Archive for October, 2009
Never heard of adventure racing? It’s the best metaphor for corporate teamwork that I know. A group of people, usually four, must travel from point to point to a pre-determined finish line as a team, navigating the best route as they go. Sometimes they are trekking, sometimes paddling a boat, sometimes riding a bike, climbing a mountain, descending a rope, roller blading, riding a horse, caving or canyoneering. You name it, anything non-motorized goes. The teammates must stay together at all times, leveraging their strengths and weaknesses in each event in order to get through them. Some of the higher profile events last for six to ten days, and take place in remote wildernesses across the US or in other countries.
I was an adventure racer for almost ten years, and I think I can honestly say that all my best teamwork lessons came from competing in this exotic and grueling sport. Here’s what I learned over the years:
1. You are only as strong as your weakest teammate unless you do something to leverage your stronger teammates. A group of four people biking will go the pace of the slowest biker, unless you put that biker on a tow rope behind the strongest biker (yes, that’s allowed). If you have a work team member with a weakness that is holding everyone back, don’t get into the blame game; sit down and figure out who is in a position to help that teammate and how.
2. The team sinks or swims together. If someone gets hurt or quits, the whole team is out of the race, at least officially. There is no point in blaming that person. If we take a wrong turn, we don’t point our fingers at the navigator; we made the mistake together, and we’ll fix it together. If the team does well, that glory is shared; no one teammate could have done it without the others. If someone on your work team is “retired in place”, find a way to re-engage him. You can’t win without everyone. If you do win, don’t forget that you did it together.
3. Strategy is key. Teammates in an adventure race must constantly strategize together about route-finding, sleep management, food and water, and gear. Strategy cannot be set without some collaboration. Everyone needs to be involved and on board.
4. Communication is key also. On my adventure racing team, we have to know how to communicate honestly and openly with each other about our physical problems and needs. And we have to maintain respect in communication when we are sleep deprived, sore, hungry and exhausted; not an easy task. If we disagree, we have to focus on the strategy we disagree about, rather than on making it a personal issue. On a work team, teammates need to be able to share their mental models with each other in an effort to understand how to work best together. They need to talk about problems, not personalities. And they need to find ways to do so respectfully when someone is having a bad day.
5. Diversity is useful. Most adventure races require teams to be co-ed, and most teams recognize that they need diversity of skills sets and personality types. On my team, I am the one who isn’t embarrassed to hold us back and spend time eating, sleeping and organizing gear when the guys just want to GO! On work teams, diversity might engender a lot more than just practicality–it might be where your most creative ideas come from.
6. Teams must respond quickly to change. If we’re racing in the desert and our strategy is to sleep during the day and move at night, we have to be willing to completely change that strategy when a thunderstorm hits. Work teams must monitor the business environment for change and be willing to respond quickly to it.
7. Teams must be built on a foundation of trust. There might be times that I’m hanging on a rope with that teammate. On a work team, your life might not depend on that teammate, but other things do. If you don’t have trust, people become defensive and little progress is made toward the goals.
Do you have a sport or a hobby that teaches great teamwork lessons?
I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a organization where people didn’t complain that meetings were boring and they hated them. (Unless it was because meetings were adversarial and stressful and they hated them.) Some tips to make them better:
1. Pay attention to the basics first. Gather input for the agenda, and send out an agenda in advance. Start and end on time. Appoint a facilitator to keep discussion on track. Take and distribute minutes of the meeting. Nothing is more boring than a meeting where people go off on non-relevant tangents or just wander in conversational circles with no defined objective.
2. An old one but a good one: put toys on the table for people to play with during the meeting. Make sure they are toys that provide a little entertainment but not too much distraction. Silly putty, sponge balls, slinkies and other toys that invite you to fiddle and doodle with them are great for brainstorming sessions. Toys that can fly through the air at someone can be used to playfully remind someone to be respectful, e.g. someone who interrupts a teammate gets shot with the nerf gun. I used to have a stuffed pig that laughed when you twisted its tail, and I would turn it on whenever someone said something funny.
3. Speaking of ground rules, make sure you have some and make sure they are meaningful. I’m not talking about the old “turn off your cell phones” and “respect confidentiality” type ground rules. I’m talking about things like, “Say what you really think”, and “Challenge others when you disagree”; rules that stimulate productive conflict and engage people in the discussion. Make sure you also have rules about how to do these things respectfully, of course. Refer back to the ground rules on a regular basis and hold people accountable when they are broken.
4. Use “round robins” to make sure everyone gets a chance to participate, especially if you’re brainstorming or problem solving. People who are naturally quiet or shy have a tendency to think, “I don’t want to interrupt” when the conversation gets energized and moves quickly. By going around the table, everyone gets a turn to speak without feeling the pressure to break in.
5. Appoint a second facilitator to keep an eye on the “maintenance” issues, such as making sure everyone is getting a chance to speak; ensuring no one is being disregarded, belittled or marginalized; mediating when things get heated; and praising and encouraging teammates for good ideas.
6. Always connect back to mission, vision and values at the beginning and end of every substantive discussion. Make it clear why that discussion was important in the larger context.
7. Use tools from training sessions, like icebreakers, games, and small group discussions with report-outs. There’s no reason these things cannot be just as effective for keeping people engaged in a routine meeting as they are in a training session. When there’s time, I like to open meetings with a short icebreaker such as “Share one thing about yourself that no one else will know” or “What are you most proud of accomplishing this month?”
8. Challenge fear of conflict. When you hear things being held back, when you sense that people are agreeing with something or smoothing issues over in order to be polite, say so. Point out that diversity of thought brings innovation as well as conflict. Set some ground rules for disagreeing respectfully, so that people feel safer in doing so.
9. Use visuals, but don’t do “death by PowerPoint.” Visuals can be as simple as a photo, drawing or prop that symbolizes the team’s mission or vision. Handouts are good visuals because people can take them with them at the end of the meeting. White boards and flipcharts are good because people can mind-map, brainstorm and otherwise “think” through the use of them.
10. Have some zany, fun ways to enforce the ground rules. I once worked with a team that would throw a wet sponge at any member that said “that won’t work” to someone else. If you’ve got toys, have toys that people can toss to each other to say “your turn to speak” or throw at each other to say “you’re holding something back.” Have everyone stand up and cheer or do the wave when a great idea is heard. I don’t care what your organizational culture is; many people truly enjoy being given the freedom to be kids again. Make it safe for them to play and most will do so.
Got any meeting tips to add?
It’s a cliche, but it’s true: there’s nothing like suffering through a rough experience together to help team members connect and “bond” with each other. Assuming the organization survives it, a bad experience can turn out to be a very useful thing for the team.
Last weekend, my mountain rescue team was caught out overnight during the evacuation of an injured hunter. We had descended a very steep, slippery, rocky 1000-foot slope to reach our patient, and once we got there we decided it was neither safe nor practical to go back the way we’d come. After hours of looking at maps and trying to figure out an alternate route, we decided that spending the night where we were and being flown out by helicopter the next morning was the best option we had.
The problem was, it was very cold and most of us were not well prepared to spend the night. We’ve had plenty of all-night evacuations before, but when you’re moving it’s easy to keep warm. When you’re staying in one spot, it’s harder. We built a fire, but speaking for myself I was still pretty miserable all night. Here are some of the lessons I thought about during the night:
1. Humor is key. We took turns telling stories and jokes, since no one could really sleep, and it helped us get through the night. You can’t let humor be your primary response during an organizational crisis, but you’ve got to maintain a sense of humor and let it help you keep your perspective.
2. A sense of urgency is also important. If we thought we would be sitting around that fire for the next two weeks, the whole experience would have been different. We kept our sense of perspective about how important it was to get out by morning. We didn’t just sit back and wait in the beginning; we sent out scouts, studied maps, collected wood for the fire and made our plan. We kept busy for as long as we could. When dealing with crisis at work, think in the short-term, get busy and put your strategy for recovery together. Don’t sit back and assume that things will be bad for a long time. It demotivates people.
3. Don’t let individuals get “bad attitudes”. One of my teammates remarked, a couple days later, “The coolest thing was the everyone recognized the importance of keeping us on an even keel, so even the usual troublemakers watched what they said and did.” Complaining only happened in a joking manner. No one pointed fingers at each other for our situation. No one got territorial. Everyone pitched in. Sometimes a crisis brings group norms into sharp focus and makes them clearer than they normally are.
4. Use the situation to get to know each other better. The way people behave under stress is very telling; learn from it.
5. Look out for individual needs. Throughout the night, we constantly asked each other “Are you OK? I have extra clothes in my pack. Does anyone need water?”
6. The best bonding happens later; let it happen. While we were still sitting around that fire someone said, “You know how everyone is cold and miserable right now? Tomorrow we’ll be telling stories about this as if it was actually fun.” And it was true. It’s now Thursday, and we’re still telling stories; in meetings, on the phone, over a beer at happy hour. We can’t stop talking about our experience, and it brings us closer. There is a sense that we had fun that night, even though we really didn’t.
Use the tough times in your organizational history as war stories to bond over. Don’t ever forget the lessons they taught you, and use the power of storytelling to keep the experience alive for your team. It can be a great way to reconnect with the team’s mission, vision and values.
When you ask someone to list the characteristics of an effective team, most will come up with a fairly standarized list. An effective team has a mission and vision, values and norms, complementary roles and skills sets, and a way to resolve conflicts. Team members communicate well, embrace diversity, accept change, hold themselves accountable, and celebrate success together. So far so good. But now ask someone to describe the best team they’ve ever been on. I do this frequently, and the answer I usually get includes something beyond the standard list of team characteristics, and something harder to put a finger on.
A great team has resonance: a sense of belonging, cohesiveness and pride about the team. A team that resonates practically vibrates with positive energy. Members of a resonant team usually think of their membership on the team as part of their indentity.
I’ve had the privilege to be on such a team a couple of times, and some of my best memories come from those experiences. The two things that were common to the two teams I’m thinking of were:
1. We were incredibly proud of what the team was trying to accomplish.
2. We liked each other, felt connected to each other and enjoyed spending time together, both in and out of work.
The result of having these two things was that I was passionately engaged in the work we were doing. I still remember that feeling of excitement and self-worth whenever my teammates and I got together for a planning session or even just an after-work happy hour chat.
As a team leader, you can make sure the vision and mission are clear and that team members understand their importance and how they contribute in a larger context. That will go a long way toward creating a sense of pride. You can’t make team members like each other, but you can make sure that they have the ability to get to know each other, and that will go a long way too. Teammates who take time to understand each other’s differing work habits, communication styles, hobbies, histories and personal values tend to give each other the benefit of the doubt more often.
Simple as these things are, sometimes they are the most valuable outcomes of a teambuilding retreat: time to get to know each other, and a focus on creating clarity and pride around the team’s mission. In these lean times, you don’t need a ropes course, an expensive program or a fleet of consultants to do those two simple things. You just need to block out some time for the team, away from your operation.
What other best practices have you seen for helping a team to create a sense of resonance?
I’d like to think that I have always fought the good fight when it comes to “corporatese”, the disease that makes managers think using complicated language and a sterile style is necessary in order to be viewed as professional. But to me it has merely been a fight about making one’s writing style a little less annoying. Recently I read a great article called Crusader for Syntactic Disambiguity Exprobates Bank’s Labored Locutions, about a woman named Chrissie Maher who founded the Plain English Campaign, and who argues that the issue has far greater impact than just keeping our feathers unruffled. Undecipherable corporatese in the banking and financial sectors has actually contributed to our current economic woes, she says. If people understood what a “collateralized debt obligation” was, better choices might have been made.
Examples of corporatese abound, especially in government documents. “Unless otherwise specified, the following specifications and standards of the issue listed in that issue of the Department of Defense Index of Specifications and Standards (DoDISS) specified in the solicitation, form a part of this specification to the extent specified herein.” Excuse me?
Psychologists and linguists have been studying and testing the concept that language shapes our thought for many years. Sharon Begley, in a recent Newsweek column, gives many great examples from the body of research on this. For example, in English we say “she broke the bowl” even if it was accidental. In Spanish and Japanese, the language translates “the bowl broke itself”. When people are shown the same video, English speakers remember who was to blame even if it was an accident, and Spanish and Japanese speakers don’t always remember unless it was intentional. So can we infer that using incomprehensible language may actually lead to confused thinking and thus poor decision-making?
Perhaps an even more important consequence of using simple language concerns the impact on trust and workplace culture. Where are employees more likely to trust their employers and enjoy their work; in the organization where the employee handbook is understandable and managers use simple language to explain their decisions? Or in the organization where the conversation seems a little over everyone’s head, as if not being a manager means you’re not smart enough to “get” what’s going on?
The problem is how to convince managers that simplifying their language is OK. According to William K. Zinsser, in On Writing Well, “Executives at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind.” We have to teach people that corporatese is bad; after many years of conditioning to the contrary, your average manager is not going to come to that conclusion out of common sense. A good business communication class, whether focused on written or oral communication, should teach the importance of plain English.
Do you have an example of a time when corporatese negatively impacted workplace culture?
Gervase Bushe, in Clear Leadership: Sustaining Real Collaboration and Partnership at Work lays out such a convincing image of the interpersonal mush that derails most organizations that I just want to shout it out to the world. So let me start by saying that you can buy the newly revised edition of this most excellent book here. I am not in any way affiliated with Bushe or his organization, by the way. I just think he’s a really smart guy and we all ought to read him.
Interpersonal mush is created by two natural human tendencies, Bushe says:
- We each create our own experience, although we tend to think that others create it for us
- We are sense-making beings, and we create stories to explain that experience. These stories fill in the gaps whenever information is missing.
Since it’s considered inappropriate in most organizations to explain our experience of things to others, we make up an awful lot of stories to explain what our colleagues are doing and why. Thus we are all swimming around in interpersonal mush, which is a term Bushe uses to describe an interaction that’s based on stories people have made up about each other but have not checked out.
Interpersonal mush gets worse and worse, for a number of reasons. One is that we tend to “see” things that fit with our stories and discard things that don’t (Chris Argyris’ ladder of inference comes to mind here), so over time our experience becomes increasingly distorted. Another is that in a vacuum of information, we tend to assume the worst. So our stories about the organization, our leaders and our co-workers tend to be worse than reality. We think the stern look and gruff tone of voice we got from our CEO this morning means we’re about to go through a round of layoffs, when what it really means is that the CEO stayed up all night working on a report and is now tired and grumpy.
Such a simple concept, you would think we could all go out and read the book and go back to our organizations and cut right through that interpersonal mush. But it’s not so easy, because as children we are not taught to describe the way we experience things. In fact, Bushe points out that many of us are afraid we would be perceived as self-centered if we did so. Many of us also work in organizations where it is not “cool” to talk about emotions or the interpersonal nuances of relationships and interactions at work; our emotional and personal needs are “undiscussable” topics. We mean business here. We focus on plans, actions and concrete results. None of that smooshy stuff here. Get back to work.
This is ultimately important, Bushe says, because we cannot be a learning organization if we can’t create a culture of clarity. Learning organizations are defined as those in which real partnership can exist because we can learn about each other’s experience, and thus are able to change and improve our patterns of communication, conflict resolution, problem solving, customer service and management. If we don’t have these kinds of learning conversations, we remain stuck in a stagnant stew of interpersonal mush.
I think about an organization I work with in which everyone is “sense-making” about one person in particular at the moment. Our story about him is that he’s a “control freak”–he needs to keep control of the information and the processes which move us forward on a number of projects. He is not the type to talk about himself and explain his reasoning and intent, and no one asks him about it either. But I caught a glimpse recently, when he described a particular experience of handling an emergency that some of us thought should have been handled by someone else. He didn’t perceive it as something he had taken control of. He thought it had been dumped in his lap, and he had taken care of it.
What to do about all this, as a leader? Make the undiscussable into the discussable by setting the example. Explain your reasoning and intent whenever possible, and encourage others to do the same. Don’t leave people to make up stories about what you’re doing and why. When misunderstandings arise, describe your experience to others and ask them to do so also. I don’t believe anyone really gets out of bed in the morning and says, “I think I’ll do as many annoying and self-serving things as I can today, and see how many of my colleagues I can frustrate.” Our colleagues are doing what make senses to them, given the way they view their situations. Get them to explain it.
Have you had an experience in which you learned that your story wasn’t true, and was holding a partnership back? I’d love to hear it.
We all talk about the many ways to motivate our teams: recognition, workplace perks, a feeling of connection to the mission and vision, etc. But isn’t there really an underlying assumption that money is the main motivator, and anything else we do is merely icing on the cake?
As a board member on my local volunteer mountain rescue team, I am reminded of this every day. My fellow board members and I are responsible for enforcing policies about member attendance, what the group will purchase, what training we will pay for, and what events the group will participate in, among other things. There is no faster way for us to make our members angry than to forget that they are volunteers, and to speak rigidly about policies without at least an undertone of gratitude for what they do.
About once every three months, I get on my soapbox and preach this to my teammates because it’s so easy to forget. We start thinking we can manage the way we do in a for-profit organization. “Let’s tell him no,” someone will say. “The policy is that he was supposed to ask permission first.” Or “That event is not worth our time, let’s tell so-and-so that she can’t attend.” Or, “That idea is too complicated. Let’s just say no.” And then I’ll think, why is the person volunteering their time when they keep hearing “no”? And what do we need to do to keep this person motivated and excited?
The answer is usually that we need to step back and remember why we originally volunteered our own time to join this group, and then ask our members the same question. Why are they here? Just how, exactly, does it satisfy their needs? And if we keep saying “no”, what impact will that have?
I go back to Zappos’s definition of happiness, which I have written about before. Zappos doesn’t pay any more than its competitors do, but they are widely regarding as a best place to work. Why? Because they focus on four components of employee happiness:
I wonder what would happen if we took that approach with our top performing employees in the workplace. Forget about the money. What else makes that employee happy? Why are they here? And are we treating them in a manner that keeps them in the ranks of satisfied, top-performing employees? Or are we constantly saying no?
My guess is that we’d have a culture that shows respect for people’s needs and underlying motivations. What do you think?
A thought-provoking article by Chuck Shelton in Diversity Executive Magazine, “Engage and Equip White Men to Lead Diversity,” makes the point that our diversity efforts have often not included white men, and many white males have not figured out how to include themselves. “White male disengagement simmers just below the surface as a credibility crisis many diversity executives grapple to contain, ” he says, adding that six million white men hold leadership positions in corporate America.
My own experience bears this out. In awareness level diversity classes, what I often hear from white males in management positions is, “I got here through my own hard work and perseverance. Why can’t we all stop talking about gender and skin color and just focus on our goals?” This complete lack of understanding for the barriers that women and people of color often face is difficult to instill an awareness for. Perhaps this is because of a subconscious or semi-conscious feeling on the part of these men that there is a movement afoot that does not include them. Faced with a feeling of exclusion, most of us will rationalize our way to a position that assigns irrelevance to that movement.
Shelton points out that diversity programs often lack sufficient focus on the operational side of the business, causing leaders to view it as a cost rather than an investment. I had the privilege once of co-facilitating diversity workshops with a rare breed of white male diversity champion who shared a similar perspective on the reason why some D&I programs are ineffective. He and I were amongst a very small handful of white folks in a predominantly black consulting firm. For me, working with that company was an exercise in humility as I tried to prove (in all the wrong ways) that white people could do diversity training to an increasingly critical group of colleagues. But watching Jim was inspiring and instructive. He shrugged his way past all barriers and established himself as the ROI expert in the firm. He supplied his workshops with a steady stream of facts and figures to demonstrate the financial and operational impact of a successful diversity effort, and the account managers began to request his assistance more and more often when new corporate clients came on board.
Shelton’s article quotes a diversity executive in a global food company who said: “Our company needs white male executives as diversity champions across our lines of business, or our D&I efforts will not add the value expected of us.” The question for me is, how can we create more men like Jim in our businesses? Do you have a story about a white male diversity champion?
I was a member of Linkedin for a long time before I finally learned to use it. But that was the least of my hurdles. I was downright annoyed, for several years, by people who tried to convince me to join Facebook. Facebook was for kids, it was a waste of time, it was like spending time watching sitcoms on TV, it was juvenile. And Twitter? I made fun of it all the time. “I don’t need to know what you had for breakfast or what movie you took your kids to last weekend,” I would say.
I’ve always thought it interesting to watch how people put down something they don’t understand. They build up defenses, create stories and rationalizations in their minds, and take every opportunity to convince those around them that they are too smart for whatever that thing is they’re resisting. I’m guilty of it too. Is it a generational thing? I don’t think so, but perhaps more of an age thing. No matter what generation we were born into, most of us were more open to new things as young people than we are as older people because when you’re young, you want to distinguish yourself from your parents. That makes the new thing cool and attractive.
I don’t think it was peer pressure or the constant public dialogue about social media that changed my mind. I think in the end it was pure utility. The first time I got on Facebook I realized I could copy photos from my colleagues to use for our newsletter and I wouldn’t have to beg and plead for photos every three months anymore. I also realized I could spend three minutes every morning taking a quick glance at my home page and see what my friends and family were up to, rather than the more time-consuming activity of calling and/or emailing each of them individually. I could comment on what someone was doing and let them know I was thinking about them and it only took a second. On Linkedin, I could find old colleagues that it might have taken hours of phone calls and inquiries to find otherwise, and I could see where they were working now and let them know what I was up to professionally. Twitter was the most surprising of all. I use it to catch up on the news–I just follow a couple of my favorite media outlets and glance at what they’re twittering about each morning, deciding which links to follow for the full stories. And when I have news of my own, I put it out the same way.
I don’t think all this twittering and blogging replaces good old fashioned human contact, but rather enhances it. Now when I see so-and-so at the grocery story, instead of saying, “what are you up to these days?” I can jump right in and say, “I see you went mountain biking in Moab last weekend, how was it?” or “I’m so sorry to hear about your mother-in-law, I hope she’ll recover quickly.”
And these are just the personal uses of social media for me. We’ve all heard plenty about the potential business uses.
I have so many friends who continue to resist. It’s not that I think everyone has to jump on the bandwagon. I just think everyone ought to at least take a look before they start that deprecating, worldy-wise banter about how social media is for kids. Otherwise, you really don’t know what opportunities you might be missing.
What do you think?