Archive for July, 2009
I remember working for a hotel management company and applying for the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list every year. I suspect I did what most applicants did: I looked at Google’s exhaustive list of perks and benefits and tried to figure out how we could say that we offered the equivalent of free gourmet food and concierge services.
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s assertion that pursuing employee happiness can replace high pay and great benefits as a means to engender employee loyalty and create a unique company culture is intriguing. His definition of employee happiness is interesting too; he says it consists in the satisfaction of four basic human needs:
- Perceived Progress: The perception that you’re further along today than yesterday.
- Perceived Control: The perception that you have a direct effect on the outcomes in your life.
- Relatedness: Living life in the context of meaningful relationships.
- Connection to a Larger Vision: The ability to contribute to something bigger than yourself.
If we buy this definition, and I certainly deem it worthy of serious consideration, the question becomes, how do we bring this definition of happiness about? For me, as usual, it comes back to team culture. Some–perhaps all–of these human needs are tough to consider on the macro-organizational level for those of us who don’t occupy senior leadership positions. But within work teams, we begin to consider what is within our span of control.
- As a team leader, I can create perceived progress by making sure the team has a strong structure for communication, both in terms of goals, and in terms of feedback from customers and management. Weekly or even daily meetings to review our progress toward goals or the completion of projects will go a long way.
- Perceived control comes from instilling a culture of accountability on the team. We sink or swim together, and we meet constantly to determine which one we’re doing and how to fix it when we’re sinking.
- Relatedness is first about making sure that we have the right team make-up; team members should be interdependent and have a complementary mix of skills sets and informal roles. Then we have to cultivate respect, trust, an effective method of conflict resolution, and an agreement that communication is of paramount importance and something we should always strive to get better at. Easier said than done, but teams that focus explicitly on activities to develop these characteristics of strong teams often manage to create a great team culture.
- Finally, the connection to a larger vision is about that most elementary and primary activity of a new team: the creation of a mission and vision statement, and the exploration of how each team member contributes to them.
I go back to a lively Linkedin discussion we had within several group discussion boards a few weeks ago, when I asked the question, “Can a team create its own culture, distinct from the organization?” The people who responded unanimously agreed that it is possible–some even said it is inevitable. You may not be able to create a magical Zappos-like culture throughout your organization, but you can certainly work toward creating one on your team.
What ideas and best practices can you share for creating that culture?
When my pager went off this Sunday and I heard the call for an injured hiker on Quandary Peak, the natural reaction would have been to groan, curse, and decide not to respond. After all, it was the third time in one weekend that my mountain rescue team had been called to Quandary Peak, a 14,000 foot mountain that attracts a lot of hikers and climbers in the summer months. Rescue missions on Quandary generally involve a 45-minute drive and many hours on the mountain, sometimes even an overnight. And to have three of them in one 48-hour period is a huge workload for the team.
But I didn’t groan and curse. Instead I had the same reaction I usually do when my pager summons the team to help someone lost or hurt in the backcountry: my heartbeat quickened a little, I felt a sense of excitement, and I began to run around my house filling water bottles, checking the charge on my radio, and throwing gear into my car.
Later when I had time to reflect, I thought about what sorts of things make the difference between a team that responds to the challenge of a work overload or a stressful deadline with enthusiastic engagement, or a team that responds by groaning, cursing, complaining and doing less than what is required to get the job done well. Here are some of the factors that came to mind:
- Having the necessary tools, equipment and training. Nothing frustrates and disengages a team quicker than a lack of resources. Not only does it present logistical challenges, but it also causes team members to feel that management is piling unrealistic expectations on them and doesn’t really care.
- A strong and shared sense of purpose, and a feeling of excitement or enthusiasm about that purpose. That’s easy on a rescue team; we know that we’re being called out to save someone’s life, and that’s unquestioningly and unwaveringly important to each and every one of us. It’s not so easy to create that same sense of purpose on a corporate team. You really can’t spend too much time making sure you have this. Without it, team members will never go the extra mile for your organization.
- Having members with the right skill sets and knowing who is to do what. This is partly a matter of good leadership, because it starts when the team is formed and continues with solid team communication and training. But it’s also a matter of team engagement. On our rescue team we have people with medical backgrounds, technical rock climbing backgrounds, incident command skills, and physically strong people who can get in the field quickly and carry a lot of weight. We need all of them to get the job done. If some of them groan and curse and stay home, literally or figuratively, we’re handicapped.
So how did our three rescues turn out? Pretty well; all of our subjects survived, and that’s not always the case. One hiker with a broken knee, one battered and hypothermic woman who spent the night out, and one lost hiker found uninjured. That’s not bad for a whole weekend on a treacherous peak.
There are undoubtedly many more factors that account for team engagement. Next time your team is faced with a last minute deadline or an overwhelming challenge, watch them. What factors determine how they respond?
I worked with a dysfunctional team recently that had a remarkable ability to self-diagnose. One of the team leaders, early in the session, said, “The problem is simply that we don’t trust each other.” Heads nodded in agreement all around the room.
Few would disagree that a team cannot function at a high performance level without trust. The question is what to do about it.
The first step is to name the problem for what it is. That’s not always an easy thing to do, at least not in front of the rest of your teammates. Political considerations will often cause team members to believe they should deny this basic fact. But this team was ahead of the game in that respect.
The second step is to diagnose: what are the causes of a lack of trust? There are different kinds of trust, and thus different causal factors that come into play. I might trust that you have the competence to do your job effectively, but perhaps I don’t trust that you have my best interests at heart. On my mountain rescue team, for example, I will only hang off a cliff on a belay from my teammate if I: a) trust that my teammate knows how to belay safely, and b) trust that my teammate does not want me to get hurt.
Patrick Lencioni, in his excellent book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says that trust on teams comes down to a willingness to make oneself vulnerable to teammates. If you can share your weaknesses with a teammate without fear, that means you trust that teammate to have your best interests at heart and to think well of you and represent you well to others, even when you have exposed your vulnerability. But trust in competence, I would argue, must come first. If I don’t believe you can do the job of belaying me safely, then it may not matter whether you have my best interests at heart–you might drop me off the cliff even though you don’t want me to get hurt.
So what did we do, this dysfunctional team and I? We started with an exercise in defining team performance standards and creating a training manual. This was a much bigger project than could be finished in the scope of our session, of course, but as it continues I expect that it will allow teammates to discover areas where lack of trust in each other’s competence is being caused by a lack of agreement on what the standard is, or perhaps in some cases a lack of proper training. Then we did some development of dialogue skills to prepare them for the tough stuff: sharing their weaknesses with each other and asking for feedback.
By the end of our three day session, some wonderful conversations were taking place. I’ll give you an example. One person said to his team, “I think my greatest area for improvement is to try to be less abrasive with my teammates. Sometimes when I’m stressed I take it out on you, and I don’t mean to.” A teammate responded, “I always feel like you’re mad at me when you get like that, so I’m afraid to approach you.” He said with concern, “I don’t want to give you that impression. I don’t want to be seen as unapproachable. I’m not usually mad at anyone in particular.” His teammates asked him what they could do to help, and he gave them some useful tips, such as letting him get in the door and get settled before they came to him with requests. It was a truly great conversation, as simple as it was; one that opened doors and broke down barriers. Those are the conversations that teammates need to get comfortable having, if they are going to build a foundation of trust.
The test, however, will be in whether this team can continue that kind of dialogue without a consultant sitting in the room. Only time will tell.
What techniques have you used to build trust on a work team? What has worked and what hasn’t?
I always ask candidates in an interview to describe the best team they’ve ever been on. One answer from a few years ago sticks in my mind: a woman said that her favorite work team happened to be at her least favorite company. “We hated the company,” she said, “because they pretended to care about people but you could tell they really didn’t. But my team was great. We cared about each other, and we had a passion for what we were doing. Part of what made it fun was the way we teamed up together despite the negativity that surrounded us. It felt like ‘us against the world’”.
I started thinking about this after Todd Mitchem of Eagle’s Flight started a great discussion on Linkedin this week (if you’re a member of the ASTD group on Linkedin, you can check it out here: culture discussion). The question he asked was, does company culture matter? People said a lot of interesting things, such as that culture is:
- part of branding
- crucial to success
- defines a company
- must change with the environment
- sometimes below the level of leadership awareness
- often different from what leadership wants it to be or thinks it is
Some people got into trying to define culture, and said that it is mostly made up of:
- the rules
- what the company tolerates
Perhaps what made me most curious was that one person said an organization can have a macro-culture with many conflicting micro-cultures. I’ve often worked with dysfunctional teams that said, we can’t do this and we can’t do that because of our leadership, our company, the infrastructure, the policies, etc. They’re convinced that they are helpless to change their environment so they’re not even going to try. I talk to them about the sphere of influence, about defining what is within their control and what is not. Then we talk about how to change what is within our control.
If you want to influence the culture of your team, start by identifying the values of the team. Put everyone in a room and ask them to write down the top five most important core beliefs of the group. Share the results and look for common threads. Then ask another crucial question: what norms do we have, or should we have, based on those values? If we say that we value honesty, what standards of behavior would support that value? Do we encourage each other to give candid feedback? Do we speak up in meetings when we disagree with each other? Do we say what we’re really thinking at times when it matters? Should we create some new rules that better support the value of honesty? Or perhaps we just need to formalize what we’re already doing?
As simple as this exercise is, it has tremendous power to help a team begin to recognize, understand and influence its own culture. And I believe the answer is, yes, a team can create its own culture.
The best lessons in teamwork usually come from unexpected places–places outside the classroom, beyond the traditional workplace walls. For me, they’ve come from my volunteer search and rescue work.
One of the most challenging tasks in a teambuilding session is to get a team that lacks focus and direction to sit in a room and write a mission statement. So much hinges on their ability to do this successfully, and if they can’t, it really doesn’t make sense to move on to anything else. What difference does it make if they communicate well, resolve conflict capably, embrace change and diversity, or hold themselves accountable if they don’t have a clear picture of what their mission is in the first place? It’s like the old saying about how it doesn’t matter how fast you move up the ladder if the ladder is propped against the wrong wall.
But writing a mission statement can’t just be about producing consensus around a wordsmithing project. The mission statement the team produces has to inspire an “ahh hah” in the members of the team. It has to be something they instintively identify with and don’t need to post in the hallways. That’s why I’ve learned so much from my mountain rescue team; we have always known exactly what our mission is, and we’ve never needed to write it down or post it in the hallways. Our mission is to save lives in the backcountry, safely. You could ask anyone on our team and although they might use slightly different wording, they will say essentially the same thing.
Why is that so important? Because it forms the foundation for everything else. When we need to resolve a conflict, it helps if we have an agreed-upon conflict resolution process, but it’s not as important as having a mission to refer back to in helping us decide what our priorities should be. Same thing when we need to make changes to how we operate, or we need to evaluate how well we did on a particular rescue. Having a clear and agreed upon mission gives us a framework in which to discuss and decide on every move we ever need to make. For example, we often stop and debate the best way to get an injured hiker out of the field, especially when the terrain is rocky and challenging. One person might advocate setting up a guideline to “float” the litter above a scree field. Another might say we’ll be faster if we just hand-carry the litter. Another might argue that we should call Flight for Life and see if we can get a chopper ride out for our patient. In the end, we all know what the criteria is: what would do the best job of getting the patient safely out of the field while still holding our own safety as a top priority? We might touch on concepts like cost or efficiency, but only to the extent that they uphold the primary mission. It helps us get to agreement quickly.
The next time you think about holding some sort of teambuilding activity, ask yourself this primary question first: does the team have a clear sense of mission? If the answer is no, ask yourself an even more basic question: are they really a team? Are they a collection of individuals who must work interdependently toward the same overall goal? If not, then they are not really a team. Perhaps your efforts and training dollars would be better focused on developing their individual skills in certain areas, or giving them better processes to use when they have to interact with each other. But if they are really a team, spend your time developing their sense of mission first. Everything else will build on that.