Archive for January, 2010
I often do a simple but powerful exercise in teambuilding sessions that is designed to bring out teammates’ blind spots about their informal roles on the team, as well as help them align on the topic and leverage their role complementarity. I give them each a worksheet that asks questions such as:
- How do you see your role on the team?
- How does your role contribute to the mission and vision of the team?
- How do you think your teammates see your role?
I emphasize that we want to talk primarily about informal, non-functional roles such as “team cheerleader” and “the person who drives projects to completion” and “a challenger”. After some time to make notes on the worksheets, we do a round robin in which each person reviews his/her worksheet and gets feedback from each teammate. What comes out is usually no less than amazing to many of the participants. Blind spots are revealed and misunderstandings exposed. Very often one’s own perception of his/her role differs from teammate’s perceptions.
Like many exercises worth doing, it’s a high risk, high reward activity, and it takes some skill-building beforehand. First you have to spend time talking about how important it is to say what you really think, rather than conforming to misleading notions of what is “polite”. Then you have to spend time developing techniques for saying what you really think and giving feedback in a respectful, non-offensive manner. It also helps to do some active listening practice. Typically, it’s the end of the day before I will use the team roles exercise.
Recently I had a session in which the leader of a team discovered that her team wanted her to play a much different role than she had been playing; in turn, her team learned that she wanted something different from them too. They needed more direction from her on what final products should look like, and she needed more initiative from them to move forward with things in her absence. It was a point that wasn’t coming out in their various discussions about projects, processes and tasks; they couldn’t actually see it until they stepped back and had a big picture discussion about roles. Once we had that discussion, then they were able to go back to some of their disagreements and misunderstandings about processes and tasks in the recent past and see them in a different light. By the end of the session, the leader looked as though she’d been knocked over by a bowling ball. She was a little discomfited, yes; but she was also enlightened.
I was once contracted to do some customer service training for the HR department of a financial services company that had just undergone a merger. When I talked to the Learning & Development folks on the phone and asked what the impetus for the training had been, they said an organizational climate survey was done about a year after the merger, and it indicated very low levels of satisfaction from the employees regarding the internal service practices of their HR department.
As I probed, I heard more and more things that had to do with the merging of two cultures and a lack of teamwork between different functional areas within HR. But when I suggested that perhaps what we needed was a teambuilding session, in which we spent some time getting on the same page with regard to mission, vision, values and norms, I was met with resistance and suspicion. We needed to do exactly what the climate survey indicated, they said, and nothing more. A one-day customer service workshop.
They did agree that I could interview some members of the HR department, so I spent a few days talking with the people who would be participating in the training. They said some interesting things. “We don’t share information,” they told me. “People pass the buck to other departments because the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.” And most tellingly, “There’s a lack of trust between departments within HR.”
I talked to the L&D people again, suggesting that we take a little broader approach to their needs, but once again was met with resistance. So, we did customer service training. For an entire day, we talked about the behaviors that make for excellent customer service, asking and answering questions that everyone in the room was already well-versed on. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t know how to deliver good service, it was that they didn’t feel safe enough or valued enough to do so.
It made me think a lot about how important it is to drill down to underlying causes. I don’t believe I’ve ever worked with a company post-merger that didn’t first need to deal with the issues involved in bringing two cultures together. It’s a foundational need; everything else follows from it. If culture is defined as “the way we do things around here”, there will inevitably be clashes of the most elementary kind following a merger or acquisition. Until everyone can talk about “the way we do things around here” and be on the same wavelength about what that looks like, how can there be trust? How can there be cooperation and collaboration between members of the team? And therefore, how can there be a strong customer service mentality?
I was never privy to the reasons why this particular company felt they needed to go the route they did. I’m sure they had their reasons. I hope some day they will find a way to remove the barriers that prevented them from dealing with the real issues, and then perhaps I’ll have another opportunity to work with them, and this time to truly be of assistance.
Yesterday during a diversity class, this interesting topic came up. One of the participants was a white male who held the title EEO Officer, and he shared his experience with being challenged by his peers when he first came on board. “People were suspicious,” he said, “because we’d never had a white male in the position before. They thought I was a pawn for management. They also thought that I wouldn’t push our diversity initiatives.” He went on to say that eventually, as they got to know him, they understood that he was serious about the organization’s diversity initiatives and there were no political motives involved in placing him in the position.
It’s an attitude I can relate to. I once worked for a consulting firm that specialized in diversity work, and when faced with many people of color in a diversity awareness class, I often felt the vibe: “Why have they sent a white woman to talk to us about diversity awareness?” Our company had a couple different takes on the issue:
1. Diversity is about differences that matter, and that means that everyone is included. We need people of all races, cultural backgrounds, religions and genders involved in the awareness effort, and that includes white people. Having white people as diversity champions underscores the point that we all need to get involved, not just those we see as the greater “stakeholders”.
2. Having said that, whites generally haven’t had the same direct experience of being marginalized, categorized, segregated and stereotyped that people with other dimensions of diversity have had. Perhaps that makes for less rapport, less credibility in certain audiences. Our solution was to co-facilitate, to send out pairs of trainers that, as often as possible, were of two different genders and two different races.
It’s a delicate balance we must strike as white people who want to make a difference for our organizations. But eventually, that need to strike a balance may disappear. A Newsweek column by Ellis Cose last week pointed out that the most recent Census projection says whites in the U.S. will be in the minority by about 2050, compared to people of color collectively. When my white male EEO Officer training participant said that his colleagues asked him how he could understand what it felt like to be a minority, I said, “Well, you may soon know.”
When I was very young my mother used to say, “I can’t wait until all the interracial marrying and breeding makes it impossible for us to distinguish between blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics. Then we can stop all this nonsense.” In the same vein, Cose comments, “Census Bureau demographers are highly skilled. But there is no way they can program projections to capture the complexity of American’s shifting attitudes….no attempt to measure Americans’ increasing propensity to propagate with partners of other races.” He concludes that whites will never truly be the minority, but rather, the category of “white” will expand. And more promisingly, the issue of race will simply become less of a big deal as races become more mixed, something we are already seeing in the atittudes of younger generations.
So perhaps the question is not whether white people can be diversity leaders, but whether we will even need to ask the question, at some point in the future. Your thoughts?
In an excerpt from the book Warren Buffett’s Management Secrets reprinted by TIMESONLINE, Mary Buffet and David Clark talk about Buffett’s obsession with obsession: “In Buffett’s world the perfect manager is someone who gets up in the morning thinking about the business and at night is dreaming about the business.” Obsession is more important than intelligence, education or background, and to that end, Buffett will ask questions in an interview about how the candidate got into business. If he ran a lemonade stand as a kid, that’s a better indicator than whether he went to college.
I love this idea, for a whole lot of reasons, such as:
- Obsession is defined as loving what you do, not as being work/life balance-challenged. And who doesn’t love to work with, do business with or be served by someone who loves what they do?
- It supports our diversity initiatives. A key point in seeking diverse recruits is to be willing to ignore traditional “qualifications” like what college someone went to or what company they worked for in order to cast a wider net.
- It supports the concept of strength-based hiring and training put forth by the Gallup organization. Figure out what people love to do and you’ll be much more successful in hiring, placement, learning and development, succession planning and performance management.
- I also like that it brings Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers to mind. In this fascinating book, Gladwell talks about the 10,000-hour rule; research has shown that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to become truly an expert at something. No one is going to put in that 10,000 hours unless they’re obsessed.
When I think back to some of my own career moves, I realize that I’ve been the beneficiary of this concept myself. When I first got into HR, I was lucky to work with a senior HR executive who recognized that my obsession was more important than the fact that I was still a rookie. He put me in a corporate position that I was hardly qualified for in terms of experience; but I was obsessed, and I worked and studied at a doubletime pace for a few years, gaining experience quickly and giving back to the organization with my time and energy. I got up in the morning thinking about HR and I dreamed about HR at night. Had we hired an experienced nine-to-fiver with less engagment, I don’t believe we’d have made the same strides in the organization, which was going through a high-growth period at the time and needed someone with a whole lot of energy.
Have you had an experience in which the love of what you do counted for more than experience and education? Have you hired or mentored someone based on this same concept? How do you recognize obsession in a candidate?
Susan couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she felt as though things were not going well with her new boss. When she came into his office to speak to him about an important issue, he would keep typing and look up at her only briefly. “Go ahead, I’m listening,” he’d say. In staff meetings, it seemed like he paid a little more attention to everyone else than to her. When it was her turn to speak, he would rarely make eye contact, and would sometimes glance down at papers in front of him. “That’s a good idea, Susan,” he would say in a distracted, insincere voice before moving on to the next person. But when one of her colleagues had an idea, he would respond with enthusiasm, smiling and nodding his head at them and asking questions about the idea. She wished she could ask her boss why he seemed to treat her differently than the rest of the team, but she just couldn’t—it would be silly. What would she say? “Uh, excuse me, I notice that you look away when I’m speaking but you don’t look away when Charlie is talking to you…” That would never fly. He would think she was too sensitive and prone to imagining things. It would probably just make things worse if she brought it up.
After a while, Susan began to avoid his office and keep her ideas to herself. She started using email more frequently when she needed to talk to her boss, and when she had an idea for improving the quality of her team’s work, she mentally shoved it under the carpet and went on with whatever she was doing.
“Micromessages” is a term coined by Dr. Mary Rowe of MIT to describe small, subtle, semi-conscious messages we send and receive when we interact with others that have a powerful impact. Dr. Rowe first used the term in the course of studying various negative impacts on students of color. To describe a pattern of ongoing, negative micromessages she used the term microinequities; to describe a pattern of positive, valuing messages, she called them microadvantages.
An understanding of these concepts is critical to creating a high performance team. Dr. Rowe’s intent was to surface micromessages; to bring them up to the level of conscious awareness so that we can talk about them without feeling silly, or overly sensitive. She wanted to make them “discussable” so that we can acknowledge their very real impact on performance. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you the end of Susan’s story: she moved on. Maybe it was because her performance began to slip and she was let go, or maybe she simply found a new job and left voluntarily before it got to that point. Either way, her story represents wasted talent.
Usually when we send our work groups out for training in how to communicate better with each other, that training will include a component of understanding non-verbal behavior. But the concept of micromessages goes beyond mere non-verbal behavior. Micromessages are composed not only of body language, gestures and facial expressions, but also of tone of voice, word choice, and our perception of what was not said as well as what was said. Very often we are completely unaware of the micromessages we send when we interact with someone, and very often they are influenced by our hidden biases or our feeling that someone is different in some way, and we simply are not comfortable with that. Here’s a detail I left out of Susan’s story: she is the only female on her team. All of her teammates, as well as her boss, are male. Does that shed some different light on the story?
It’s not hard to imagine that Susan was probably right to think she couldn’t have a frank discussion with her boss about how she felt. It’s very likely that he is not aware of the negative micromessages he’s sending to her, and might indeed feel that she was being overly sensitive if she tried to discuss it. So what’s the answer? How do we make micromessages “discussable”?
Dr. Rowe has taken the first step for us by naming and describing micromessages. The next step is to educate your work groups about them. If you put your entire team in a room to explore the powerful impact of micromessages on performance you’ll be guaranteed of at least one thing: the next time one of your employees feels like something isn’t quite right, he or she will know how to address it with the team—in some way other than by withholding ideas, withdrawing from the group, and eventually finding a new job.
Have you had an experience that demonstrates the power of micro-messages, either positive or negative? I’d love to hear about it.
Here’s something everyone already knows, but no one does enough of.
In August of 2009, the mountain rescue team I volunteer for was called to recover the body of a man who died on the summit of a 14,000 foot peak. The mission was remarkable because of the heroic attempts of the hikers who were on the peak at the time to save the man’s life after he had an apparent heart attack; they performed CPR for 45 minutes, working together as a team. (If you’re interested in hearing more about it, here’s a previous blog entry on the subject)
We made a big deal out of it; we sent commendations to the hikers from the county Sheriff, we wrote an article about it for the local newspaper, and we posted the story on our blog and social media sites.
Then, three months later, this past December, we were called to rescue an injured paraglider on the same peak. Once again, he was near the summit, making for a long, tough evacuation. Seven hikers who happened to be up there when the accident happened went out of their way to help; they stabilized the patient and kept him warm, made the 911 call, helped shuttle medical gear when some of my teammates arrived by helicopter, and then helped us carry the patient for the first 1000 feet down the mountain. You might think that this is something any average Good Samaritan might do. But we’re talking about hours and hours of assistance, that lasted well after dark, in sub-zero temperatures. One of the hikers even separated from the friends he was hiking with to stay and help. It was extraordinary.
As I chatted with the hikers on the way down the mountain, it was clear to me from various references they made that they had read about the previous group of Good Samaritans, back in August. How much did that influence them? We can’t know for sure, but it’s a great reminder of how important it is to publicly recognize and reward the behavior you want from people.
If we could have an impact like that on the general public, just think what you can do with your captive audience of employees when you really focus on it:
- Have discussions with your leadership team about what specific kinds of performance you are looking to reinforce; be strategic in your outlook.
- Go out of your way to find examples of extraordinary performance in your organization; don’t just recognize it when it comes your way, go looking for it.
- Then find every available avenue to publicize that performance; use your company intranet, social media sites, internal memos, announcements in meetings, recognition programs, even public (e.g. local newspaper) announcements if the performance achievement is big enough to warrant it.
What are some other ways you’ve found to let the outstanding performance of some employees inspire others to reach higher?
People often ask me why the focus of my training and consulting business is on teambuilding. “Isn’t that kind of a narrow specialty, given all the things you do?” they ask.
I believe everything is about teambuilding because if you define learning as behavioral change, then it’s clear that you need to train teams and work groups, not individuals. Otherwise, you might raise awareness for a topic but the behavioral change doesn’t stick.
Let’s look at some examples from my past experience:
- An individual manager needs to work on his communication and interpersonal skills. He is a command and control sort of manager with very little patience, and not only does he inspire fear in his direct reports but he doesn’t work well with the rest of the management team. Off he goes to training, and learns about active listening and “skillful discussion” (Peter Senge’s term for the process of creating shared meaning through a balanced blending of inquiry and advocacy). It all makes sense to him, but when he returns, he has a new vocabulary and some new concepts that don’t make sense to anyone else on the management team. He is more aware now, but making a genuine effort to change the way he communicates makes him feel silly in front of his teammates. Eventually, he goes right back to his old habits.
- One member of the team is single-handedly working against the diversity goals of the organization, and she doesn’t even seem to realize she’s doing it. Her discomfort with members of ethnic and racial groups other than her own comes out in subtle ways, noticed by others but not by herself. Management ships her off to diversity awareness training, and she comes to understand how the “micro-messages” she unconsciously sends to her teammates often tell them that she doesn’t value their contributions to the goals of the team. She returns with a new awareness, but as she tries to put that awareness into practice, no one else understands what she’s doing. She tries to talk about micro-messages when she finds herself on the receiving end of them, but everyone seems to think she’s being silly to focus on such small, subtle behaviors. “You’re too sensitive,” they tell her. She eventually gives up.
- One person on the team really doesn’t understand the concept of customer service. When a customer gets angry, he gets angry right back. Off he goes to customer service training, and returns with a new set of tools and techniques for defusing upset customers. But now that he is “enlightened”, he notices that his teammates aren’t so great at customer service either. He might have been the worst one of the bunch, but not by much in his opinion. He tries to talk to his teammates about how they might make some structural changes to improve service delivery, or how they might back each other up when a customer is upset, but no one is interested. They say things like, “Ooh, look how smart Peter is now that he’s gone to training.” Eventually, he feels like a fool for bringing up new ideas.
When you train the entire team or work group, employees are able to reinforce each other’s behavioral changes. Not only that, but enthusiasm for new ideas and new ways of doing things can be contagious and can spiral through a group, escalating everyone’s motivation toward positive change. Teammates can meet and talk about what they learned, sharing ideas and further processing them for specific job application. When a teammate slips into an old habit, another teammate can recognize and point out the lapse. When a teammate exhibits a positive new behavior, others can pat her on the back for it. And the behavioral change you’re seeking within the group can evolve into a new set of group norms, a new culture. Isn’t that what teambuilding is really about?
Bill Clinton was interviewed for Newsweek’s end-of-year issue, and he said some very interesting things.
“…you have to believe that in an interdependent world, what we have in common is more important than our interesting differences. And the only way to celebrate and make the most of our differences is to get rich out of our differences, create vibrant markets out of our differences. It enables people to have fevered debate in politics without stealing elections or shooting the opposition.”
There were two thoughts in that paragraph that sparked my interest. First, the idea that leveraging difference can provide competitive advantage in the private sector, a central tenet of my own diversity awareness training. And second, that what we have in common must be recognized first, if we are to leverage those differences instead of shooting each other over them.
So often in a diversity class I hear people say, “Why do we have to have diversity classes? Why are we making a big deal out of our differences? Why not focus on what we have in common?” It is usually white males that say this, and it is usually a woman or person of color that speaks up and explains why difference is important, often relieving me of the necessity to do so. But Clinton’s remarks got me to thinking. Is that the right response? Perhaps we should be acknowledging the importance of our similarities and common interests first.
Elsewhere in the same issue of Newsweek, Nancy Pelosi is interviewed. Answering a question about partisanship, she says, “I always say, what are the three most important issues facing Congress? Our children, our children, our children. So, if you look at it that way, we are a pretty homogeneous group.” A perfect example of focusing on the commonalities first.
Getting back to Bill Clinton, he talks about the wonderful things Rwandan President Paul Kagame has done to move his country beyond the horrific genocide it has suffered. He created “reconciliation villages”, where citizens get a free plot of land to build a house, but they have to agree to live next door to someone of the opposite ethnic group. In this way they are forced to find those commonalities.
How could we harness this idea in a diversity awareness class? Here are some ideas:
- Put participants in groups to identify and discuss the mission, vision and values of the team they work with
- Lead a discussion of the family values each participant was brought up with, looking for opportunities to identify commonalities
- Ask the “five why’s” every time someone identifies a particular perspective on a controversial issue. Sometimes if you drill down several layers to why someone believes what they believe, it turns out they have the same underlying interests as others; it just gets expressed in a different position
- Have small groups tell stories on a particular topic, looking for similar experiences. A good one is, what was your first day of work with this organization like? What were you worried about, what surprised you, how did it measure up to your expectations?
What other ideas do you have?