, embrace it and adapt accordingly, which will allow you to get the best from everybody.

Managing Division

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If we go back to the beginning of time, survival was key to existence.  A significant contributor to this was safety in numbers and so people watched out for each other, thereby creating an additional blanket of security.  When we fast forward to today there is still a hugely significant group mentality that can, in truth, perpetuate both good and evil.Division

We all understand the importance of groups and their potential value which Aristotle describes as “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts”.  But a bigger question might be, what makes certain groups join forces and then equally do battle against others?  This is playing out at all levels from the playground, to the workplace and, without doubt, to national politics.  Seemingly this is what human beings do.

George Halvorson in a Harvard Business Review article contended that, “21st century leadership is a matter of endowing groups of individuals with a satisfying sense of us and channeling their collective energy toward noble ends.” The challenge with creating an “us” is that it naturally gives rise to the existence of a “them” which to Halvorson claims “can lead to wonderful or terrible effects”. The question therefore is how does one amplify the positive (US) and minimize the negative (THEM)?

Perhaps the answer lies, if one was to consider a business, in having high level mission, values and goals that creates an over-arching “US”.  Then within this there will be multiple groups (US and THEM) that will inevitably pursue a local agenda that might create some divisiveness.  However, if it is still consistent with the agenda of over-arching “US”, a healthy US and THEM will exist.  This is actually a good situation to have as it perpetuates innovation (creativity), understanding (empathy) and accountability (results).

US and THEM certainly has a negative connotation but if it can be very effective if channeled in an appropriate manner.  The key is encouraging a healthy local “US” and “THEM” among those who are already part of the more broad and united “US”.

International Communications

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InternationalSo many more organizations today have to deal with, not alone work colleagues at other locations throughout the United States, but also throughout the world. This is obviously not a new phenomenon but is becoming more prevalent and many would try to argue it is easier because of advances in technology. However if would be a mistake to think that technological advances can somehow circumvent many of the communication challenges that often exist between different locations. If fact they can add to the angst.

When one considers the fundamentals of human nature, the realities of how human are supposed to communicate becomes apparent. First and foremost there has to be a relationship that is somehow grounded on familiarity. Unquestionably advances in video conferencing are far more effective than telephone or e-mail, but it still does not create a human connection. Site visits remain critical because the face to face social interaction is what establishes relationships.

The other component of this international divide is obviously culture. No matter what way you cut it, or despite best efforts, there are always going to be differences. One way to minimize this as an obstacle is to recognize the one common denominator in all cultures; respect. Many would argue that this is something you earn but how about looking at it from the perspective of it being something that you can lose? Start off by building respectful relationships by meeting people half way or, if taking the initiative, work hard at a relationship even if it does not appear as reciprocating.

The final piece is the dog and tail syndrome. Who are calling the shots and what level of autonomy truly exists? This is driven primarily as a function of senior leadership and whether the influential strength lies locally or at corporate. This can be a perilous situation which is great during good times, but extremely delicate when things are not going according to plan. Corporate cannot be ignored, so often the best policy is to maintain a respectful disposition that is based on open communication and appropriate involvement.

Building Community is Key

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As human beings we have a basic need for being part of a system. In the context of Maslow’s hierarchy, given that the physiological and safety needs are being met, love and belonging provides the basis of the next level need. From the moment of our birth we are part of a family and then this evolves into neighborhoods, friends, school mates, church affiliations, sports teams, etc. All of these directly or indirectly provide a feeling that others care and that we are part of something bigger than just ourselves. It’s called community.51004157 - wow place to work

Some of the characteristics that emanate from this sense of community are commitment, trust, motivation, teamwork, being valued and the list goes on. This sounds very familiar with the aspirations of many workplace organizations but to describe them as communities and refer to it as love and belonging might seem a strange vernacular.

One of the fundamental differences between the types of communities mentioned initially and the workplace is that in the latter people are financially “compensated”. The word compensation is described in the Webster Dictionary as “something given or received as an equivalent for services, debt, loss, injury”. So implicit in this is that you are sacrificing something, perhaps your time, skills, talent, etc in exchange for money or some tangible reward. But this doesn’t build community in the workplace; it’s just the price of entry.

So here comes the rub. Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, compensation is part of the basic fundamental physiological need; it’s what allows us to survive: it helps to provide shelter as well as feed and cloth our families. However, much more can be achieved by also addressing the next level need – creating a highly engaged environment aka, a community. That’s what Zappos and Google do; they have transformed their organizations into their own unique communities where employees feel a sense of love and belonging, even though these words are perhaps not used. As a result turnover is low, productivity is high, innovation is outstanding, customer service is king and profits continue to soar.

Human Resources for the Future

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When most non-Human Resources (HR) people think about this function, it’s typically not with a feeling of endearment. If you go back a number of years when it was more commonly known as the Personnel Department, the perception was even worse. However, in successful organizations today, the Human Resources function is redefining its role and, in many cases, being greeted with open arms and sought after. What has happened to cause this shift?human-resources-pic

In truth, the modern HR function is adopting a much more “proactive developmental” role, versus the traditional “reactive remedial”. The latter was very much associated with problem employees, policing the rules and administering policies that really didn’t add any value. However, today HR is truly stepping up and is gaining a place at the table purely on the merits of providing value added systems and support to the organization.

A key contributor is that the HR function is now the facilitator of performance growth or Organizational Development (OD). The emphasis is on assessing the individual relative to the job requirement and ensuring they have the skills / knowledge and, most importantly, the support to bring about significant performance improvements. There is ongoing monitoring of this rather than the traditional Annual Review that everybody hated and, quite frankly, did very little to improve performance.

The modern HR professional also has a new set of knowledge and skills. They are now utilizing the methodologies of Coaching and this is building credibility and sustainability into the professional development mentioned above. It is also modeling a set of behaviors that are essential to leadership. This is about being able to have the impactful conversations that get to the root causes in an empowering way and that ultimately leads to positive motivation and sustainable results.

Many organizations claim their greatest asset is their people but are not quite sure how to go about this. The reality is that people drive an enterprise; they are both the engine and the fuel. We are also dealing with a new more challenging type of people through the influences of technology and generational issues. A progressive and fully functioning HR function is now essential to serve the organization’s evolving needs.

Vulnerable and Teamwork

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Recently, while part of an Executive Coaching assignment at HBS (Harvard Business School), I was struck by how a team of leaders when, once given the space to be vulnerable with each other, the commitment and productivity of the group soared.productivity One of my tasks in working with this group of 8 diverse senior global business leaders was ensuring they work as a cohesive team. Though we focused on understanding cultural differences, agreeing the rules engagement, expectations, etc., it was the exercise where people opened up and were vulnerable, that had the most profound impact on gelling the group together.

This is supported by the work of Patrick Lencioni in the Five Dysfunctions of a Team where he suggests that vulnerability will greatly enhance a trusting environment, which he defines as “the confidence among team members that their peer intentions are good”.   As a result, this team over the course of 8 weeks demonstrated tremendous commitment to each other (not let anyone down mentality), great work ethic, really smart collaborative ideas and, ultimately an environment where they learned so much from each other. Why did this happen?

Firstly, as the old adage goes “you are most likely to tell your darkest secrets to total strangers” plays out because there is minimal risk that of any perceived or otherwise consequence; therefore, it is easy to be vulnerable. Most human beings really do care and when somebody shows some degree of vulnerability, people naturally want to support and help. But surely this can work to some degree with work colleagues also who, for the most part, have no personal affiliation.

Secondly, it puts everybody on a very even keel. Being vulnerable is a great equalizer, it shows you are human and what is really going on beneath that exterior. When people feel that they are among equals, they are more likely to open up and support each other.

Finally, what was clearly apparent with all the leaders at HBS was an individual strength and confidence, which worked perfectly in alignment with vulnerability. Perhaps it was this unique blend of strength and vulnerability (similar to Collins’ resolve and humility) that provided the basis for optimal teamwork based on dependability/reliability (outward strength) as well as trust/believability (inward vulnerability).

It is important to mention that being vulnerable is not about exposing weaknesses, but rather being truthful about who you are – what’s your real story??

Timing of Training

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Billions of dollars are spent annually on a variety of professional development and training initiatives. In an attempt to improve business performance, there is an understandable belief that if you want people to step up, one must provide the necessary skills and capabilities to do so. However, research by Beer, Finnstrom and Schrader provide caution as to the timing and context of the training. In essence what they are saying is, that unless the training fits into where the organization is at in its evolution, money spent on training could be money down the drain.

So in expanding this further, the consideration is to ensure there is a state of readiness for change as Edmondson and Wooley so eloquently put it that “organizations need “fertile soil” in place before the “seeds” of training interventions can grow”. 38617226 - watering can watering young plants in pile of soil A simple example of this would be where a group of people are sent on a training program and, though their manager might have authorized it, he or she pays little attention to it and has little concern about how they might integrate the learning upon their return. In fact, if anything, the pressure is piled on to make sure they catch up on the time they spent away from their daily responsibilities. Consequently, no changes, so why bother in the first place?

Beer, Finnstrom and Schrader have suggested that a context, or the right environment, needs to happen first through clarity around the values and strategic direction of the organization. This then feeds into defining roles and responsibilities which in turn helps to identify any barriers that might exist. Specific coaching is then suggested around finalizing the required context and then and only then, the training necessary to execute effectively. Consequently, everybody will fully appreciate the reason for the training and will be bought into the necessity of providing the space for the integration of the learning.

Therefore, don’t conduct training to keep people happy, because HR suggest it or, to stop some high potential from leaving. All of these reasons, and it does happen, are a waste of time and money. Instead, as a leader, ensure that the environment is created to receive the training and allow it to bloom. And if it’s not, put the training on hold and take a step back to evaluate the actual direction the business is taking first.

Positive Power

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When people get promoted, it is a wonderful thing. It often comes with prestige, more money, exciting challenges and just the general recognition that is associated with it. It also comes with more responsibility and sometimes the added concern that what got you to this position may not necessarily allow you do it. Think of the best sales person becoming sales manager. So how do you bridge that gap? Some might argue that with greater responsibility comes greater power. In simple terms it means that you can exert greater influence on somebody in order to get a task complete. And with most things in life there is a right way and wrong way of doing that.
34482001 - executive businessman accuses one of his employees

Let’s briefly discuss the wrong way, which sadly for some might come very natural. This is where you force your opinion, demand results, berate people in public and, for the most part, the minimum gets done. There is a short term-ism to this approach and results will only be forthcoming if you keep re-enforcing this behavior. However, eventually people will get tired of it and fight back or they will leave. There are countless studies to support the fact that people typically tend to leave their jobs because of the abuse of “power” by a supervisor or manager.

Thankfully there is an alternative use of power bearing in mind that, when you rise to a new position, what you say or do can be viewed very differently. In his study of power and how to use it in a positive way, Dacher Keltner proposes that “practicing empathy, generosity and gratitude” are a much more effective way of getting things done. There’s a novel thought; be a decent person. Sadly, these virtues often do not come easy to people and its requires hard work, or does it really? Interestingly, going back to the sales person who became sales manager, empathy, generosity and gratitude were probably very common with customers, so what not just do the same with your reports? These virtues (or skills) exists within the vast majority of us, therefore all we simply need to is recognize their value and utility within leadership.

This does not pre-suppose either that this type of leader is soft or not willing to hold people accountability. If anything, they can be quite demanding and challenging, but its more about how they go about it, and the appropriate behaviors they demonstrate. They exhibit strong emotional intelligence and, in so doing, not alone possess self-awareness, but also great awareness of others. They see their success as being predicated on the success of others and therefore channel their power in that direction.