Improving Teamwork

May 30, 2015

Colorful fun

We have all heard the phrase, “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten.” It came from an article written by Robert Fulgham in 1993 that later became a series of books and tapes. His five key points bear repeating when we think about teamwork. They are:

• Share everything,
• Play Fair,
• Don’t hit people,
• Say you’re sorry when you hurt someone, and
• Take a break in the afternoon for cookies.

Doing what is simple and right is a prerequisite for getting along in this world. Let’s examine this primitive, but profound wisdom as it relates to teams.

Share Everything

Teams exist to accomplish some kind of a goal. Whether it is winning a football game, writing a budget, or gaining a new client, there is always an objective. If you are on a team that has no reason to exist, resign. You are wasting your precious time.

Once everyone on the team understands the vision, the path is clear to figure out how to do it. For that, you need the participation of everyone, not just the leader or a few aggressive members.

The magic of a team is the diverse ideas in the heads of all members. People who keep their ideas to themselves out of embarrassment or other issues, rob the team of the creative juices necessary for outstanding results.

Share your ideas and thoughts on how the team can work well. Be an active member of the team. Don’t assume that, because you are in the same room (or virtual environment) with the rest of the team you are doing your share. As an wise old English teacher of mine used to day, “Put on a suit, and get in the game.”

Play Fair

Duh ?- – – this seems so obvious as to be trivial, but it actually is often a huge roadblock in effective team dynamics. How can this be? It is because what seems fair to me, may not seem fair to you. I had a student tell me once, “I am the kind of person who does what he thinks is right.” Well….duh..again.

Can you imagine someone going around doing what he/she thinks is wrong? I can’t. It is practically impossible to do what you think is wrong unless you are trying to break a bad habit and can’t. Even then, you rationalize, with, “I just needed that piece of chocolate cake today for my sanity. I’ll make up for it tomorrow.” You would need to be a psychopath to do something you honestly believe is the wrong thing to do.

So, all of us, most of the time “play fair” according to our own set of beliefs, values, and circumstances. We may not turn in a team assignment when we agreed to, but that is because we had a terrible day at work. When we got home, the basement was flooded and we had to call the fire department to pump it out. Or, the power was out for two hours which was the time we set aside for this. Or, something happened to our computer, etc. etc.

Don’t get me wrong, these kind of emergencies do come up and cause people to miss responsibilities. That’s life. Other team members will excuse an occasional lapse due to problems beyond control. However, I have witnessed employees who have some kind of “natural disaster” happen to them every week.

After a while, you get the feeling they either are under a “black cloud,” or they are finding reasons to not perform. The interesting point is that they truly believe it is physically impossible to meet commitments. In other words, they are completely justified in their own mind and “playing fair.” Others may not share that opinion, so this leads to conflict.

This exact dynamic is going on to varying degrees all the time between team members. In most cases people put up with the vagaries of the other team members because they don’t want to cause trouble.

However, many times the “disconnects” between people become large enough that the small issues become huge issues in the mind of one person. Then you have open conflict that must be resolved.

Don’t Hit People

When we get frustrated enough, we tend to lose perspective. I don’t know why this happens, but it is part of the human condition. When a team member is far enough out of line, other members begin to take it personally and “attack” the problem person.

Naturally, since this person was “playing fair” according to his/her perspective, he/she becomes angry and defensive. I battle emerges because each party honestly believes the other person is acting irrationally.

This is easy to recognize. One person will throw an “e-grenade” at the other person who says, ” Ouch ! not only did that hurt, but it was unfair. He needs to realize he can’t treat people that way, and I am just the one to do it.” Back comes a bigger “e-grenade” into the computer of the first person, who says, “Well that proves it, he is a real jerk who needs to be put in his place once and for all. Not only is he impolite, he isn’t even quoting me right.”

Back comes a huge “e-bomb” that really blasts the other party. The whole thing has degenerated into the kind of food fight you see in kindergarten. After a while the issue at hand becomes irrelevant and it is more of a personal vendetta between individuals.

There is a 100% cure for this problem. Remember the old adage, “It takes two to tango.” If the recipient of the first “e-grenade” doesn’t take the bait, the issue does not escalate. That is tough to do when you are the recipient of a hurtful comment.

Good teamwork requires the ability to take a shot and not hit back. One easy way to accomplish this is to change the venue. If an attack comes in an e-mail, don’t respond in kind. Pick up the phone or go visit the other person to resolve the issue.

Say You’re Sorry when you Hurt Someone

Sincere humility is the balm that heals up team wounds. Recognize that, in the heat of battle, things may become overheated. You will know this when it happens to you. An echo will bounce back from a note you sent that has a bad taste. You immediately know that you have angered a team member or, at least confused him/her. This is the time to send a humble apology. You can restate the goal and reiterate your commitment to the team as well. This must be followed by a change in action, or it will not work.

Imagine a Greg on the playground who shoves a Mike over something unimportant. Mike says, “Hey whata’ya want to go and do that for?” Greg replies, “Yeah, you’re right, I’m sorry,” but the minute Mike turns his back Greg spits at him. Well, the teacher better get out his whistle, because there is going to be a fight.

Take a break in the afternoon for cookies

Working in teams is actually hard work. Not only must you do the assigned task, you need to keep people from getting on each other’s nerves. That means the stress level is sometimes high for two reasons. It is important to take a break and have some “cookies” from time to time.

Realize most of the “problems” that are driving you crazy today will be unimportant to you in a week or so. When you take the time to celebrate the small wins along the way, it rejuvenates the team for the next round.

Be lavish (but sincere) with your praise and thanks to other team members and they will appreciate it. Every “thank you” is a chocolate chip in the cookie of life.


Common Denominators of High Performing Teams

June 7, 2014

Group of doctors celebrating successMany teams in the working world have various symptoms of dysfunction. You can observe all kinds of back biting, laziness, sabotage, lack of support, passive aggressive behavior, grandstanding, and numerous other maladies if you study the inner workings of teams.

Yet some teams are able to rise above the petty problems and reach a level of performance that is consistently admirable.

I have studied working teams for decades and have concluded that there are four common denominators successful teams share.

If your team has these four elements, you are likely enjoying the benefits of a high performance team.

If you do not see these things, then chances are you are frustrated with your team experience.

A common goal

This is the glue that keeps people on the team pulling in the same direction. If people have disparate goals, their efforts will not be aligned, and organizational stress will result.

If people on your team are fighting or showing other signs of stress, the first thing to check is if the goal is really totally shared by everyone.

Often people give the official goal lip service but have a hidden different agenda. Eventually this discontinuity will come out in bad behaviors.

Trust

When there is high trust between team members, the environment is real.

Where trust is low, people end up playing games to further their own agendas. Achieving high trust is not simple, nor is it the main topic of this blog article.

I have written extensively on the creation of trust elsewhere. One caveat is that trust is a dynamic commodity within a team.

You need to keep checking the trust level and bolster it when it slips. Constant vigilance is required.

Good Leadership

A team without a leader is like a ship without a rudder.

But the leader does not have to be the anointed formal leader. Often a kind of distributed leadership or informal leadership structure can make teams highly effective.

But beware if there is a poor leader who is formally in charge of a team. This is like the kiss of death. No team can perform consistently at a high level if the official leader is blocking progress at every turn. The best that can be achieved is an effective work-around strategy.

A Solid Charter

I have coached hundreds of teams and discovered that the ones with an agreed-upon team charter always out perform ones that have wishy-washy ground rules.

A good charter will consider what each member brings to the team, so the diversity of talents can be used.

Second, it will contain the specific goals that are tangible and measurable.

Third, it will have a set of agreed upon behaviors so people know what to expect of each other and can hold each other accountable.

Fourth, the team needs a set of ground rules for how to operate. Ground rules can be detailed or general, it really does not matter, but some ground rules are required.

Finally, and this is the real key, there need to be specific agreed-upon consequences for members of the team who do not abide by the charter.

The most common problem encountered within any team is a phenomenon called “social loafing.”

This is where one or more members step back from the work and let the others do it. This inequity always leads to trouble, but it is nearly always avoidable if the consequences for social loafing are stated clearly and agreed upon by all team members at the outset.

People will not knowing slack off if they have already agreed to the negative impact on themselves, or if they do it once and feel the pain they will not do it again.

This last element of successful teams is the most important ingredient. When it is missing, you are headed for trouble eventually.

There are numerous other elements that can help teams succeed, but if you have the above four elements, chances are your team is doing very well.

All high performance teams have these four elements in play everyday. Make sure your team has these as well.


Leaders Create Meaning

July 11, 2010

Too many people go to work each day in a zombie-like state where they go through the motions all day and try to stay out of trouble with the boss. Work life is a meaningless array of busywork foisted upon them by the clueless morons who run the place. They hate the environment and intensely dislike their co-workers. Their suffering is tolerated only because there is no viable option for them to survive. What a pity that anyone would spend even a single day on this earth in such a hopeless atmosphere.

We can fault the individuals who allow themselves to be trapped in this way, but I believe the environment created by leaders has a great deal to do with this malaise. Reason: if you put these same individuals in an environment of trust and challenge, nearly all of them would quickly rise up to become happy and productive workers. It is essential that each individual in the workforce find real meaning in the work being done, and the responsibility is on leaders to make that happen.

Some good research into this conundrum was presented by Viktor Frankl a half century ago in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl posits that it “is a peculiarity of man that he must have something significant yet to do in his life, for that is what gives meaning to life.” He discovered this universally human trait while surviving the most horrible of life conditions in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. One cannot imagine a more oppressive environment, but believe it or not, many people at work feel like they are in a kind of concentration camp. The antidote is for leaders to create something significant yet to do.

Dave and Wendy Ulrich, co-authors of The Why of Work put it this way. “In organizations, meaning and abundance are more about what we do with what we have than about what we have to begin with.” They point out that workers are in some ways like volunteers who can choose where they allocate their time and energy. For their own peace and health, it is imperative that workers feel connected to the meaning of their work.

What can leaders do to ensure the maximum number of people have a sense of purpose and meaning in their work? Here are a dozen ideas that can help.

1. Create a positive vision of the future. Vision is critical because without it people see no sense of direction for their work. If we have a common goal, then it is possible to actually get excited about the future.

2. Generate trust. Trust is the glue that holds people together in a framework of positive purpose. Without trust, we are just playing games with each other hoping to get through the day unscathed. The most significant way leaders help create trust is by rewarding candor, which is accomplished by not punishing people for speaking their truth.

3. Build morale the right way. This means not trying to motivate people by adding hygiene factors like picnics, bonuses, or hat days. Motivate people by treating them with respect and giving them autonomy. Leaders do not motivate people, rather they create the environment where people decide whether to become motivated. This sounds like doubletalk, but it is a powerful message most leaders do not understand.

4. Recognize and celebrate excellence. Reinforcement is the most powerful tool leaders have for changing behavior. Leaders need to learn how to reinforce well and avoid the mine-field of reinforcement mistakes that are easy to make.

5. Treat people right. In most cases focusing on the Golden Rule works well. In some extreme cases the Golden Rule will not be wise because not all individuals want to be treated the same way. Use of the Platinum Rule (Treat others the way they would like to be treated) is helpful as long as it is not taken to a literal extreme.

6. Communicate more and better. People have an unquenchable thirst for information. Lack of communication is the most often mentioned grievance in any organization. Get some good training on how to communicate in all modes and practice all the time.

7. Unleash maximum discretionary effort in people. People give effort to the organization out of choice, not out of duty. Understand what drives individuals to make a contribution and be sure to provide that element daily. Do not try to apply the same techniques to all individuals or all situations.

8. Have high ethical and moral standards. Operate from a set of values and make sure people know why those values are important. Leaders need to always live their values.

9. Lead change well. Change processes are in play in every organization daily, yet most leaders are poor at managing change. Study the techniques of successful change so people do not become confused and disoriented.

10. Challenge people and set high expectations. People will rise to a challenge if it is properly presented and managed. Challenged individuals are people who have found meaning in their work.

11. Operate with high Emotional Intelligence. The ability to work well with people, upward, sideways, and downward allows things to work smoothly. Without Emotional Intelligence, leaders do not have the ability to transform intentions into meaning within people.

12. Build High Performing Teams. A sense of purpose is enhanced if there is a kind of peer pressure brought on by good teamwork. Foster great togetherness of teams so people will relate to their tasks instinctively.

This is a substantial list of items, but most of them are common sense. Unfortunately they are not common practice in most organizations. If you want to have people rise to their level of potential, they must all have a sense of meaning. To accomplish that, focus on the above items, and see a remarkable transformation in your organization.