Archive for March, 2010
This week I’ve had the pleasure of giving ski lessons to the children of some friends of mine; this is something I used to do professionally, but it’s been a while. Yesterday I skied with two little girls, both of whom were skiing for the second time. One was confident and had no fear of gravity, and she soared, quickly progressing her terrain from the bunny slope to more challenging runs. The other was nervous, constantly thinking about the possibility of bodily harm. She rushed her turns in order to get them over with as soon as possible because gravity was a frightening thing to her, and she stayed stuck in a defensive stance that we call a “wedge” (formerly known as a “snowplow”). She stayed on the bunny slope most of the day and was not ready to progress, despite having a few extra hours of experience over her friend.
It made me think about the impact of fear on performance. It’s obvious to most people that fear doesn’t make a person perform better in physical tasks such as sports, but for some reason, we just don’t ever seem to learn this lesson in the workplace. Sure, most of us know that management by intimidation is not effective, but there are many other types of fear that have equally ineffective consequences and that don’t seem as obvious to many of today’s senior leaders.
- After massive layoffs, we don’t bother to spend time with our remaining employees to sure they have the support and the information they need. We leave them to wonder if they’re next, and to construct an elaborate system of “cover my butt” behaviors and paranoid speculations about who’s next.
- We hire young new employees, Gen Y’ers who are accustomed to constant feedback, and we leave them completely in the dark as to how they’re doing until a year later when it’s time for a performance appraisal. When they do something that doesn’t align with our expectations, instead of explaining those expectations we talk about how the young these days ain’t got no respect and we tell them that their behavior is wrong and that it’s “ just common sense” for them to know this.
- Senior leadership keeps everyone on a “need to know” basis regarding organizational change because we don’t want rumors to spread. Let’s just let them speculate about what’s coming down the pike next!
- When our colleagues do something that bothers us, we talk about it to other colleagues at the water cooler but we don’t address it. We send little hints instead; a scowl, a roll of the eyes, a sarcastic sideways reference.
There are many different kinds of fear and many different sources for it, but I would put “the unknown” at the top of the list. The less information we share, the more we make issues undiscussable, the more room we leave for fear to take root and grow within individuals or a team. And workers who are fearful don’t perform at their best; they withhold information, lack focus, and waste energy on unproductive behaviors that they believe will protect them from whatever is behind the unmarked door. They certainly don’t act creatively, take risks or go beyond the call of duty. They stay stuck in a snowplow on the bunny slope. Is that the kind of employee you want on your team?
If you’re convinced that your team needs to have explicit, agreed-upon, written norms to operate by, the next question is, what kind of norms? Say you’ve decided to follow something like my suggested process for creating group norms (see Creating group norms that stick). Now you need ideas to get the team started on your brainstorming session.
The most important areas for norms to address, in my opinion, are communication and conflict resolution. These two topics are huge, and encompass many sub-topics. Here’s a laundry list of “norm questions” to get the conversation going:
- What uses of email are appropriate? Inappropriate? When should a phone call be made instead, or a meeting scheduled?
- How/when/why do we schedule formal meetings?
- When/how/why are informal meetings appropriate? In other words, when is it OK to stop by someone’s desk and interrupt them?
- Who are the informal “go-to” people on the team, and for what?
- Are we formal in meetings, sticking strictly to a pre-planned agenda? Or do we let the discussion stray where it might?
- Who runs meetings, and how?
- Do teammates interrupt each other? Is that ever OK?
- How do we treat silent, reserved teammates? Do we assume silence means they agree with everything, or do we try to draw them out?
- What behaviors are considered disrespectful? How do we handle them? Who is responsible for addressing the issue?
- Do we give each other honest performance feedback? How/when/why? Is it acceptable for everyone to give feedback, or only the team leader?
- When we disagree, do we talk about the issues, or do we talk about personalities?
- Do we have a structured method for dealing with conflict? What is it? Is it effective?
- Is conflict considered healthy in general, or do we try to squash it as soon as possible?
- Does everyone speak up in meetings? Are all ideas considered? Or do some people dominate? If the latter, is that OK?
- Are there specific ways that some teammates like to be approached and addressed?
- What personal pet peeves do we need to be aware of? What are each teammate’s hot buttons?
- Are there certain teammates that seem to have more credibility than others, that we listen to more often? Why?
- Are there “cliques” in the team? Do they consist of people who are more alike, more comfortable with each other? Is this healthy?
- Does everyone feel included on the team? Do we need to find ways to make certain teammates feel more included? Are there behaviors that are shutting people out?
- When someone feels that a teammate has been disrespectful in some way, how do we handle that? Do we sweep it under the carpet? Get a higher authority involved? Address it directly with each other? How can we handle it more effectively?
- Are there and do there need to be any rules about break times? Food in the office? Noise? Interruptions? Other items that tend to be hot buttons in terms of office behavior?
- What value does the team place on time? Do all meetings start exactly on time, or are we a little flexible about that?
- When someone is out of the office, what systems exist to make sure they get any information they’ve missed?
- How do we make important decisions? Are they made by the team leader? By the team leader but with input? By team consensus? By vote? How do we decide how to decide in each case? Is there a formal process? Does there need to be?
- Are there teammates who compete with each other? How and why? Is it healthy or destructive?
- Do we know how each teammate prefers to receive information? (e.g. verbally vs. in writing, formally vs. informally)
- Do we seek different perspectives in meetings, or do we seek consensus?
- When someone has an “off the wall” idea, how do we respond? Do we consider it? Dismiss it? Laugh about it? Something else?
- Do we practice active listening skills? Or is this something we need to work on?
- Do we make an effort to understand each other’s communication styles?
- Do we say what we really think in meetings? Or do we “whitewash” our opinions for the sake of harmony? Why?
- Do we try to explain our reasoning and intent to each other, especially when we disagree? Or do we keep our agendas hidden sometimes?
- Do we have ways of making it “safe” for people to say what they really think?
This is by no means all of the questions you might need to ask. What do you have to add to my list?
In a word: because of fundamental attribution error. Wikipedia describes FAE as: “the tendency to over-value dispositional or personality-based explanations for the observed behaviors of others while under-valuing situational explanations for those behaviors.”
What does that look like in practice? Like this:
Tim taps his foot impatiently, looking around the meeting room. “I’d like to get started because we have a lot to cover,” he says, “but as usual Mary is late.”
“I think she was finishing up the interim report,” Greg tells him. “She ought to be here any minute.”
“She’s always finishing up something,” Tim snaps. “She just doesn’t seem to place the same importance on being on time that the rest of us do.”
What the FAE says is that we tend to see the actions of others as driven by their intentions, motivations or personalities, rather than by the situation they perceive themselves to be in. But when it comes to explaining our own behavior, we look to situational factors. Mary, for example, probably perceives that she has no choice but to be late, because Tim (or someone else) has told her that the interim report is the most important responsibility she has that day.
The answer, according to OD theorists who write about FAE in organizational contexts, is to recognize that people are doing what makes sense to them at the time, given how they perceive their situations. But there’s also another answer: the creation of team norms that clearly spell out behavioral expectations for all team members. If Mary’s team had a clear norm that said “We will always be on time for meetings”, or perhaps “If someone is late for a meeting we will assume they have another priority and start the meeting without them”, the problem would essentially be solved.
Because of FAE, we often inappropriately talk about “common sense”. “Of course Jennifer knew she was being rude when she interrupted me in the meeting, it’s just common sense”. What if Jennifer came from a culture (whether a national culture, generational culture, or organizational culture) where interrupting was routine? What if she just considers it normal behavior, rather than rude? We need a norm that spells out what the team considers to be acceptable and unacceptable behavior with regard to interrupting and other communication behaviors. Talking about common sense is a cop-out, a way of avoiding the extra work we really need to do. There is no such thing as common sense in the workplace; we all have completely different ideas about acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior, and effective vs. ineffective behavior. These ideas are influenced by all the ways in which we’re different: our family backgrounds, national or regional origins, educations, professional backgrounds, personality types. What we were told growing up and what we learned in school. Which behaviors were reinforced in the last organization we worked for and which were discouraged. The list goes on.
So the next time you propose a new norm or rule of behavior to your teammates, don’t let someone get away with saying, “Of course! That’s just common sense.” Common sense is only common if you work in a group of people exactly like you. And who does that?
I often open teambuilding sessions with this question: what’s the best team experience you’ve ever had? What made it great?
The answers I get usually fall right in line with our agenda for the day. People talk about having a clear vision, being on the same page with regard to the team’s mission, having stated values and norms, effective communication and conflict resolution, respect and trust between teammates, and a willingness to embrace change. All of these are critical aspects of a high-performing team. But I would argue that for a team experience to truly stand out in one’s mind as the best, for a participant to answer the question with that faraway, reminiscent look of passion in their eyes, there is something more.
I’ve heard it called “resonance” by more than one source. Truly great teams resonate, and that’s a characteristic that’s hard to put a finger on. The literal meaning of the word resonance is “the propagation of sound by synchronous vibration.” Great teams work together with positive energy, and have a sense of cohesiveness and pride. If you ask a member of a great team to self-identify her most important roles in life, she will say, for example, that she is a wife, a mother, a marketing executive, and a member of the Diversity Team. She will also say that she enjoys being with her teammates, enjoys their sense of interdependence, and is proud of their accomplishments.
How does one develop resonance on a team? To some extent, it comes from putting the other basics of team effectiveness in place: making sure the team is aligned around a common mission, vision and values, and giving them infrastructure to get to know one another well and develop positive communication and problem-solving norms. But I think it goes beyond that. Do you have to like your teammates to be an effective team? No—with a little hard work, you can develop trust and respect between people who don’t particularly like each other and with that, effectiveness is possible. But unfortunately, I don’t think you can develop resonance. I believe that comes from truly liking and enjoying the company of your teammates. And unfortunately, that means that taking a team from effectiveness up to resonance is more a matter of luck than of effort.
What do you think? Does anyone want to disagree with me on that?
When I became a corporate dropout, my colleagues said I would miss being part of a team, part of a learning organization. How could I possibly have stimulating and developmental experiences working from a home office and living in the mountains, 80 miles from the nearest skyscraper?
They were wrong. When it comes to organizational and team performance, my most educational experiences have come from the least expected corners of my life.
It started with my passion for adventure racing. Haven’t heard of the sport? Here’s a snapshot: a co-ed team of four journeys through the wilderness, sometimes for days and hundreds of miles, competing with other teams to reach a pre-determined finish line. They travel from checkpoint to checkpoint, navigating with map and compass. Sometimes they are hiking, sometimes mountain biking, sometimes paddling a boat; they might be rappelling from a cliff, crawling through a cave, riding a horse, whitewater swimming, or rollerblading. Anything the race director can dream up is fair game. The members of the team must travel together at all times or else risk disqualification, so they must figure out how to leverage the strengths and manage around the weaknesses of each teammate. They must strategize around when and where to sleep, how to transition efficiently from one discipline to the next, and how to carry enough food and water to sustain themselves. When you think about it, a better metaphor for corporate teamwork would be hard to find.
My other passion is for mountain rescue, which is a lot easier to explain to those old colleagues of mine. When I first volunteered for my local search and rescue team, at least then I could say that I was cold, miserable, hungry and tired for a good reason, rather than because I was supposedly having fun. Working under our local Sheriff’s Office, we are the ones who go out in all weather conditions and sometimes in the middle of the night to find and/or rescue people who have been lost or hurt in the backcountry, including hikers, climbers, backcountry skiers, snowmobilers, horseback riders, and even hot air balloonists.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned from both experiences:
- Job number one of any team is to define, clarify and communicate a mission and vision. On my racing team, our mission is to finish the race as a team; our vision varies according to the competition, but it might be, for example, to finish in the top 20. On my rescue team, our mission is to safely find and evacuate the missing or injured party, and our vision is to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. We never have to discuss these mission and vision statements anymore; they are completely internalized and unquestioned by every member of the team. They are crystal clear. There are no hallways to post them in, and we wouldn’t need to post them even if there were hallways. How many corporate teams can say the same?
- Job number two is to agree on and define values and norms. A value is something the team agrees is important to the mission; a norm is a rule of behavior based on the values. On my rescue team, our top priority value is safety. If something can’t be done safely, we don’t do it. We have many norms that support that value, such as that we must wear rock helmets in cliff areas, or we must post an avalanche guard to watch for secondary activity after an avalanche, or we must double check each other’s climbing harnesses to make sure they’re properly fastened. In the workplace, teammates often have different values and have never stopped to discuss them with each other. If you don’t know what values your teammate is operating by, how can the team operate with the same norms?
- Even with complete alignment around mission, vision, values and norms, there will be disagreement between teammates, especially around strategy. On my racing team, sometimes we don’t agree about when and where we should sleep. My teammate Luther hates to sleep in a transition area because it’s too noisy. I hate to sleep on the trail because I get too cold. Nothing makes for a better argument than a little sleep deprivation. But when we argue, we argue about the issue: the pros and cons of sleeping in a TA versus on the trail. We don’t make it personal. Luther does not call me a wimp, and I don’t call him a light sleeper. Teams have to learn how to face conflict by talking about how to meet each other’s interests, rather than arguing about personalities or positions.
- Not only do effective teams know that conflict is inevitable, but they know it can be creative too. For that reason, they welcome diversity as a means to tap into different ideas and points of view. Most adventure races require teams to be co-ed, and on my team, we know that I will often bring a different perspective than my male teammates. When their adrenaline is pumping and they want to just GO, I might be the only one who takes a deep breath and thinks about the long-term consequences if we don’t slow down and eat something first. Effective teams look for more than just gender diversity; they look for people with different industry backgrounds, different educational backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds. Then they listen to each other, because tapping into those diverse backgrounds will help your organization stay in tune with the changing demographics of your marketplace and generate creative solutions to serve those markets.
- Teammates need to have complementary strengths and skill sets so they can fulfill different roles on the team. My race team needs to have, at minimum, a bike mechanic, a swiftwater expert, a navigator, and a logistics planner. My rescue team has to have communication specialists, rock climbers, rigging experts, avalanche techs, medical personnel, expert snowmobilers, incident commanders, and lots of “grunts” like me, who can travel quickly with lots of gear. If we were all good at the same things, we’d be missing some key skills. But it’s not enough to have a diversity of specialists; you must also take the time to get to know each other and understand each teammate’s strengths and weaknesses, so that roles are clear and tasks are assigned to the right people.
- Trust is the foundation on which the team operates. Trust is developed through getting to know one another, understanding strengths and weaknesses, knowing you have the same mission, vision and values, and believing in the competence of your teammate. If I’m hanging on a rope, I need to know that the teammate who built the anchor was someone that knows how to build anchors, is good at it, and believes in our value of safety. If I don’t trust in any of these components, I’ll be too focused on protecting myself to carry out whatever it is that I’m supposed to do. Lack of trust on a team leads to individual defensiveness, which is extremely unproductive.
- The willingness to embrace change is critical to a high-performance team. My racing team’s strategy in the hot dessert might be to sleep in caves during the day and travel through the night. But if there’s a thunderstorm and the temperature drops, we must be willing to change that strategy without hesitation. Effective teams monitor the business environment, ever vigilant for changes that might dictate a change in strategy for the team. New technologies and changing demographics in the marketplace demand new approaches from organizations.
- Great teams sink or swim together, and hold themselves mutually accountable for accomplishing the mission. When my racing team takes a three-hour detour as a result of a navigational error, no one points fingers at our navigator. We made the mistake together; we’ll learn from it and correct it together. When my rescue team successfully rescues someone who might have died without our help, we celebrate that success, socializing together at the local watering hole, telling stories over and over, and savoring the media coverage.
Drawing lessons in corporate teamwork from the world of adventure is nothing new; people have been doing it for years. The reason it works so well is that on something like a rescue team, the benefits of good teamwork and the consequences of poor teamwork are clear, simple, and serious. If we do it right, we come out safely. If we do it wrong, someone gets hurt or even dies. If only the benefits and consequences could be so clear in the corporate world. And that’s the first step for any team that wants to be better: define those benefits and consequences. Make them simple, clear, and serious. And then pursue them with the single-mindedness of someone whose life depends on it.
In a recent issue of Newsweek, Sharon Begley writes about how cultural experience can change the brain in a column called West Brain East Brain. Many of us have already heard about studies that show, for example, that presented with photos of the same busy scene, the brains of collectivist-culture Asians will show more activity in the regions that process figure-ground relations, and individualist-culture Americans will show more brain activity in regions that recognize objects.
But interestingly, Begley says there are examples that are not so intuitive. To do simple arithmetic, the Chinese use brain circuits that process visual and spatial information, and English speakers use language circuits—even though both cultures use Arabic numerals. Begley comments, “…it shows how fundamental cultural differences are–so fundamental, perhaps, that “universal” notions such as human rights, democracy, and the like may be no such thing.”
Some may find that a troublesome concept. A couple weeks ago, I posted a blog entry called Respect looks different to different generations on several Linkedin groups, and it sparked some lively debate about one of the examples I used. I had said that perhaps we need to re-evaluate our typical training norm that says all laptops and PDA’s must be turned off and put away during a meeting or training session, because to Gen Y’s, typing during a meeting is not a sign of disrespect but simply the way of today’s world. Notwithstanding the excellent points made about the ineffectiveness of multi-tasking, there seemed to be a great furor over the idea that respect could be interpreted any differently than the commenters interpreted it; respect meant not only listening intently, but looking as though one were listening intently. It was a universal sign of respect, some of them said.
But if Begley is right, that nothing is universal when you look at cultural differences (and that cultural differences go beyond behavioral to the very brain circuitry we use), then I would argue that nothing need be universal when you factor in generational culture either. Everything changes over time. That’s not to say we shouldn’t teach new supervisors to look up when a direct report walks into your office with a question or problem; there are still plenty of people in this world that are offended by the appearance of so-called “multi-tasking”, and effective leaders will recognize that. But as trainers and OD practitioners, shouldn’t we lead the way in beginning to recognize alternate realities and changing norms? Shouldn’t we attempt to rise above our own personal pet peeves in a training session?
I believe the answer is yes. What do you think?
When I was younger I used to think it was cool to be “macho”. Being macho meant being “one of the guys”, however that might look in the organization I worked with—working long hours, drinking too much after work at the local watering hole while arguing passionately about the organizational issues of the day, showing utter disdain for all things domestic, or perhaps even criticizing female colleagues for being “too sensitive”. I had no children or even a husband at the time, and I wore that fact like a badge of honor.
I look back on it now and see it as a fallacy of youth, almost like a teenager who will sell her soul to fit in with the popular crowd in high school. I never sold my soul, but I sure did sell out my female colleagues.
In the March issue of Forbes, Christina Hoff Sommers has an article called Gender Bias Bunk, which challenges the notion that the National Science Foundation needs to work to change its culture because of embedded gender bias: “The nation’s leading programs are under pressure to adopt gender quotas and to rein in their competitive, hard-driven, meritocratic culture–a culture that has made American science the mightiest in the world.” Her article quotes a fair bit of research and seems well supported; it is certainly not a mere opinion piece. And yet I can’t shake the feeling that she’s being macho, just like that younger version of me.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a scholar and an author and far smarter than me, so I’ll leave it at my vague impressions. But I will say that I would hate for women, particularly young women just starting out in their careers, to read her article and take from it that you must put on a facade and sacrifice work/life balance and family goals to be successful in science, or any other profession for that matter. I hope that we continue to work together to find ways that women can be as successful in their careers as men without giving up personal goals. Maybe that shouldn’t always dictate culture change; but let’s keep working on other possible solutions, because “being tough” gets us nowhere at all.
One of the most frequent questions clients ask me with regard to teambuilding is, “How do we create some new — or better — team norms? And how do we make them stick?”
Having clear, appropriate, agreed-upon behavioral norms is critical for effective teams; and the only way to make them stick is to ensure that they are generated by the team members themselves, and not imposed “from above”. I usually suggest the following as a process:
1. First, evaluate the explicit or implicit norms that may already be in place. Just because your team has never sat down to identify and record team norms before doesn’t mean they don’t already exist. Ask your teammates some general questions, such as:
- What kind of communication patterns do we exhibit?
- How do we resolve problems or deal with conflict?
- Who are the “go to” people on the team, and for what sorts of issues?
- Do we give feedback to each other? How?
Asking these sorts of general questions may help you to identify specific norms that are already in place. Now you need to evaluate them. Are they effective? Are they producing the outcomes the team wants? Are they incentivizing desirable or undesirable work processes and individual behaviors?
2. Now ask yourselves, what’s missing or not working? What behaviors do we want to encourage that we aren’t encouraging now? How can we promote those behaviors? What behaviors do we want to discourage? What norms would be appropriate, given our goals?
3. A great way to tackle all this without succumbing to “group think” is to use post-it notes. Have team members write their suggested norms individually on post-it notes, one norm per note. Give them plenty of time to do this. Then have everyone post the notes on a wall, and walk around to read what others have posted. Eliminate duplicates, and then group the proposed norms by category (e.g. norms about communication, norms about power, norms about conflict, norms about office etiquette, etc.) Give each team member a certain number of dots that they can use to vote for their favorite norms. For example, if you have 35 proposed norms on the wall, each team member might get 10 dots. They can put multiple dots on one norm they believe is really important, or they can spread them out between 10 norms. Finally, collect all the data and discuss as a group. Does the voting reveal a final list of norms that you believe will best serve the mission, vision and values of the team? Or do you need to have some further discussion?
It helps a great deal to have a neutral facilitator to guide team members through this exercise. If a consultant is not an option, get someone from outside the team, perhaps from another team or department within the organization. If the team leader or manager acts as a facilitator, the risk is that team members will sacrifice candour for politics, or play guessing games about what the leader wants. Don’t forget, unless your team is new or very large, everyone will probably recognize each other’s handwriting on the post-it notes!
Another thing to keep in mind is that norms generally don’t stick unless they are based on the team’s values, and they especially won’t stick if they are incompatible with those values. For some teams, I recommend going through an exercise to identify and discuss values before you begin to work on norms. As an example, if one of your team’s values is honesty in communication, the team needs to work toward creating norms that support that value such as “We will say what we really think during meetings, as long as it’s relevant.”
Lastly, don’t forget to create some infrastructure for reinforcing your new norms. Will they be written or posted somewhere? Will they be reviewed periodically, such as at the beginning of team meetings? Will they be referred to during certain types of discussions? How will they be communicated to new team members? Don’t let your new norms collect dust in someone’s desk drawer.
On the mountain rescue team I volunteer for, there is often a need for clear, unapologetic, command and control leadership. When we’re out in the wilderness, organizing 25 or 30 people with varying skills and experience levels to find a missing hiker or evacuate an injured climber, there is no room for, “What do you you think we should do?” Time is of the essence and we need an incident commander who will lay out a plan and communicate it directly and clearly, leaving no room for confusion about roles and responsibilities, strategies and tactics.
But then there’s all the stuff that happens between missions. There are board meetings to be held, equipment to be purchased and maintained, members to train, the public to communicate with, and endless projects to be completed. Suddenly, we need a very different style of leadership if our volunteer members are to feel valued and involved, their skills and talents utilized. We need collaborative leadership, leadership that allows each person to contribute fully and that harnesses the power and creativity of a diverse membership with many different and valuable ideas.
I imagine it must be a struggle for some of our incident commanders to make that constant style switch, and just recently I read an article that put the struggle into perspective for me. Patty Beach and Jennifer Joyce, in The Next Evolution of Leadership, talk about how and why, on a national level, collaborative leadership styles began to supplant command and control styles. After WWII, the increase of women and more highly educated or technologically specialized men in the workforce meant that leaders often were called on to direct workers who knew more about the solution to a problem than they did. So instead of exerting their own personal will to reach a clear vision, they needed to support others to exert their will toward a vision. The downside, however, is that sometimes collaborative leadership can be taken too far, and employees experience confusion and negligence instead of empowerment. Or in a matrix structure, movement is slow because with everyone in charge, no one is in charge.
The answer, say Beach and Joyce, lies in recognizing that conventional and collaborative approaches to leadership are two ends of a polarity that must be consciously managed; leaders must make situationally appropriate choices, with a highly developed sense of their own preferences, fears, strengths and weaknesses. They must learn the advantages and pitfalls not only of both ends of the spectrum, but of many variants in between, and must learn how to play that spectrum like a xylophone.
When you work in the traditional corporate world, you usually don’t have to sell leaders on the value of some form of leadership development, or at the very least, management skills training. (I know, some of you may disagree with me on that!) But how do you motivate volunteer incident commanders who are busy with jobs in addition to their rescue responsibilities and don’t believe leadership development is relevant or necessary? I would love to hear some thoughts and suggestions.