Twisting your features into a mask of pain, you dig your heels into the soft grass. A rope tears into your palms. A clear, tiny voice speaks to you amid the many confused thoughts swirling in your head, “So-o-o-o, what am I learning about teamwork from this experience?”
Well, if you’re like many who have done this exercise at a corporate retreat, you should be learning about teamwork. As others join you, the collective rope-pulling effort seems to demonstrate the point. Little by little, the boulder starts moving until it nudges over the 30-foot mark. Cheers erupt.
But you notice something. With each additional person who contributes to the effort, the boulder moves faster, but not as fast as you would have imagined. By the time the tenth person steps up, you feel the group is barely pulling harder than when it was only six, even though everyone seems to be working hard.
This well-documented phenomenon, social loafing, is an issue that plagues any group of individuals working together, but it isn’t the only one. Knowing what to look out for can be half the battle.
5 Biggest Teamwork Ills
Below are the top five biggest teamwork ills, and some prescriptions to help you avoid them.
1. Overemphasizing Abstract Goals
People like to talk about transcendent goals for a reason. Steve Jobs was known for his inspiring keynote talks that emphasized changing the world. Such goals are uplifting and can make work feel more meaningful. But when teams overestimate the importance of inspiring vision when setting goals for their team, they risk not paying enough attention to aligning personal priorities with those bigger goals. If team members don’t understand the “what’s in it for me,” it can be hard for them to commit to working towards team goals.
Teamwork Rx: Make sure that big, collective goals align with small, personal commitments that drive performance.
2. Underemphasizing Roles
Many teams think that merely getting the right talent in play is all that it takes for a team to be successful. Research has shown, though, that you need clear structure and well-defined interdependent roles in order to best leverage the strengths of those on your team. Contrast the 2004 U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball Dream Team’s disappointing performance to the 2015 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors’ expert management of team roles.
Teamwork Rx: Well-structured teams generally outperform those with more raw talent—strength, skill, or IQ. Take time to find the roles and structure that make sense for your team.
3. Making Too Many Rules
Human beings are rule-making machines—it is what defines us as a species and allows us to interact as social beings. Often the tendency in teams is to try to plan for every possible situation and create rules for all potential contingencies. This is both time consuming and ineffective. Starbucks CEO and founder, Howard Schultz understood the importance of focusing on the right rules when he decided to bring back in-store bean grinding to help restore the brand’s reputation and performance.
Teamwork Rx: Focus on the few rules that are likely to have the biggest impact on your team’s culture and performance: information-sharing, decision-making and conflict resolution.
4. Ignoring Reflection
One of the major cognitive biases recognized by research is outcome bias: if you’re successful, you don’t really reflect on what went well or could have gone better. However, in a world characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, or VUCA, successes are fleeting, and reflection is as imperative when things are going well as they are when they’re not. Too often companies and teams reserve formal reflection for annual retreats or quarterly reviews, when in reality it needs to be taking place with much more frequency.
Teamwork Rx: Remember that check-ins need not always be huge affairs reserved for day-long retreats—they can be as simple as a weekly stand-up meeting.
5. Failing to Sell the Change
You can be right, but ultimately still be unsuccessful. Such was the case for Lloyd Braun, the ABC executive who was the champion and driving force behind the smash hit, Lost. Braun was so convinced that his idea would be a hit, he barreled through green lighting the most expensive television pilot budget to date, $12 Million. He did not take the time to get others on board with his vision, and even though his intuition was correct, he was fired before the show even premiered.
Teamwork Rx: Strength of will and charisma are not enough to push through change—work hard to get buy-in so that people want to come along with you.
In the end, good teaming is about being mindful about how you’re working together, and making sure to check-in frequently to close the gaps between what you say you want to do and what you’re actually doing.
Today’s guest contributors are Dr. Mario Moussa, Dr. Derek Newberry, and Madeline Boyer, the authors of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance. Dr. Moussa teaches in the Executive Programs at Wharton School of Executive Education. Dr. Newberry and Ms. Boyer are lecturers at the Wharton School of Business and Senior Consultants at Percipient Partners. Connect with the authors on Twitter, @Committed_Teams.
One of the foremost thinkers on purpose in recent history is Simon Sinek, who has published several books and gives an excellent TED Talk titled “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” According to Sinek, purpose is not about what you do, but it is about why you do what you do.
It’s the big-picture answer to the question, “What is your reason for being as an organization?” Most companies have spent time working on “the what” and “the how” but have not really gained deep clarity on “the why.”
And absent that, you are more strategically vulnerable to not adjust to today’s environment of rapid change. You are also vulnerable to the chance that your people will not have an authentic and meaningful connection to your company, leaving them feeling more like a cog in a wheel.
If you are not sure how to authentically make purpose the driver of your company, try this. Look at any successful person or company in history that you admire and really listen to the conversations about that success. Watch people tell their company story or observe how people passionately discuss what they do. In almost every case, the idea that they are a part of something bigger than themselves will surface.
When Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, was asked to only commit to those activities that were profitable, he responded by saying, “When we work on making our devices accessible by the blind, I don’t consider the bloody ROI.” That goes for many areas Apple pursues. According to him, the company does “a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive. We want to leave the world better than we found it.”
Apple is one of the most profitable companies on the planet and has been for some time. Cook’s point is not that Apple doesn’t care about profits. But profits are merely the outcome of being a company that is focused on creating unique value for its customers and doing things the right way. Cook knows that is important to him, to the people working at Apple, and to most people buying Apple products. It’s not only the right thing to do; it is actually the smart thing to do.
While a meaningful purpose is important, it’s also crucial to understand that this can raise difficult questions that teams need to be ready to wrestle with. CVS is the perfect example of such a situation. In September 2014, CVS stopped selling tobacco products because such products went against its purpose of helping people on their path to better health. The company understood it would take a significant short-term revenue hit, but the purpose of the company was the main driver.
After a few months of not selling cigarettes, CVS conducted a study of the impact this change had in states where its pharmacy share was prominent. The results were astounding. The company found that tobacco sales in those states across all retailers decreased by 1 percent in an eight-month period. That is a reduction of five packs per smoker and an overall reduction of 95 million packs of cigarettes in those states! That is living your purpose.
While CVS lost significant tobacco sales, the company also gained a lot of respect from many customers and employees because it showed it was serious about what CVS stands for. The jury is out, but we would venture to guess that over a 10-year time frame, this will prove to be a very profitable strategic decision embraced both by CVS employees who feel that there is an authentic commitment to purpose and by customers who show a greater degree of loyalty and trust toward the company.
Purpose ultimately requires great conviction and courage from leaders. Their focus must be on something larger than themselves and creating or fostering that in their organizations.
About today’s guest contributors
Jim Haudan is Co-Founder and Chairman of Root Inc. Root Inc., the organizational change expert on helping companies create leadership alignment, execute strategies and change successful, build employee engagement, and transform businesses.
Rich Berens is CEO and Chief Client Fanatic of Root Inc. and has helped align leaders at Global 2000 organizations to drive strategic and cultural change at scale.
Corporate leaders tell us change is the biggest challenge they’re facing today. Why? Constant change makes it difficult to remain relevant and to create value for customers.
Humans tend to hate change. Whether it’s introducing a state-of-the-art computer program or transitioning a company to a wholly new and innovative way of working, our brains literally create chemical pain that says, please stop all that new work.
So, instead of enjoying the challenges that come with trying something new, we resist.
Our brains are elastic and can, in fact, adapt, but it’s not a smooth, easy or comfortable process. It’s tough enough for the people at the top to think about reworking processes and policies; imagine the difficulties when you’re talking about altering the culture of an entire workplace.
Companies have cultures, whether they know it or not. That culture is an amalgam of core values, beliefs, and behaviors that pertain to the business and the way it is conducted. Employees live out that culture every day.
Getting employees on board when the corporate culture has to evolve can be a challenge. However, if company leaders provide purpose to the changes by showing how they’ll improve business and create stability after the transition, they have a better shot at a quicker buy-in.
To do that, though, they have to get out of the office. They have to witness first-hand how customers use the product or service, and they have to interact with employees.
3 tools to take control of change
I suggest that leaders adopt an “anthropologist’s tool kit” and do these three things to aid them in changing the culture of their organization. Leaders need to:
Conduct observational research.
Consider shadowing clients and employees as they use a product or service. Find out what their challenges are, and what trends they see that have them concerned or excited.
Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. ~Zora Neale Hurston, author
Find customers’ pain points.
What happens when someone contacts the company’s customer service center? What works and what doesn’t? Are emails and phone calls answered? What happens when people visit the website? If responses are delayed or unsatisfactory, find out why.
Wisdom is nothing more than healed pain. ~Robert Gary Lee, comic
Use culture probes and storytelling.
What are the stories customers and employees could tell if they had a company leader’s ear? Put away any defensiveness and just listen.
Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal. ~Dr. Howard Gardner, professor Harvard University
I advise companies to expand the research role past the executive level. Allow team leaders and others to be a part of the company’s new story and encourage them to visualize how they can play new roles in an emerging business environment.
By doing that, they’ll be the energy behind your innovation.
About today’s guest contributor, Andi Simon, Ph.D. Andi Simon, a corporate anthropologist, professor, award-winning author, trainer, and speaker, is the founder and CEO of Simon Associates Management Consultants. She has appeared on “Good Morning America” and has been featured in the Washington Post, Business Week, Forbes, and on Bloomberg Radio.
I couldn’t answer his question about whether or not our yard waste that was piled by the curb had been picked up.
“You went out to get the paper,” he said. “How could you not notice?”
Not noticing had been easy. The early morning air was fresh. The sky full of sun and frothy clouds. The fushia crepe myrtle blossoms luscious. An egret was looking for breakfast in the pond across the street. A writing assignment was due in two days. There was that choppy section of content in my leadership workshop that needed smoothing out. I needed to rework the overview section of my book proposal. I wanted another cup of coffee. Yard waste wasn’t anywhere near my radar screen.
There was the day when I would have fired off a snarky retort, Come on, yard waste? I have more important things on my mind. But that was before I learned about confirmation bias, the power of curiosity, and the magic of patience and acceptance.
Growing to the point where I could calmly and nondefensively answer, “Sorry, lovey. I wasn’t paying attention,” had taken a long time and lots of work. Too many gumdrops, too.
A few years earlier, I felt defensive a lot and puzzled, too, that people weren’t see events as clearly as I believed I was seeing them. Differences of thought, opinion, and perspective were causing friction in relationships. The final straw came after reconnecting with someone from my past whom I respected. We were exchanging views on current events when he commented that he was surprised that I’d let my mind get small.
Ooh, that stung.
Our best hope for finding invisible flaws in what we can’t see in our own thinking is to enter into different ideas or points of view—ideas that carry different assumptions. Only after we’ve managed to inhabit a different way of thinking will our currently invisible assumptions become visible to us. ~Peter Elbow, professor
That I had let my mind close was something I hadn’t considered. More importantly, I didn’t want to be as closed-minded as I believed those with whom I was debating were. Yet I was. Goodness.
There’s nothing good about being small-minded. Too much judgment, too many expectations, too much rigidity and conflict. Ick. I was seeing only what I looked for. That narrow perspective needed to change, and taking five actions helped me do that.
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he could no longer restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” ~ Nyogen Senzaki
5 ways to fuel curiosity, patience, acceptance, and personal growth
Give up on being right. Academia and business reward us for viewing the world through a right versus wrong lens. Let go of that orientation. Let a “my way or the highway” mindset belong only to bullies. Life, love, and leadership are more fun and rewarding when we let go of right/wrong judgments and learn to live with different opinions. Ambiguity exercises our minds and expands our hearts.
Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow. ~Tony Schwartz
Pick your battles. Not very issue is worthy of falling on your sword. Learn to gracefully and tactfully push back for constructive reasons on issues that really move the needle.
Be curious and look for the big picture. Don’t ignore all the good apples in the basket because of the single bad one on top. Take Dr. Elbow’s advice and get outside yourself and see from the perspective of someone else. Diversity of thought, opinion, and perspective brings the big picture fully into view. Helps with having humility, too.
Give people the benefit of the doubt. If you believe you can always tell a book by its cover, you’re biased and missing out. Enough said.
Tolerance isn’t enough. Tolerance, i.e., I can live with xx, is a virtue. It’s just not enough, though, in these days in which scientists say the range in degrees of separation is from two to ten people. That’s a lot of connectedness and difference to contend with. I can live with xx is best replaced with xx is OK. Through curiosity, we learn to respect people’s right to believe differently. Lead with love, not judgment.
Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on. ~Eckhart Tolle
Letting go of certainty brings peace. It begets openness, understanding, and connection, too. Expectations and social constructs become less constraining; conformity more boring. We become free to experience and grow. And be patient when someone expects us to see the yard waste we don’t see.
It’s a department staff meeting. You lead the department, and you are being peppered with questions. How do you react?
Do you answer every single question yourself, or do you deflect some of them to those on your team who are subject matter experts on the topic in question?
If you feel compelled to answer every question, that’s being trapped in “vending machine leadership,” i.e., someone asks you a question (inserting the coins) and out pops the correct answer (like the candy bar or bag of chips).
Sometimes, we get trapped in vending machine leadership by a company culture that rewards us for being the “answer person.” Other times, our ego does us in. Every once in a while, it’s a mash-up of both, fed by a lack of curiosity.
It seems that organizations are claiming to value curiosity, but still discouraging its expression. They promote innovation yet punish failure. They cling to legacy structures and systems that emphasize authority over inquiry and routine over resourcefulness. ~Todd B. Kashdan, scientist and professor, George Mason University
If you wonder how curious you are, pause for a moment and reflect on your answers to these questions:
Do I feel uncomfortable when there’s ambiguity?
Do I make statements rather than ask questions to save time and keep things on track?
Do I reward consistency and conformity because they are the expected norms of behavior?
Do I label those who ask too many questions as disruptive and difficult?
Do I look for facts that support my position and ignore those that challenge my position?
Do I want answers given to me fast, clear, and unequivocal?
39 percent of workers report that their employers are either extremely encouraging or very encouraging of curiosity
Only 22 percent describe themselves as curious at work
Two-thirds report facing barriers to asking more questions
60% say their workplace throws up barriers to integrating curiosity into their work
10% strongly agree that their leader preferred new and unfamiliar ideas
Answers are more valued than inquisitive thought, and curiosity is trained out of us. ~Hal Gregersen, Executive Director, MIT Leadership Center
How being curious makes you a better leader
Curiosity—that’s desiring knowledge beyond what you know—is a state of mind that CEOs say is a necessary leadership ability. A deficit of curiosity and a surplus of conformity make it challenging to lead in today’s complicated world. It contributes to bias and lack of diversity, too.
Curiosity delivers multiple personal and professional benefits that include improved performance, mental retention, and happiness. Being curious also improves social interactions and interpersonal relationships because it allows for “comfort with uncertainty, unconventional thinking, and a tendency to avoid judging, criticizing, or blaming other people.”
Curiosity is what separates us from the cabbages. It’s accelerative. The more we know, the more we want to know. ~David McCullough, author and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner
10 ways to be a more curious leader
Provided you have self-awareness, curiosity—filling the gap between what you know and want to learn—is a skill that can be developed.
To be a curious leader, you need to:
Stop making statements that shut down creativity; start asking more questions that begin with “why” and “how.”
Probe for hidden or missed insights in the conflict, incongruity, contradictions, and uncertainty the bubble up at work.
Reframe your definition of failure to allow room to experiment, explore, and learn.
Be mindful of being too quick to judge or criticize a person, thought, idea, etc.
Stop insisting on certainty and accept a measure of uncertainty and ambiguity.
Give yourself permission to play, have fun, and break the rules.
Listen more closely; ask clarifying questions. See what’s churning beneath the surface.
Watch the labels you use to categorize people and situations; they can be barriers to learning and inquisitiveness.
Probe for unfamiliarity within the familiar; look for what’s different and/or what’s limiting in what’s familiar.
Don’t get too comfortable with what you know; seek out facts that challenge what you believe to be true.
“Tia, you make me crazy. Can’t you do anything without planning it to death? This work needs to go out now.”
“Hunter, this project isn’t ready to go. If we release it now, there’s going to be rework and more rework. Not to mention all the complaints we’ll get.”
“Time is money, Tia. All your dithering over getting it right is costing the company money. We’ve got to get moving.”
“Time spent on rework wastes money, too. Hunter. I don’t get how you can’t see that.”
“What I see, Tia, is you holding everyone up because of your ridiculous obsession with planning and perfection.”
“I’m not worried about perfection, you moron. I just want things to work right.”
Tia and Hunter’s raised voices had drawn the attention of their boss, Alonzo. It wasn’t the first time their disputes had disrupted the office. He called them into his office.
After a lengthy and passionate conversation, the three of them emerged with a plan—and peace.
Alonzo was a gifted leader who understood how to manage people through, and around, the perils, pitfalls, and polarization associated with binaryeither/or thinking.
3 ways to champion diversity
Here’s three actions Alonzo knew were needed to help Tia and Hunter see beyond “my way versus your way” so they could work together and get the job done.
1) Keep the end goal and what you need to accomplish in mind—always.
Both Tia and Hunter were passionate about their project. They believed they were doing purposeful work that would benefit employees and customers. However, in their zeal in promoting their personal vision for how the work should be handled, they got bogged down in details and lost sight of their over-arching purpose.
Alonzo helped them see how taking sides and pointing fingers only slowed their progress in reaching the common goal they shared.
2) Recognize that there’s usually more than one way to get something done.
Tia was a methodical planner; Hunter was intuitive and spontaneous. Tia wanted to work out all the details in advance. Hunter saw work elements that could withstand a little risk-taking and could be released sooner. Instead of addressing the merits of what the other was proposing, Tia and Hunter fought over whose approach was right and whose was wrong.
Alonzo helped them appreciate how both of them were right but for different reasons. Some of their work did require thoughtful planning and testing to avoid unnecessary issues; other parts didn’t require such meticulous attention. Alonzo guided them in dividing their work into phases that could be released at different times.
Alonzo used the metaphor of taking a road trip to enlighten Tia and Hunter about multiple approaches. He asked them to name what route they would take to visit a big city. Hunter said he would use the freeway. Tia wanted to travel back roads. Alonzo asked them what did it matter what roads they traveled as long as they reached their destination. Neither Tia nor Hunter could offer a valid reason.
3) Appreciate that standing up for what you believe in doesn’t mean being uncompromising or intolerant about other perspectives.
Convinced that their approach to their project was the right one, both Tia and Hunter had asserted their preferences as incontrovertible truths. Either/or thinking (and hubris) does that to people. They assert the rightness of their position, the wrongness of those who see things differently, and lose sight of the big picture.
Alonzo helped Tia and Hunter realize their lack of skill in doubting the correctness of their position and the incorrectness of the other’s. He encouraged them to take a step back going forward and think critically before jumping in, especially when they were so passionate about something. Alonzo told them that passion and absolute, unyielding certainty is a warning sign for a big blind spot.
Life, love, and leadership don’t lend themselves to cookie-cutter solutions. Understanding that and managing around it helps effective leaders have a plan—and peace.
Exclusion is always dangerous. Inclusion is the only safety if we are to have a peaceful world. ~Pearl S. Buck