Archive for March, 2012
In a team building session I have almost always focused on improving communication skills, no matter what type of team building session it is or what the identified objectives are. A new study published by the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory and summarized by Alex “Sandy” Pentland in the Harvard Business Publishing magazine seems to validate this approach.
Pentland says the study uncovered some surprising results: that individual talent and skill matter far less than communication when it comes to building high performance teams. “The best way to build a great team,” he says “is not to select individuals for their smarts or accomplishments but to learn how they communicate and to shape and guide the team so that it follows successful communication patterns.”
The research was conducted by placing little sensor badges on the members of high performance teams and recording their communication patterns for a period of months. After analyzing the data points, the researchers identified three themes of communication for great teams:
1. Energy, which is defined as the number and measure of exchanges between team members. The most valuable medium of communication in terms of energy is face-to-face, followed by phone and video conferencing. Email and text are the least valuable media.
2. Engagement, which reflects the distribution of energy between team members. “If all members of a team have relatively equal and reasonably high energy with all other members, engagement is extremely strong. Teams that have clusters of members who engage in high-energy communication while other members do not participate don’t perform as well. ”
3. Exploration, or the willingness of team members to communicate outside of the team and bring fresh perspectives back to the team.
In short, the members of great teams communicate often, informally/socially, and in equal measure. Some of the interventions the study considered included changing break times so that everyone had the same break, changing the office seating arrangement, and putting long tables in the lunch room so that employees sat together. These types of interventions were linked to measurable increases in performance.
Some of my standard team building activities were reinforced by this fascinating study:
1. I ask teammates to practice “skillful discussion,” focusing on a volatile and controversial topic, with the goal to balance the levels of inquiry and advocacy within the group. I ask members to get out of their comfort zone during this activity; if they usually spend more time listening and observing, they are challenged to do more advocating for their own perspective; if they usually spend more time expressing their opinions, I ask them to practice asking good questions and actively listening to others. Ultimately what I’m asking them to do is practice having a learning conversation.
2. Small table groups do an activity in which they list the pros and cons of different communication media, leading to a discussion of the importance of getting as much face time as possible. For virtual teams, we talk about using technology more effectively to increase face time and decrease email communication.
3. I ask teammates to consider how they might improve team cohesion and creativity by widening the circle of their communication–asking someone different to lunch, for example, or seeking advice from someone other than their usual “go to” person.
What I think the article also reinforces, and a group of techniques I need to use more often, consists in activities like Open Space, World Cafe or Leadership Cafe–activities that maximize the use of open, informal, social communication during the break times of a formal meeting or training session.
Pentland says the science of the sensors used for the study is evolving, and they will eventually be able to capture more and finer data points. It will be interesting to follow the work of this group as it continues to study team dynamics.
A couple weeks ago I attended a reunion for a hotel company I used to work for, 12 years ago. It was kind of like a high school reunion; some of us hadn’t seen each other in ten or fifteen years, and we introduced new spouses, talked about where we were working now, and secretly noticed who had gained weight and who looked older.
Sounds dismal, right? But it wasn’t. In fact, it was one of the most invigorating experiences I’ve had in a long time.
To start with, people flew in from all over the country for this reunion, many of them traveling on their own dime. How many companies have you worked for that would inspire people to do that long after the company was no longer in existence? There is really only one such company on my resume, and it’s this one.
We watched hours of video footage from our old conferences and meetings. No one got bored. All of us wallowed in the good memories we shared. The truth is, we had more fun working at that company than I’ve ever had since, or are ever likely to have again. As the former CEO said when he stood up to make a speech, “We can’t recreate the experience and we won’t try. But we can relive the memories.”
In the couple weeks since, I’ve thought about what made it so engaging to work there. Much of it came from the charisma, talent and personality of our chief operating officer, but I believe we can identify some organization-wide elements:
- Clarity about the mission: We all knew we were there to make those hotels cash flow, and that we needed to do it through smart management practices and delivering great guest service
- Clarity about the values and the culture: Our culture was about the autonomy and decision-making capability of our managers. We didn’t believe in letting our managers be puppets on a string for the corporate or franchise staff to maneuver. We defined ourselves in opposition to some of the leading branded hotel companies, where we joked that you had to have an SOP that spelled out how to get a hall pass to go to the bathroom.
- Work hard play hard: It helped that we all liked each other a lot. We did everything together, both work and play.
- Celebrate every individual for what s/he brings to the table: Our COO was a man who knew how to celebrate people’s differences in a special way. He always remembered little things about each of us, and he would celebrate those things through mass communication emails and practical jokes around the office. He had nicknames for each of us, and when someone got promoted or transferred he loved to put out an email to the whole company that praised that person’s strengths and joked (in a positive way) about their hobbies or personal interests. Mine, for instance, was my love of heavy metal music. He called me “Anna rocks” and played heavy metal music around the office sometimes. At our annual awards conferences every year, he would get photos of each award winner and find out what their favorite song was, and when they came up on stage to receive their award the music would blare and their photo would fill the screen, as if they were walking onstage at an Academy Awards ceremony.
- A organization-wide sense of humor: This came from our COO too. He was a lover of practical jokes. His favorite one was to get on someone’s laptop while they were away from their desk and send funny emails to someone else. He’d get on the finance director’s laptop and send a note to the operations team telling them that they were spending too much money on Mickey Mouse key chains. Then he’d get on a director of human resources computer and send an email to the finance director saying that the Mickey Mouse key chain reprimands would have to stop immediately. There was no end to how mischievous he could be.
- An environment that says it’s OK to be who you are: By celebrating the little things about each person, with a sense of humor and play, our COO told us it was OK for us to be who we were. And we took that very, very seriously.
We may not be able to go back, but we can certainly learn from great experiences in the past. And we can continue to celebrate them too—rumor has it we’ll be having another reunion in the California wine country in a couple years!
Peter Bregman, one of my favorite bloggers, had an interesting post on Harvard Business Review recently called Diversity Training Doesn’t Work. He cites dismal statistics on the ineffectiveness of diversity training from recent research, some of which even concludes that “in firms where training is mandatory or emphasizes the threat of lawsuits, training actually has negative effects on management of diversity.”
The problem, Bregman says, is that by segregating people into categories and focusing on their difference, we promote bias rather than eradicating it. “Categories are dehumanizing,” he says. “They simplify the complexity of a human being. So focusing people on the categories increases their prejudice. ”
I agree with everything except his conclusion that diversity training doesn’t work. Diversity training can work–it just has to be good diversity training.
Good diversity training consists in training employees to value each others’ differences. It’s a team building session, really. Good diversity training explores tools and techniques for getting to know teammates better, and emphasizes the importance of finding ways to let people’s differences contribute to the mission. Here are some examples of great ideas I’ve heard from folks during diversity seminars:
- We’re using Generation Y workers to mentor older workers in the use of social media
- We’re using gay and lesbian employees to help our marketing people understand ways to tap into the GLBT market for our products
- We’re using our people of color to help design products that appeal to niche markets within their diverse communities (or for public sector organizations, to help us understand better how to serve the diverse needs of our public)
The other thing that good diversity training does is focus on ways to build relationships and improve the quality of leadership. There’s plenty of research out there that says people don’t sue people who make mistakes–they sue people whom they feel mistreated or disrespected by. Patients, for example, often tell their lawyers that they don’t want to sue the specialist who actually made the mistake because they like that particular doctor; instead, they want to sue their primary physician who has a lousy bedside manner and doesn’t appear to care. Likewise, employees don’t sue because a well-meaning supervisor accidentally missed a step in an EEO-related policy or procedure; they sue because the supervisor is a jerk who doesn’t appear to value the employee’s contributions.
Maybe it’s really a matter of semantics. Maybe good diversity training is not called diversity training, but rather, leadership or team building training. But good leadership and team building training will always have a diversity component. The answer is most certainly not to throw diversity training out the door.